Explainer | Meditative and mindful, lost Buddhist art of incense seal making revived thanks to Hong Kong woman
- To make an incense seal is a simple, mindful exercise that requires a deft touch; Rebecca Wong Howe hopes to revive the dying art
- Burning incense was one of the ‘Four Arts of Living’ during China’s Song dynasty, a way to elevate the sense of smell
Life during the pandemic has, for many of us, been stressful and full of uncertainty. Meditation can help to clear our minds, reduce stress and free up space in our heads for positivity and joy.
The act of doing something mindfully, when all your attention is focused on performing one activity, can be one way to achieve this state.
For Hongkonger Rebecca Wong Howe, this is done with the daily 10- to 15-minute ritual of making incense seals – a dying art that she is keen to revive.
In this “loving kindness practice”, as Rebecca calls it, ground incense is carefully placed in brass incense seals of different patterns or shapes, which are placed on sand in a bowl, or atop a fresh leaf from her garden.
She uses fine brass instruments, even a peacock feather, to direct the incense powder into the seals.
In Buddhist and Taoist temples, rising incense smoke signifies a person’s prayers ascending to the heavens, she adds.
The Oxford-educated Wong Howe, who calls herself a contemporary Buddhist layman, used to work as a market researcher. Now, she focuses on her religious practice primarily through dance, meditation and painting.
She discovered the art of making incense seals 10 years ago after reading old Buddhist scriptures and, in trying it, she found the simple practice strengthened her spiritual connection to her faith.
While the act of burning stick incense dates back 2,000 years, this particular incense seal making method had been lost over the decades. Wong Howe says she “found her calling” last year in bringing it back.
Wong Howe held an incense seal making session a year ago at the Jao Tsung-I Academy in Kowloon for a group of 12, and a workshop for more than 80 attendees of the Hong Kong Book Fair this July. Those taking part said they found the practice an easy way to enter a meditative state.
“I want to make it fun for everybody. When you find it fun, you will add it to your practice,” she says.
“Before officials and scholars sat down for meetings in ancient China, they would make tea and burn incense. This was to align their sense of taste and smell so they were on the same wavelength,” explains Wong Howe.
What is incense?
Incense is used as an offering to the gods and to cleanse sacred rooms and holy objects, placate malicious spirits and eradicate negative energy. It is also burned for its therapeutic properties.
How do you create an incense seal?
Prepare your base – ash or sand poured into a pot and flattened with a brush, or a freshly picked leaf – and choose a stencil-like seal and incense powders that match your mood or intentions for the day.
“Depending on the blend, one can attract prosperity, love, remove obstacles, remove illness and connect to different deities,” she says.
Place the seal on the base and pour the incense powder over the seal. Even out the powder over the stencil with a small spatula and flatten it down. Gently tap the handle of the seal with tools to get the powder to settle into the stencil. Take as long as you need with this process.
Slowly lift the stencil – the powder should lie in a beautiful shape on the flat bed of ashes. Light the powder with a stick of incense and let it burn. Sit back and watch the smoke while breathing mindfully.
What is the benefit of incense seal making and burning?
The ritual can take anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour. If you fail at making a seal, that is OK – let it serve as a lesson in letting go and forgiving yourself.
“It’s worthwhile to still your mind,” says Wong Howe. “After doing it every morning, I have clarity of thought. I am in a better mood and that changes the way I do things. I’m not just jumping out of bed and moving into something immediately.”
Where can I buy the materials to make incense seals?
Wong Howe shops at Dharma Arts on Shanghai Street in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei or the Thrangu Vajrayana Buddhist Centre in Kwun Tong – both in Kowloon.
She will also be hosting free monthly seal incense workshops at Arts with Smile in Wong Chuk Hang on Hong Kong Island. There will be incense-making kits for sale at the venue.