Excellent article of Professor Paul Kan

August 18, 2015

Full article click here Prof Paul Kan 2011

Agarwood and the world
Incense has always been an important medium in the promotion of cultural development. Arab merchants were searching for expensive agarwood when they came across pepper and cinnamon, which inspired them to the discovery of a whole series of cheaper herbs. Driven by the demand for prestigious incense, merchants made a lot of effort in developing inter-territorial trade, which led to the development of inter-territorial roads. Explorers started to discover new continents and new lands through “The Incense Trail”, and “The Spice Route” were just as important as “The SilkRoad ” in promoting trade, communication, technological and cultural exchanges in the East and the West. Incense w a s used to produce perfumes, while spices were used in cooking. China exchanged incense and spices with silk. Incense, spices and silk had undoubtedly played a significant role in promoting global cultural development.

Incense has always been an important medium
in the promotion of cultural development

Agarwood and the Garden of Eden
In Balaam's descriptions of the Israelites in Numbers (documents of the first census among the Israelites ) , the fourth book i n the Hebrew Bible and the Five Books of Mosses, he mentioned that they were “as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted”, suggesting that the origins of agarwood trees can be traced back to the Garden of Eden. (Numbers 24:6)

The Old Testament records descriptions of agarwood trees in the Garden of Eden as such:

Numbers 24:6 “As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.”

Song of Soloman 4:14 The bridegroom sings: “Your thighs shelter a paradise of…Spikenard and saffron, fragrant calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes, and every other lovely spice.”

Talking about the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve brought something with them when they were being cast out. Chapter two of Genesis records: “And out o f the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” God commanded: “Of every t ree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Unfortunately, Adam and Eve were tempted by the Devil who appeared in the form of a serpent and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were thus expelled from the Garden of Eden by God. Af ter Adam and Eve re a l i zed that they were naked, feeling ashamed, they took the leaves from the tree to cover their bodies - yes, and there, they brought the leaves of the tree from the Garden of Eden and left them to us as an invaluable gift - aloes tree thus lives on and becomes an invaluable gift from our ancestors. It was presumed that since aloes (agarwood) is from the Garden of Eden, it does not float in water but sinks. On top of that, agarwood trees are usually the tallest in forests.

Agarwood in history
According to ancient Egyptian history, agarwood was a precious ingredient used in the making of mummies. Jesus used aloes oil in performing miracles and Jesus' resurrection also involved the use of aloes oil. (John 19:39: “And there came also Nicodemus, which at first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.”) Jesus' body was covered in a generous amount of aloes oil. The resurrection of Jesus had added to the mystery of medicinal applications embodied by agarwood.

In India, during the time of Buddha, Sakyamuni was invited by various emperors and elders to promote Buddha's teachings in various countries in ancient India. Wherever he went, emperors and civilians devoted all their wealth to put up solemn decorations in places and monasteries that he was to stop by, and were enthusiastic in making offerings and donations. Rites to receive Bodhisattvas involved offering flowers and burning herbal incense, with one magical incense recipe, known as “Al l Beta” in Sanskr it, which is a mixture of precious natural medical herbs such as agarwood, sandalwood, amber powder and ambergris. This is the earliest record of agarwood in religious rites.

 

Agarwood and faith
As the king of incense , agarwood is used as an offering by Buddhists, Taoists, Catholics, Christians and Islams.

1) Buddhism: It is stated in Chapter nineteen of The Lotus Sutra, “The Merits of Master Virtue” that the fragrance of agarwood can penetrate the three domains, which makes it an important offering. Pieces of agarwood o r agarwood powder is used in meditation, scripture chanting and other holy ceremonies. Agarwood is also used in making malas to be hung around necks and wrists. It is common for a Buddhist to hold a mala in his/her hand when reciting the scripture. Being warmed by body temperature, the agarwood mala would then release a fragrance that induces clarity and the peace of mind. It is also recorded in the Buddhist scripture that “one can cast away bad luck by burning the incense that sinks in water”.

2) Taoism: It advocates the natural law of “wu wei er zhi” (meaning Rule by Not Ruling) by Laozi and Zhuangzi. Agarwood is burned for meditation as well as when exorcism is being practised. The “smoky” scene is a representation of how the “qi” – energy – of heaven and earth is being unified. To practise the Taoist exercise for health, it is very common using agarwood to help awakening and enlightenment. When Zhang San-feng finished his work on earth and believed to have ascended to heaven, he was found disappearing from the cave leaving behind a pair of straw shoes and three pieces of agarwood.

3) Catholicism and Christianity: After Jesus was crucified, his body was covered with myrrh and agarwood. It was also an ancient Christian tradition for the bride and groom to plant an agarwood tree for their marriage. Agarwood is not only prestigious in Catholicism and Protestantism, but it is also used in the anointment ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and some of the Protestant churches, not to mention its role in blessing, prayer, funerals, etc. The holy oil is made of olive oil, agarwood, myrrh and musk. Ministers would the nuse the holy oil to draw crosses on patients' foreheads and palms, so as to bless them with spiritual suppor t and peace, as well as to help them to ask for God's forgiveness of their sins. Catholics believe that such sacraments would bring miracle healing to faithful patients. In fact , the word “Christ” means the Saviour and Lord; but as it originated from the Greek word “Khris tós”, which bears the meaning of “the anointed one”.

4) Islam: Agarwood is used in celebratory ceremonies and prayers. It is also used by the Hui, the Uygur and the Kazakh to practise a cleansing ceremony for the deceased – to clean the body three times with agarwood oil.


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