Dzongsar / Be Dur Ya, Offering Incense of Concentration, Relaxing Incense, Tibetan Incense (Slight Return)

I was first introduced to Dzongsar Monastery’s Tibetan Incense many years ago. To my nose it still remains the ultimate enigma, as deep and rich a monastery incense that’s available but with such a funky main note that it’s often the very definition of a difficult incense. In that sense it can be fascinating to return to it, to see what my nose thinks of it all these years later with the experience of other monastery incenses to inform a new visit. But before I revisit it, I wanted to go over the monastery’s other three incenses (two pictured), all of which are much more friendly and approachable scents without the major learning curve. The neat thing about these is that all but one feel like Dzongsar incenses in that some of the bouquet of the flagship brand crossover into them, but they do not have as many of the issues that could be a lot more difficult to Western noses.

Be Dur Ya, the incense in the elegant black (or sometimes white) cylinder, takes the flagship scent and pushes most of the intensity and pungency in the background more, letting most of the aroma ride on a sort of elegant, smooth woodiness. This central scent is deeply interesting because while it seems to hold a surface, glossy sort of unity, like a mix of sandalwood, juniper and camphor, it also seems to pop out a lot of other notes through the burn, all while sitting on top of the previously mentioned base scent. This really gives a nose a lot to work with as it goes. At separate times, you get the high altitude scent, a bit of the autumnal herby-tobacco like vibe, and then the mild funk will ride underneath it all and that interplay of all the different elements really makes it a very interesting incense indeed. One of the things I really like about it is it’s both kind of dry and sophisticated while not really losing any depth and that’s an interesting tightrope to walk. Oh and occasionally the spice can be really impressive, as if the cinnamon and clove notes come out as an afterthought. And for about $13 for a “roll” it’s actually a very good deal, certainly an equal to many incenses a $10 spot or more above it (not to mention you can get a shorter stick version of it as well). I really enjoyed being reintroduced to the monastery in such a fashion.

Dzongsar Offering Incense of Concentration is something of a more traditional, perhaps more basic incense, although, like with the Be Dur Ya, this also has something of a woody contour. I don’t sense the usual Dzongsar note in this one so much, in fact at times it reminds me a lot of the aromatic maps of more inexpensive Nepalese incenses, except with deeper more resonant materials. I sense quite a bit of camphor in this one as well, it seems to ping off the juniper-evergreen scent quite nicely. I want to point out that it’s a very fresh smelling incense, but these evergreen qualities are actually fairly mild overall, which lets the sandalwood play through quite a bit. In fact sampling all of the Dzongsar incenses will really give one something of a masterclass in how to balance ingredients in a way that almost distracts you from any specific one, almost as if in analyzing the aroma, it sort of shifts your perspective as you go. And just like with the Be Dur Ya, walking out and back into the space the incense is burning will highlight the spice content in the incense in a way that sitting in front of it may make you miss. The overall effects leave this as a sort of gentle cooling aroma that sort of belies that this is also a surprisingly complex and involved incense. Oh and it’s worth noting that this too has a shorter stick bundle.

So I am going to switch over to Dzongsar Relieving Incense now. As of the writing of this I hadn’t decided to purchase a full roll, which is why there is no picture here. I started with one of the Dzongsar Monastery Collections that has so kindly collated, in part to try the original again, but mostly to get a preview of the monastery’s other incenses. Of course as I burn new sticks, I am reminded that the learning curve of many Tibetan incenses often means by the time I get around to writing about them my initial impressions have shifted quite a bit. But if you were to slot in Relieving Incense in terms of the funky (or perhaps “pungent”) note, I think it’s probably closer to the flagship line than these other two incenses. Relieving is a bit drier nor quite as tangy and nor is that funky note really going into the sort of I dunno, what would you call it, cheesy or yeasty territories. Here it does kind of smell like wormwood or other perhaps less aromatically Western friendly herbs, but it’s also blended in with the kind of strong woody and “alpine” notes that you might find in a Dhoop Factory stick. It has similar sort of campfire vibes to it and yet a bit of the woody polish of the previous two incenses. But there is no doubt that overall this is for those who want to get a bit dangerous. It is a powerfully strong incense just like this next one.

And finally, I’m not sure I have much to add to my original review of the flagship Dzongsar Tibetan Incense. It is still the model of the pungent incense and to this day I have never run across a Tibetan that is harder to process. But I always wanted to make the point that despite its inherent funkiness, it’s really a deep monastery incense, certainly on the same level of depth as the Holy Lands, Samye Monastery or Wara. In burning a half stick of it as I write this, I’m reminded that the Relieving incense is actually fairly close in style this one, maybe close enough they are roughly duplicative. But here the pungency overwhelms any of the more campfire notes. There is a smell that kind of reminds me a bit of a dry Italian cheese close to parmesan or the sort of yeast you might smell whipping up fresh pizza dough. It has been described as “sweaty sock” before as well and it’s hard to argue against that take as well. So as always, buyer beware and I’d highly recommend checking out a sample first. But make no mistake as a lesson on perhaps the way aromatic appreciation differs across cultures, this incense might teach you something as well.


Dzongsar Incense

Many Tibetan monasteries run out of China by the government are now exiled to India, Bhutan and Nepal; however, Dzongsar Gonpa still appears to be based in China. They’re the creator of one of Tibet’s most arcane and unusual incenses, the eponymous Dzongsar incense.

Dzongsar Incense doesn’t come with an ingredients list per se but is clearly a complicated polyherbal blend. It’s almost impossible to compare it to other incenses. The sticks are quite thick and the consistency of the sticks appear to be a bit denser than the normal Tibetan-style format. The ends of the sticks flatten out to make them look a bit like extended bows, something a bit problematic in removing the sticks from the otherwise useful container, my cylinder came with a few broken fragments. However, Dzongsar’s such a powerful and intense incense that even these fragments feel an awful lot like you’d just got done burning a full stick.

Dzongsar’s something of a conundrum, it’s a very difficult incense but it’s also a powerfully intuitive one, like the Tibetan Medical College incenses, Samye Monastery and Highland. This intuitive element is one I highly prize and was responsible for its showing in our Hall of Fame for about a week, until I started to feel that the combination of elements here might not be universally friendly among Western noses. It has similar elements in it to incenses like Essence of the Ages’ White Pigeon and Ayurvedic ropes, that is herbs and spices that are likely to remind one of funk, yeast and cheese at times. Combining these difficult blends with the massive intuitive power may even make these more difficult to swallow for Westerners, as this is a blend that has severe staying power.

Personally I find this sort of difficulty livens up a blend and in Dzongsar’s case there’s a real depth to it. There are hints of both the vegetable and animal here and the sorts of tangy smells that tend to be associated with some Chinese medicinal herbs. Like any incense that seems to have natural musk to it, there’s that staying power that’s similar to what it would be like if skunks had musk glands. An inch or two of this will scent a room for a surprisingly long time, with the difficulty a strong part of this.

Do we call these “expert” incenses? The concept in Japanese incense seems to relate to aloeswood depth, especially aloeswoods that aren’t as sweet and friendly. Dzongsar is one of those rare incenses that (even if aloeswood is here it’s submerged) does indeed bring a similar depth that’s quite resonant with the subconscious. Like all great high end incenses it’s evocative and memory image-retrieving. But it’s also ripe, weird, and perhaps a little dangerous.

Best Incense – July 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Baieido / 350th Anniversary Sandalwood – This is arguably not even the best of the three incenses in this magnificent (and now deleted) anniversary set, but it was the most revelationary one to my nose, in that this is possibly the best sandalwood I’ve ever tried, with a quality of wood so high it’s like it becomes something else. It’s as if the aromatics and/or wood resins are so fine that they’re like an aged liquor. Given the incenses similarities to Baieido’s Kokoh series (at least the Jinko anyway), I wanted the Byukaden Koko right away. Without this entry I might have given the slot (if a bit lower on the list) to Kyukyodo Yumemachi, not quite as deluxe but still an amazing sandalwood.
  2. Baieido / Koh En – An incense I’ve returned to over and over in the last couple months, there’s something just at the edge of comprehension on this one. For one thing I believe this uses the Hakusui Vietnamese incense, a really gentle yet startling aloeswood, but the spices that accentuate the wood really bring it out. It’s like orbiting a new planet, no matter what spot you’re over there’s something new to look at. This line of aloeswoods might be the most sublime out there.
  3. Highland Incense – I’m over the moon with some of the higher end Tibetan sticks these days, and you really have to credit Essence of the Ages whose archaeological skills are unparalleled at bringing us these really legitimate and otherwordly monastery incenses. Highland’s one of the muskiest, most ever-present incenses you can imagine and will set off subconscious impressions for ages even based on the burn of an inch of stick. It’s about as deep and intense as a Japanese incense even if the aloeswood content is mostly a side note. But the musk here will redefine your experience. I hope they were gentle.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar (TPN) – If Highland really hit me the most the second or third time around, this Nectar hit between the eyes right in the middle of the third one. It’s an electric, intuition-triggering polyherbal blend like you wouldn’t believe. It reminds me a little of the Tashi Lhunpo Shing Kham Kun Khyab with a massive helping of lama juju. It’s clear, red and has a weird kind of kundalini playfulness to it. It made me want to order the entire college’s catalog.
  5. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – A three-way hit of animal depth, spikenard sweetness and aloeswood infinity, it’s the most inexpensive of the Premiums to have this much higher mind impact. Everything above this level refines this sort of sweet musk, but here it’s wild and uninhibited. Starting to become an all-time favorite.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra – Soon to be corrected, this is the only high end Tibetan incense I have in stock right now, so the samples of the other high enders have had me returning to this all month. It was my first incense of this level, and found the depth of scent and purity of ingredients to be startling and over time almost addictive. I’m not even sure I could describe this one, except that it’s highly likely the pangolin scales have a real distinct and dimension-adding effect to the overall aroma. Definitely 5x the aroma of most lowest end Tibetans, humming with the essence of the inner planes.
  7. Dzongsar Incense – You get the impression with most Tibetan incense sticks are mostly wood, at least in base and while that’s still true for Dzongsar it’s such a thick and heavy stick one wonders if it’s not made from clay. Aromatically it has similarities to a lot of Tibetan incenses that have difficult (for the Westerner anyway) ingredients (think White Pigeon, the side notes to Mandala Trading Tibetan Monastery, Essence’s Ayurvedic ropes), but in this case they’re refined to the point that it’s a lot easier to see their brilliance. Tangy, rich and definitely multi-dimensional, I think I’ve only barely begun seeing how good this one is.
  8. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – I would feel weird leaving Shunkohdo off of a top 10 list given how much I use their products, many of them are virtual regulars around my place (Yae No Hana in particular nearly makes every monthly list). This kyara blend is always amazing to me due to how penetrating, sharp and sweet the aroma is. Like Baieido, no matter what Shunkohdo do, they never drown out the central wood notes. And I’m finding this one is complex enough to notice different things about it than I did when I first got a box.
  9. Tennendo / Enkuu – If newness wasn’t such a variable factor for these top 10 lists, Enkuu would likely make it every month, it’s quite simply one of my favorite incenses. I’m finding with some of the intense high enders like this that a little goes a very long way and have been finding myself taking out a stick and putting it in a burner and then burning it by thirds. Usually a third of the way down it’s scented the room like most incenses after a full stick. Shoyeido Sho-kaku is also perfect for this and could have interchanged with this selection easily. No doubt that one will be on next month’s again just based on one stick over the last few days.
  10. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – Ever proving the same rule that any incense this complex isn’t revealed in full until at least the fourth stick, I wanted to slip this fantastic, affordable Tibetan (or maybe Brazilian-Tibetan) in here due to its ever-revealing complexity. And it’s the most simple in the line!