Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra

I’ve written about this venerable monastery’s amazing incense in the past, but never really tried for a more descriptive review as my relationship with this incense has really developed since I tried my first sample 6 months ago or so. It was really my first encounter with a high end Tibetan incense and my first reaction was how strange and unusual it was, with an aromatic strength that was perhaps a little unsettling. But since then it’s grown on me to the point where I see it as one of the three Tibetan supernals, along with Tibetan Medical College Holy Land and Highland Incense.

Unlike these others incense, the musk content of Samathabadra is a little more muted and more like an instrumentalist in a symphony than the conductor. In fact the entire incense is a blend of various ingredients that all show their faces during various sessions. My first encounter accentuated the rich nature of any incense blended with nagi/pangolin scales, a certain ineffable spice characteristic. While I’ve noticed its presence in any nagi-infused incense, I probably couldn’t describe it too easily as I’ve never smelled the pure aroma.

Over time, the variety of spices really comes out and with further use the combination becomes more and more addictive. Now I notice spices and aromas like cinnamon and clove, orange, chocolate, coffee and gingerbread. Anyone who has tried the estimable English barleywine, Young’s Old Nick, will also recognize a sort of banana-tinged, hoppy scent (and ironically in finding that link, the second review down says that Old Nick reminds the writer of burning incense :D) in Samanthabadra. The combination of all these scents is kaleidoscopic, each new stick turning up variations that are often surprising, sometimes arresting.

I pulled Samanthabadra out at a dinner party last weekend, along with a number of higher-end Shoyeido and Shunkodo sticks, just as the sun was going down. It’s reflective of how good Samanthabadra is that it inspired as many or more positive comments than Sho-kaku or Ga-Ho. For an incense made in very cool weather it seems remarkably adaptable to a California summer, filling the surrounding area with spices similar to those found in cider and spiced tea. Undoubtedly one of the great Tibetan works of art.



  1. Terra Renee said,

    September 9, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    I have Lotus Ground and Holy Land Grade 1/2 and have tried Nectar. This is next on my list. Is it in the same class? Does it smell similar, or is it in a class all it’s own? I was thinking of trying this and Highland at the same time, but I’ve heard…negative things about the new version of Highland, so I’m worried about ordering a stick I won’t like.

    Of course, I hated Yog-Sadhana at first, but now I rather enjoy it if I use it in a larger room so the smoke doesn’t overwhelm me.

    • Gregg said,

      September 10, 2015 at 8:19 pm

      I don’t think that you won’t necessarily like the newer formula of Highland, it’s just that the change was enormous and very noticeable. Think Holy Land with no punch at all. I was just entering my Tibetan phase at the time of the formula change, and was lucky enough to have Ross send me a partial box of the “old” formula to compare against the new. So I should probably thank him again 🙂 The Nectar is not the same. I think Mike favors this one, read his review. I used to like it, but now something about it smells very “off” to me. Not new formula or boxes, just me, so like with any incense, your experience may vary. Nectar has a distinct personality, while Holy Land is more like pure barnyard funkiness 🙂 Lotus Ground seems to vary from year to year, and may be due to variation in ingredients used, availability, etc. Some years I have really liked it, some years vintage not so much. Pricing really isn’t done on a quality basis alone, or a personal like or dislike scale, or I would start disliking intensely all of those Seijudo products, ahem, just to bring the price down some.

      • Terra Renee said,

        September 11, 2015 at 7:11 am

        Holy Land’s barnyard funk still seems to be almost universally loved by my family. I loved it instantly, my daughters love it, and when my mother visited, I lit a stick and she was like “wow, what is that amazing smell?” and I couldn’t believe it. My mother has hated all forms of incense I’ve introduced her to, except pure vanilla, and now Holy Land. I guess I’ll just have to bite the bullet and try Samye and Highland. Who knows, Highland might end up being my favorite!

  2. August 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    […] Samye Monastery / Samathabadra – This would have been a little higher earlier in the month when I was finding it difficult not to burn it a bunch. It’s an unusual incense, more consonant when you’re not paying too much attention but extremely diverse when you are, as you notice all the aspects to it. And there’s really no other incense quite like it, dark, rich, mysterious and ambrosial. […]

  3. July 29, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Endangered pangolins (scaly anteaters) have been heavily hunted in China to supply a large demand for food, particularly fetus soup

  4. Lin said,

    June 24, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for the reply. I was interested in some incense that you classified as high end Tibetan, like Highland and Tibetan Medical College. However, am I right in my understanding that these come from Chinese occupied Tibet rather than from exiles? Is there anything comparable in quality from outside Chinese control? I am not comfortable with harm being part of the process as well as China’s tendency to want to profit from the culture it seeks to destroy.

    • Mike said,

      June 24, 2009 at 3:49 pm

      I think most of the incenses come directly from the monasteries in Tibet, I assume the ones that managed to reconstitute or survived. To be honest, it’s the highest quality of all the Tibetan incenses and while I’m sure the animal products play a part in this it’s also because of the quality of the extracts used. But this is also a theme that plays itself out with plants as well, aloeswood, sandalwood and halmaddi resin are all ingredients getting rarer and rarer, and as they do, illegal trading pops up behind them (and it’s important to define illegal here in the sense that they obey trade laws agreed upon by a number of countries). I do sort the Tibetan incenses by company on the left side of the site, so at least in the cases where I’ve reviewed incenses, you can find out where they hail from. Outside of the Chinese incenses, scents from Dhoop Factory, Mandala Trading, Nado Poizokhang, and several others have much to recommend them.

      • Robert said,

        November 2, 2009 at 9:43 am

        “But this is also a theme that plays itself out with plants as well”

        It is true that aloeswood is getting rarer and rarer, but aloeswood does not look like this,

        In the end it is the question of the suppliers meeting consumer demand. There is a plethora of excellent incense without any animal products.

  5. Lin said,

    June 24, 2009 at 10:57 am

    I have read your reviews of these high end Tibetan incenses with great interest, but a little research seems to suggest that the pangolin is an endangered species. Are the animals slaughtered to collect the scales for the incense, or are there other methods? Also, how is musk collected? Thanks,

    • Mike said,

      June 24, 2009 at 11:54 am

      Hi Lin. For the most part, when it comes to Tibetan incenses and the ones that use animal products, they seem to original from Tibet itself in China, rather than the outlying monasteries found in Nepal, Bhutan and India. While I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, I don’t notice the strong aromas of animal musk outside of the Chinese brands very often and even with this said, I’m guessing with my nose. For sure, nothing I’ve researched seems to indicate a safe method for harvesting musk outside of removing a muskdeer’s glands, which does indeed lead to the death of the animal.

      The word “nagi” is used for pangolin scales and as it is found in many incenses outside of China/Tibet, I suspect there are probably herbal substitutes. Unlike with musk deers, as far as I know, pangolins are also considered a food animal. They do shed their scales, but at the same time there would not be such a decrease in the number of these animals were the death of the animal not the normal method for harvesting. I’ve seen information that pangolins are endangered and some that says they are not endangered, but in the latter cases it all comes from information relative to their use in medicine which is telling. In both pangolin and deer musk cases the issue is largely through indiscriminate and widespread slaughtering of animals, for example in the latter case many deer that would not produce the musk needed for perfume would also be slaughtered, leading to the endangered state the animal is now in.

      The bottom line, if you want to avoid these products is to avoid Chinese/Tibetan incenses that claim to contain these ingredients (I suspect China is less interested in international ecological laws). Many other Tibetan style incenses that claim to use musk usually use an herbal substitute and it’s the difference between this substitute and the power aroma of the musk in Chinese incenses that leads to me to believe these use animal products as the potency is fairly unmistakable. The only caveat is without a lab not only do we not know which incense or not contains these ingredients for sure or whether or not they use methods considered legal in their countries or otherwise, as there do appear, despite their rarity, to be those involved in a legal part of the trade. I do, however, suspect the expense involved would rule out the monasteries. Also, I’ve come across an incense or two from outside of China I’d suspect use real musk as well, although never at the same potency.

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