Candana चन्दन: Why Sandalwood?

 A very warm welcome to this new blog. Here, I invite you to join us in growing, aromatically and in all good ways, through our scents and our senses. Here, we embark on fragrant lines of inquiry. We will follow our noses that follow our hearts beating, “now streaming” into the joy of learning and sharing. In this first article, I will contemplate candana, one of the most renowned ingredients for aromatics and incense the world over. Such a deep and broad topic requires much observation, research and experimentation. These will come, all in due time. For now, I hope these tidbits of knowledge brighten your appreciation for the treasure that is Sandalwood.

Rather than going into variations of species types, or beautiful incense making science (saved for next blog post on Species & Specimens”), I will let us first endeavor to flesh out a deeper understanding of the wood—and our hearts. Let us explore a bit of language and incense history. Let us star-chart the constellations of meanings and associations across languages. Why is sandalwood called sandalwood? What are the various names used for sandalwood, and why might they have been chosen?

Santalum album
Candana (चन्दन, pronounced chand-ana) is Sanskrit for the sandalwood tree of India. Immediately we come ear to ear with the language of the ”gods” or “devas” A spiritual language that symphonically and rather exactingly communicates divine traditions. Roots of Sanskrit words are called dhātus, or ”realms.” Here we have the Sanskrit realm cand (चन्द्, pronounced chand), meaning “to be glad,”''to shine”. At first sound of this ancient word, and at first light of a tiny stick of incense, be glad and shine in the scent. Take this as your opportunity to burn the dark to light and bask in the knowledge that returns us to our senses. Joyous indeed is the knowledge of knowledge. This knowing brings us seamlessly into the two ancient Indian types of candana: one dried from fresh cuttings and the other dried naturally. The cut and dried type is called vettā (वेत्ता), which means “that which knows, the knower, the one who understands.” The naturally dried wood is called sukkaḍi (सुक्कडि). The dhātu, or root word or realm, is sukh (सुख्), to make happy. Encountering sandalwood means one is no longer "hapless" or unlucky, one now has a hap to stand on, auspicious indeed! Both of these terms for sandalwood come from ancient Ayurvedic medicine and refer to treatments for conditions used topically, internally (minimally), and aromatically. They are mainly defined as having a cooling quality that is used for treating hallucinations, vomiting, fevers, worm infestations, morbid thirst, and burning sensations.

Further down the enjoyable, scented path of knowledge we come to the Buddhist layers of the word. This is where we diverge from literal Sanskrit scholarship and enter the constellations of language and meaning. There are two terms that I invite you to look at when thinking about candana: chanda (छन्द) and dāna (दान). Chanda is a rather unique term because it means desire. Contrary to popular conceptions of Buddhism, the Buddha’s teachings include desires, aims, and goals. Chanda is the term for such ambition to take on the noble pursuit. This kind of interest is what energizes and leads to discovery. This is exactly the attitude we here take toward our own aromatic pursuits and offerings for you all. This is opposed to, and an antidote for tṛṣṇā (तृष्णा), which is the “thirst” or ”craving” relating to an existential sense of lacking. The debilitating sense of lack motivates humanity throughout all times, and chanda is the healthy and beautiful, indeed noble, desire for wholesome results, skillful actions, and freedom.

Dāna is in many ways the bedrock of Buddhist communities and teachings, both ancient and modern. It is generosity, especially to the monastic Sangha, but, really it is that universally human action of sincere offering. This “giving nature”resonates throughout the meaning of sandalwood as an aromatic treasure to be offered upand shared. This dāna, this generosity of spirit, is a part of a major list of practices called pāramitās (the “perfections”). The depth of meaning cannot be understated for these terms. Dāna is as far reaching a word as citta (“heart/consciousness”) or yoga (“the bondage that frees”) in Sanskrit. In traditional/scriptural Buddhist teachings, there are three types of giving. The first is the gift of nourishments (of which incense is one), shelter and clothing, medicines, and necessities. The second is Dharma or wisdom teachings, appropriate to the person and place, timely and timeless. The third is fearlessness, encouragement for the wayfaring, the dissolving of arbitrary fears and habituated avoidances, the quelling of doubts. Generosity breaks down further into two kinds. One is simply perfect, without expectations. The other is more personal, given in order to receive. Both of these types are considered wholesome and skillful; the first one is considered a more difficult practice used to free the mind from clinging to the giver, the given to, and the gift. Understanding this deep relationship between generosity and sandalwood is a way to enrich the timelessness of lighting a stick of sandalwood incense, or heating a sliver on a burner. It is an immersion into a realm (dhātu) of joy and light. It is an offering for returning to our senses, finding our peace of mind and direction of life relating to where we are. Sandalwood is evocative of the naturally happy state, easeful and nourishing, surprisingly luminous, worth sharing. Just light (the stick).

Heading Eastwards in space and time…
Journeying along this scented trail from India to China, we find the word candana was transliterated into 旃檀 (zhan-tan) or 旃檀娜 (zhantan’na). It is here we come to another joyful proliferation of meanings that resonate into many aspects of sandalwood as a fragrance for touching the heart. Let us simply break down the three characters into their individual meanings. 旃 zhan means a silken or soft banner, as well as a linguistic particle called a ”xu zi 虛子” that acts to emphasize a topic. The radical of this character is 丹 dan, and signifies alchemical transformation, or the elixir field in Daoist Chinese Medicine. 檀 Tan refers specifically to the well-known sandalwood tree itself, and 娜 na/nuo means feminine elegance or grace.


There is this obvious relationship between sandalwood and the human sphere that is primarily spiritual and connecting. Inviting us to the places of refuge that might best nourish us and motivate us towards an unknown and aromatically auspicious future. Tan xiang 檀香 is the modern Chinese for sandalwood fragrance, and the characters above are its roots, so to speak. Where it continues to be intriguing, and where it deepens our fragrant lines of inquiry is that, according to 88th generation Shangqing Daoist monastic Jeffrey Yuan, who has taught Daoist Chinese medicine for decades the world over, this character is a homophone for the character tan 壇, which means altar. That sandalwood is an ”altar fragrance” and the altar is both in the traditional physical sense of a special space, but also in the internal sense of the middle elixir field - the field of the heart. The heart is the altar and sandalwood is an altar fragrance. The heart organ is the throne of the Shen or spirit, imagined as a numinous shining gem. Through being immersed in this scent there is opportunity to heal, to cleanse and strengthen the heart. It is worthwhile to note here that Yuan also teaches that agarwood (aloeswood 沈香) is the other major altar fragrance, and also well known for affecting and treating the heart, organ and channel/meridian. This knowledge is an aspect of oral transmission often found in old ways of transmitting arts such as medicine, martial arts and many others that have pre-requisites and commitments for learning. Agarwood being such a vast area of interest will have to be saved for another article some other time. Unsurprisingly, Daoist medicine also uses sandalwood to cool off excess heat and other similar conditions as in the aforementioned Ayurvedic tradition.

The characters have further resonances too. The character tan 檀 is also used for 檀度 or tan-du, which is dānā in Sanskrit, that generosity of spirit we were just elucidating. Tan dao 檀島 are the characters for the Hawaiian islands, where our studio is currently located, and where the most diverse endemic species of sandalwoods exist. There is a curious and complex story of Hawaiian sandalwood which we will save for another time. Tan lin is 檀林 literally a ”sandalwood grove” yet refers to a monastery. We see in meaning after meaning, that tan 檀is used to convey this sense of happy connection to one’s own journey in tandem with the wisdom inheritances of humankind. It is diffused and aromatized throughout, saturating the hearts of our Asian ancestors’ languages with its ebullient being.


Now that we have traveled so far back and so far away, into the tomes of knowledge and temples now in the sand, we might venture to ask another little question of meaning for modernity, why sandals? Was peoples footwear literally made from sandalwood? Although it likely would make one’s feet smell nicer, it is definitely not the case that sandalwood was primarily used for sandals. Etymologically, we have the Medieval Latin sandalum, which evolved from the Late Greek santalon, which is ultimately coming from Sanskrit candana. The Sanskrit cand, ”shining, glowing” is cognate with the Latin candere ”to shine, glow.” 

Funny enough and interestingly enough, there is a single reference to sandalwood and sandals in the old Buddhist Pali canon. 91 kalpas ago, or in our concept of time (and depending on which model for kalpas one uses) 1,528,618,000 years ago, a monk named Candana is offered a pair of sandals from a man named Upahanadayaka. Talk about generosity inscribing one in the annals of time! The materials for incense making are manifold. Yet they rely on a few key simple yet deeply complex plants such as the sandalwood. It can act as a clean altar-like canvas, to be honored with other various aromatic treasures in the right arrangement and expression. These altars, in nature as trees, in our bodies as hearts, are part of the great joy and light of life. We are very grateful and happy to share with you all this journey into scent and sense-making, the beautiful memories made, and the timeless realms evoked. May the Sandalwood trees last long and be replanted and preserved for generations to come. May continue to gift us with their effulgent realm, and guide us through our nose to a joyful and generous heart, and beyond.

Wishing you all an auspicious new year, and until our next scented line of inquiry, stay bright.

I tip my hap and many thanks to my Sanskrit scholar friends and copy editors.

Petra Lamberson, a former colleague, PhD student at UC Berkeley in Buddhist Studies & Fedde DeVries, also a PhD student at UC Berkeley in Buddhist Studies.  

All images are © Yi-Xin Craft Incense 2022 

Header is a picture of a baby Santalum album (Indian Sandalwood) above Kona in Hawai'i (