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!