Muse Xuyoni

An Interview with Director Heedong Son of “Hyangsanjae”

Director Heedong Son shares the beauty of incense through the most fundamental yet basic of all human actions : breathing in and out.

When we express our strong determination to put everything we have on the line, we often say, “neck or nothing.” This means you’re risking the only life you’ve got. If you think about the definition, it’s the same as giving up your breaths. Likewise, inhaling and exhaling means that we are alive. All living things, including humans, breathe. When I asked Heedong Son, who has been studying incense for more than 20 years, to define good incense, the combination of words that he used was so simple and uncluttered that it reminded me of the expression, 無爲(action without intention), which is similar to a flow or an effortless performance.

“Just as we breathe, good incense should come naturally to us,” he replied. I shared my thoughts on incense with him throughout the rainy summer night as we continued our conversation, breathing more calmly, quietly, and consciously than ever before.





Please tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into the world of incense?


I‘ve been introducing tea and incense at Hyangsanjae in Busan. I remember getting interested in tea and incense since high school years. At that time, when online communities were beginning to bloom, I joined the “Our Spririt Cultural Heritage Exploration Group” in Chullian and the “Scent Seekers” in Daum Cafe. I met my life’s teacher there. After enough visits to traditional tea houses, I took over a tea house I used to frequent in 1998. Since then I have been learning and living a blissful life filled with tea and incense.

Nowadays, it seems that “how we spend our time alone” is becoming one of the important measures of how to live well, rather than the communal goal of dreaming of a “society living together”. You have been a pioneer in that sense for having explored incense and tea for so long.

Even now, in search of good incense and tea, I visit not only Korea but also places where incense and tea culture started before Korea, such as Japan and Taiwan. It's been over 20 years. The good thing about researching incense and tea is that I have met many good souls through this work. I feel blessed to work with Xuyoni because of these connections from the past. I am trying to introduce the nicest things that I have seen and experienced firsthand to newcomers in this field while running the tea house.





How do we define incense, and has the culture of incense burning gained a lot of public attention in Korea recently? How do we view it from a cultural perspective?

Any odor that you find pleasant when you breathe in is called a scent, or a fragrance. We basically breathe every moment alive. During this process, we smell all, including fragrances. It’s only natural for a breathing being to seek nice scents. Each person has his own preferences when it comes to scents; this experience should come naturally as he breathes.

Although opinions vary, the so-called “three greatest scents on earth” are Muscon, Aquilaria crassna, and ambergris. I’d say that people have loved insence since ancient times, both in the East and the West.

You mentioned that there is a growing interest in incense in Korea, but I think it’s more important that people properly understand the culture than a mere increase in consumption. In the West, aroma-based fragrances, such as aroma oils, have been utilized for a long time. In neighboring Asian countries, the scent culture has long been a natural part of daily practice. Unfortunately, in Korea, the movement has fallen short of becoming a culture. I'm cautious to say it, but I think that in order to call a phenomenon a “culture,” it requires a decent passage of time to form what is called a “history.” Remember about 20 years ago, aroma in the form of tealight candles came and went? If we use the term "scent" indiscriminately without careful reflection, it won’t be much different from drinking tea from a tea bag.

I feel that the practice of incense is so fundamental that it can be another name for breathing. I also feel that understanding incense appropriately requires a distinguished attitude to begin with.

If birth and death are defined based on this act of breathing, then the scent, in any form, is a part of human life. Good air and scents allow us to breathe breaths that circulate through the entire body from the head to toes.




What are ways to enjoy scents properly?


From my personal experience, the first is to find and establish a good relationship with a teacher who fully enjoys the incense culture. Another way is to choose incense well, taking into account the seasonal environment and spatial factors. Practicing incense is not a forced behavior, but an effortless hobby that can be incorporated into the everyday activity of breathing.



What made you decide to work with Xuyoni?

I empathize with Xuyoni’s philosophy of pursuing happiness in nature with human efforts. I joined the project because I sincerely support Xuyoni’s direction and wanted to help in any means possible.



We curated two fragrances for Xuyoni: Ulhyang and Karadaegwan. How did you choose these two scents?



First of all, Ull incense (or “stone incense”) is made by Korea's leading incense house, Chuiunhyangdang. It is a must-collect item when discussing Korean incense culture. It is also precious in terms of scarcity because its ingredient can only be sourced from Ulleung Island junipers, which are no longer available. I would describe the scent of Ull as a “meditative” fragrance that has endured the rugged coastal cliffs of Ulleung Island for thousands of years.

Kara Taikan is Japanese incense with a history of more than 440 years. The incense house that made Kara Taikan, with a long history and pride, has researched and developed quality incense for centuries. It would not be an exaggeration to describe this incense as the essence of their achievements. I am delighted to introduce Kara Taikan through Xuyoni project; it is the result of a beautiful relationship. Considering the popularity of high-end incense, I don't think there is better incense that uses Aquilaria Crassna as its main ingredient. It lasts for a prolonged time, and one never gets tired of it.





Many people also use incense to meditate. It seems that the role of incense is becoming increasingly important in modern life.
Moments of inhaling good incense can stop all trivial thoughts. That's why it's used in modern society where mindfulness is crucial. To enjoy a scent is to breathe well, which seems to extend the role of incense into all areas of practice and spirituality. Rather than being tied to traditional so-called “meditation,” I think it's enough if you can maintain a tranquil state of mind and body using incense by Xuyoni everyday. "Meditation" or "healing" is not far away. If you can stay in the present moment and focus even for a short period of time, that is meditation. If you can lose yourself temporarily in enjoyment, you can call that healing.





How do you think experiencing good incense changes our daily lives?


I believe that experiencing good scents consistently is one of the ways to nurture your life. Just as we go through a lot of processes from birth to adulthood, I think it's important to be consistent when experiencing an old culture like incense. If you cultivate a way of loving yourself through the use of good incense over a long period of time, you can develop a beautiful human scent that is uniquely yours.





How do you want people to enjoy Xuyoni’s incense?


Slowly. Very slowly, enjoying the scent, feeling it clearly, lightly, and deeply. Until the scent permeates your body and is delivered to the space you are in, the people around you, and the world that surrounds you.



Editor: Juhwa Moon



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