Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery / Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5

Any time I see a new (more accurately, new to me or ORS) monastery or incense company with grades on their incenses, it’s unlikely that I’m going to like all of them. First of all you have to take a look at the pricing, while not forgetting that sometimes stick length and even thickness can play a part in cost. Honestly for the most part, price decreases down grades tend to be fairly gradual. Mindroling is a good example of a graduated sort of scale and Nado Poizokhang used to have something like 6 grades that were available, although that seems no longer the case. Grades don’t always mean an indication of decreasing quality as the numbers rise, but they often do. So you tend to expect a #1 is just simply going to be a better incense than #5, not to mention more pricey.

None of this is really the case in this wonderful line of Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery incenses, or at least as the grades go down you’re not left thinking the lower incenses are worth skipping. Where I often dip into a sampler and then only buy a roll or two that I like, I went with the #1 and #3 first and then over time decided to get the rest. It doesn’t hurt that four of the five come in really beautifully designed cardboard rolls. Once again we must tip a hat to the great incense-traditions.ca for continuing to expose us to the many fine treasures of Tibet.

These are all wonderful, classy, complex and unique incenses that you come to expect from the area. The ingredients list in all of them are white sandalwood, wormwood, saffron, nutmeg, cloves and cypress;, although, you should note right away that the incenses vary a lot more than just what this list is telling you. Grade 1 is unquestionably the line’s treasure. Where later sticks get longer, Grade 1 is a modest sized stick popping with aromatic complexity. It’s literally beautiful and arresting from the first light and immediately popped up into my top 10 Tibetan incenses, it’s just that good. Repetitive burning has not changed my mind on this. Every ingredient in that list can be found here, popping with high resolution and sitting right next to each other, it’s got fine woods, great tanginess, that sense of herbal wildness you get from the wormwood and so much more. It has an aromatic intensity that even a lot of other monastery incenses don’t have. Just now I noticed some almost like spice rack sort of side note, peppery and piquant, which I hadn’t even noticed in the first five or six sticks. I love to use the word kaleidoscope when it comes to incenses like this that are so resolute and intricate, you still notice new things about them as you go. Incredible incense, extremely highly recommended.

Grade 2 changes quite dramatically and it’s funny of the five grades here this is the one I’ve found hardest to get used to. It brings out the more dangerous qualities of the wormwood a bit more so that it runs close to, say, some of the Dzongsar monastery incenses. It goes for a much drier profile than the Grade 1 and seems to not be quite as complex, although if you concentrate on it a bit you do still notice that the ingredient resolution is still pretty high. It feels like a lot of the spice content is a lot more dialed back so that the overall profile ends up being a lot more herbal, in fact there’s something of a grassiness or hay-like scent in that would seem a lot more barnyard if it wasn’t just completely missing any musk. Had I just experienced this incense as a sample on its own, I might have foregone a roll, but in the grade scheme of the entire Tanak Thupten Ling line, it’s actually kind of fascinating the way it fits in and contrasts with the other grades. And as you get used to it you realize that the overall dryness and herbal content hides a bit of the depth that experience will bring out with use. This is not what I call a Western friendly incense overall, but nor is it cheap or low quality. Perhaps its defining strength is that like with the Grade 1 it has a definite wood contour in the middle. But make no mistake this one has a learning curve.

Grade 3 is an incense that actually reminds me a little of my extreme favorite monastery incense Wara. I’m actually starting to feel like I go through an entire package of Wara between every mention of it and the desire to sing its praises threatens to take over sometimes, even from this review. Part of the similarity is there is some crossover with Wara with whatever makes up this sort of almost tarry blackened resin-like element in both incenses. Grade 3 veers away from some of the deeper, more complex and almost undefinable characteristics in Wara but increases some similar, more woody and evergreen elements that serve more as side notes in the Wara. The wormwood is much more subsumed in this incense, much more of a side note, and the cypress and spices are more obvious than they were in the Grade 2. So despite the same ingredients list, you’re talking about a third, completely different incense in this range. Naturally I liked this a lot and notice that it’s the one TTL incense that’s out of stock as I write this. Anyway some other notes in this are a bit of clay, peat, and juniper and in the end has some level of a fresher forest-y note somewhere in the middle that gives it some character. It’s wonderful stuff and the second one here I would recommend unequivocally. Not sure there are a lot of Grade 3s this good and there’s a bonus in that from this grade on, the sticks get a bit longer.

Grade 4 is maybe the first one in the line that starts to feel like there’s some level of ingredient shift as well as some level of similarity to one of the higher incense grades, but it’s still a remarkably strong incense. It’s fairly akin to the Grade 3 in that sort of dark, somewhat resin-heavy feel, but there feels to me less wood and a bit more heavy an emphasis on the spices. There’s a net tangy sort of thing that often shows up somewhere in the clove, nutmeg and cinnamon territory and it’s a level of spice that you really don’t get in the first three grades. In fact, if you step away and come back you can feel the wormwood a bit more, although not as crackly and herbal on top like it is in a higher resolution, more just like a bit of the Tibetan funk. I like the way this blend tends to merge with Grade 3’s darker profile. I will say that my expectations on this had me thinking I’d get tired of it, but the stick did the absolute opposite and continued to surprise me with reuse. Honestly at about $15 it’s quite decently priced and really doesn’t have the same sort of quality drops that, say, Mindroling does when it reaches its Grade 4.

The price of Grade 5 drops quite a bit to $12. But imagine simply if you did not know this was a grade 5 and was just evaluating it as a new Tibetan incense at this price. I think you would find it remarkably good. What is interesting about it is unlike the previous four grades, this incense seems to be more of that salty sort of blend you find in Holy Land and numerous other Tibetan classics except the herbal quality of the wormwood weaves its way in that blend which makes it a little unique. I think a lot of the more heavier wood aspects you find in the previous two grades are dialed back for this blend. And it actually feels like the muskier qualities are more active than in the previous four as well. So I would definitely just completely throw out the grading system at this point because this is really as good as any of the previous incenses or better, except the Grade 1, which is in a class of its own. Honestly in a lot of ways its like getting a slight variation on a big long stick roll of the Holy Land grade 2 except with a valid alteration in personality. One thing I really liked about this one on reuse was just how complex it is, how arresting the burn is. There’s no feeling at all along the TTL line that cheap wood filler is being used to replace quality at all. Its the capstone to an absolutely terrific, fascinating monastery line – a bravo to incense-traditions.ca for finding more new and interesting scents for us to try.

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