Chinatown, Los Angeles, CA.
Chinatown, Los Angeles, CA.

When I think of a Daoist temple the first thing that comes to mind is the smell. The smell of incense instinctively stirs up memories of the years I spent living in Taiwan. Images flood my mind of colorful and elaborate temples, simple roadside altars, and the family altar in my uncle’s home. Thien Hau Temple in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown is small compared to the elaborate temples of Taiwan and China. This sacred space that serves the local Asian immigrant community is a small-scale model of a full-service temple, but it is just as colorful and decorative as any traditional temple. Although the temple does not have a full-time clerical community, the sound of chanting fills the space from a loud speaker playing a recording. The outdoor courtyard holds a large incense burner where visitors make their first stop. At the main entrance of the temple are two small incense holders that mark the threshold with scent. Scattered throughout the inner temple are several altars and ritual spaces. A metal can for burning paper money sits at the back door that again marks the threshold with the sharp odor of burnt ashes. The small space of this temple seems to trap the incense aromas and heighten the full olfactory experience.

The sense of smell requires physical contact with odorous particles, and yet smells can be perceived from a distance as these particles often move and wander beyond our control.[1] The scent from the thin joss sticks at Thien Hau Temple, for example, not only fills the temple space but also wafts down the block. Smells move directly through your nose and can stimulate the body before conscious thought. Therefore, our bodies may respond to a smell even before we identify the smell. Smells first hit the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which can create the bodily sensation of arousal.[2] The amygdala is also the part of the brain that is associated with emotions and memory. Strangely, although we experience smells immediately they also linger the longest out of all our sense memories. The smells we experienced in childhood are stored deeply and for a longer time than sights or sounds.[3] When we experience a familiar smell our long-term memories can bring up associated images, emotions, and that strange feeling we call nostalgia.[4] Diane Ackerman accurately points out in her book A Natural History of the Senses that smells often cannot be defined by our limited vocabulary. Instead, smells are more directly associated with emotions, images or tastes.

The use of incense can be found in most religious spaces, and is one of the primary ways of creating and representing a divine filled space. In many religions, pleasant smells are also associated with heavenly or otherworldly realms whereas bad smells are associated with immorality or evil. Therefore a fragrance here on earth can represent divine presence. Even human beings can carry divine smells. St. Teresa of Avila, for instance, was rumored to carry the fragrance of flowers.[5] The scent would transfer even to the objects she touched and lasted even after her death. During the early church period St. Ambrose mentioned a baptism ritual in which the newly baptized would also be anointed with fragrant oil.[6] The oil would be marked on the forehead, ears, and nostrils. The last two markers are a symbol of gaining new senses for a new perspective to receive the world and to sense God. To incorporate scents as a spiritual practice can simply be an act of using a calming fragrance to create a contemplative space. For the more pious, the properties of scents are believed to carry our hearts desires and lift our prayers to please the divine. Furthermore, for the advanced practitioner pleasant fragrances can serve as guides to bring our conscious practices into otherworldly realities.

Introduction  Sounds  Sights  Touch  Taste

[1] James McHugh, Sandalwood and Carrion : Smell in Indian Religion and Culture (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] Eugene G. D’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg, The Mystical Mind : Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), 101.

[3] Hall, The Hidden Dimension, 43.

[4] Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Random House, 1990), 11.

[5] Classen, The Color of Angels : Cosmology, Gender, and the Aesthetic Imagination, 40.

[6] Harvey, Scenting Salvation : Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, 71.

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