There is a distinct smell to Buddhist temples. Well, it depends on which temple, but growing up in China, a Chinese temple is always marked by the dense woodland aroma of incense. The purifying presence of burning wood and herbs hits me hard before Iever set foot in the worship hall, and its impression is everlasting during subsequent rituals and chanting. I’ve never given much thought to the purpose of lighting incense but having moved through multiple Buddhist temples in the same week, a personal record pace, I’ve started to see how sensory artifacts aid in ritual and meditation. It’s not just the smell that contributes to the sensory architecture” of a temple, but statues, lighting, and interior design as well. These elements all work together to help cultivate stillness within a practitioner.

So what exactly is stillness? Stillness or 静心, as described by Ven. QiYuan, the co-founder of the American Wisdom Association, a Chinese Buddhist temple in Billerica, Mass., is an intermediate quality to finding chan, or zen in Japanese and dhyāna in Sanskrit. I would describe stillness as a physical state of being resilient to distracting thoughts and emotions. Chan, or zen in Japanese and dhyāna in Sanskrit, is described as a state of the mind to achieve the ability of seeing things with perfect awareness. It is returning to the original face” of our mind or no-self,” allowing practitioners to experience a direct connection with reality. Stillness is a quality that needs to be acquired before reaching chan.

During a Q&A session, Ven. QiYuan said that stillness can be found in various places. Some people find stillness in the concentration of reciting sutras, some find it in focusing on the rhythm of their breath, and some even encounter it while staring at the serene statues of the Buddha. It wouldn’t be out of the question to consider that some would find stillness in paying attention to the olfactory sense as well. Similar to how attention to breathing is used to realign practitioners from straying thoughts, for me a distinct sense of smell of incense is something I can latch onto during practice — like drifting in a sandalwood boat of pine needles and soil toward the land of the still. Ven. QiYuan’s piece of wisdom quite clearly lays out for me the importance of the environment of practice, where every sensory detail could potentially be a path toward chan for a practitioner.

Beyond the centering quality of smell, the aesthetic detail of temples and ritualistic nuances also become possible avenues of stillness. Having gone to a couple different Buddhist communities in the first week, I’ve noticed that different communities willhave different variations on the same rituals. While at the American Wisdom Association (a Chinese community) for a special requested Sutra reading, there were rhythmic playing of drums and woodfish, melodic chanting of sutras and incense burning. While at the Boston Buddha Vararam Temple (a Thai community) for a morning service, there were melodic chanting, Dharma talks, alms offerings, and more of a dynamic back and forth between monastic and layman during scripture recitals. While at the Kurukulla Center of Tibetan Buddhist Studies for a Mani Retreat, we specifically engaged in rhythmic chanting and scripture readings that often varied in dynamism and speed. It is apparent from the similarities and differences from these different practices that in ritual, there isn’t a single path toward finding stillness just like there isn’t a single path toward enlightenment.

From an outsider’s perspective, Buddhist practice seems to be a solidarity battle, but it is not just that: It’s a dialogue with the community and the environment around you. No wonder one of the three jewels is to take refuge in the Buddhist community! As I build on my catalog of smells, artistic quirks, and ritualistic melodies, I become more attuned to the place ofworship, and by extension of practice, to myself. Now when I return to temples, I know that the cultivation of stillness begins well beyond the worshiping halls.

It’s not just the smell that contributes to the “sensory architecture” of a temple, but statues, lighting, and interior design as well. These elements all work together to help cultivate stillness within a practitioner.

Chris 24



Each spring term, The Workshop welcomes approximately 20 seniors to this interdisciplinary, project-based course. With an eye toward reimagining what school can be, the Workshop is the senior’s only academic commitment for the entire term. Instead of splitting their time and attention into units of distinct courses and fields of study, they work closely with peers, faculty, and community and global partners on a series of linked, interdisciplinary projects that revolve around a single theme. Within the theme Experiments in Education, students explore areas of personal interest.

Back to Top ↑

Be a part of our community!

Subscribe to our newsletter, Notes on Learning, for monthly updates.