Samye Monastery Incense

You would have to go back to 2008 to read our first review of Samye Monastery’s incense. I am not sure where the term Samanthabadhra came from at the time, but for sure the box still remains either the same or close to what I remember it. Samye Monastery’s incense was perhaps the first Tibetan I ever tried with depth. At the time I was just used to commonly found Nepali imports of which only a handful were striking, so when a box of this arrived I was just astonished at how great it was.

However this sort of brings me around to a subject that is somewhat controversial and which I’ve largely stayed away from here and that’s the presence of animal-sourced products in Tibetan incense. You can sort of sum it up like this. 1) Historically a lot of Tibetan incenses have been known to use pangolin scales, musk, civet and other animal-sourced ingredients. 2) There is a lot of guessing which ones have them in it, which is not surprising when most incense creators keep their full recipes a secret 3) Supposedly the use of endangered species in these products has been outlawed in Tibet 4) This led to an incredible amount of rumors, some even laid down by previous writers at ORS, of incenses changing their formulation to account for these changes in laws and so forth.

Overall, if we’re to retain a scientific and objective approach to this subject then sorting this out can be problematic. To say the least I’m not in favor of ingredients that result from the death or pain of an animal. But I’m also not in a rush to toss incenses just based on rumors either. I mention it as some context for Samye Monastery incense. I’ve owned 3 or 4 boxes of this incenses over the years and nearly every single one is different. I would be wildly guessing to say the changes in recipe account for the elimination of some or all of these elements, I only guess they were involved in the first formulation I tried from hearing from the person who carrried it at the time, and never thought to confirm the source. But these notes at incense-traditions.ca seem like a good approach to me for dealing with this issue. But I also want to draw attention to the fact that in something like 10-15 years, Holy Land still smells closer to or exactly the same to this nose. If there were formulation changes then I certainly didn’t pick up on them.

This is something like the third formulation I’ve personally tried under the Samye Monastery name. It is still a deeply, complex, wonderful, one of a kind incense. They all were. But this incense does not have the notes from the previous review, especially the combination of ingredients I mentioned and the reminder of Old Nick barleywine. The scent has shifted to a much more crystalline, high alpine sort of scent with a lot more wood in it. It is over-brimming in ingredients and still retains a complex and involved palate. There is absolutely no feel to this incense that makes you think it has been based on cheap wood to cut down on costs. I’m not even sure what the resin or wood quality is that gives this its sparkly, crystally note but I’d guess they’re using some really fine sandalwood (which may indeed be part of what puts this at its price point). There’s likely juniper, saffron, the usual spices, and a lot of other common herbs you find in Tibetan incense, but there’s also a surprising amount of floral goodness in this that remains a mystery. Like an almost rose-like scent, which is isn’t something you see in this type of incense all that much. Definitely musk too and I’m (always) hoping that the creators are just really good at making this out of plants.

So yeah this is still a top 10 Tibetan marvel, it’s just a different one. When I find a new source that has this it tends to be one of my first purchases. There’s always been a bit of of an outlay, but it’s well worth it.

2 Comments

  1. June 18, 2021 at 6:03 pm

    My understanding is that as Buddhist monasteries they do not harm living beings or cause suffering, so they would only collect off animals who died accidentally or of old age. The practice of harvesting only what falls applies to the plants as well.

    This leads me to believe that what we experience when their stuff gets exported is not ‘reformulations’ as much as ‘vintages’ where one year they might get a mighty sandalwood that falls in a storm that lasts a decade and other years they might only get twigs and scraps that barely make a smell.

    If I had to hazard a guess, incense like Holy Land is made with ingredients that are mixed in with older ingredients to maintain a certain smell profile, so if you harvest that mighty sandalwood, you ration it out year after year and mix it in with lesser sandalwoods.

    Of course, I could be wrong, I have yet to talk to a monk who makes incense in the Tibetan Medical College, or even read an interview or story about it.

    • Mike said,

      June 18, 2021 at 6:33 pm

      All of that seems reasonable to me. But yeah that last paragraph is sort of right to the point. It’s just a lot of years seeing rumors flying around over this sort of thing and not a lot of anything being settled (I reread a lot of this stuff updating the reviews index in the last week). It would be fascinating to find some way to interview someone involved in monastery incense.


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