BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

The Book of TeaThe Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is neither about tea the drink nor tea the plant; it’s about tea the experience. It’s about what the author refers to as “Teaism,” which is akin to Taoism and Zen and which extols the virtues of simplicity, purity, and humility. Teaism is a philosophy that exists around–and in conjunction with–so many familiar philosophies, but is not subsumed by any of them.

The book is divided into seven parts: I.) The Cup of Humanity; II.) Schools of Tea; III.) Taoism and Zennism; IV.) The Tea Room; V.) The Art of Appreciation; VI.) Flowers; and VII.) Tea Masters.

Part I gives us an overview of what Teaism is. One may get a better feel for the author’s view of Teaism through a few choice quotes than from my rambling description. (I’ll take advantage of the book’s 1906 birth date–and, hence, public domain status–to quote heavily from it.)

“Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”

“It’s [The Tea cult’s] very spirit of politeness exacts that you say what you are expected to say, and no more.”

“For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal.”

“Let us dream evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

The first part also devotes considerable space to contrasting East and West. The author defends the Eastern ways, which include an exacting and meticulous approach to tea, as not being backwards–as suggested by some in the West.

It should be noted that her commentary, while sometimes sharp in tone, isn’t an attack on the West so much as a defense of the East. It’s interesting to me that there was such conflict as Teaism sprang from Taoism, which is the individualistic strain of Southern China. There is much in common between the values of Taoism and Western liberal thinking. Both share irreverence for tyranny and authoritarianism, and a dislike of that which is forced on one by dictate.

The second part gives a mini-history of the development of tea, but soon sows more of the philosophy of tea in what becomes a lead-in to the following chapter. A couple more choice quotes:

“Perhaps we reveal ourselves too much in small things because we have so little of the great to conceal.”

“Teaism was Taoism in disguise.”

The third part is the core chapter. It discusses the like mind of Taoism and Zen, and how these systems made fertile soil for the growth of Teaism. It is the heart of the book, as it reveals most vividly what Teaism is by explaining the concepts of nothingness and duality.

“One who could make himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become a master of all situations.”

“In jujutsu one seeks to draw out and exhaust the enemy’s strength by non-resistance, while conserving one’s own strength for victory in the final struggle.”

“Truth can be revealed only through the comprehension of opposites.”

“The followers of Zen aimed at direct communion with the inner nature of things, regarding their outward accessories only as impediments to a clear perception of truth.”

Part IV describes the place in which the tea ceremony takes place. The key points are: The tea room should be small and simple, and emulate a Zen monastery. The entryway should be less than three feet high, so that all–Shogun or shepherd alike–can be reminded of the need for humility. The first requisite of being a tea master is the ability to sweep and clean. Earlier, Okakura mentions how the most senior monks in a Zen monastery do the most arduous tasks, rather than the novices. This point translates to Teaism. By becoming a master, one doesn’t escape the requisites of modest tasks, but must carry them out all the more skillfully.

Part V, on the art of appreciation, was summed up for me by the quote, “We classify too much and enjoy too little.”

Part VI is where the author goes a little astray in my opinion. She seeks to address the co-development of flower arranging with tea ceremony. She begins by bemoaning the waste of so many flowers–even more-so in the West than the East. “Why were the flowers born so beautiful and yet so hapless.”

Interestingly, she never bemoans the plucking of tea. She anthropomorphizes flowers–not, apparently, because they are living–but because they are beautiful. She imagines that they must feel the excruciating pain of being wrenched from a stem in a way that a rather lackluster looking tea-bud cannot. It’s her deference to the consensus of beauty as represented by the flower as opposed to the simple tea-bud in which she performs the greatest sin against her own philosophy.

Furthermore, she says, “The man of the pot is far more humane than the man of the scissors.” Failing to recognize that the flower planter and the flower harvester are, in most cases, one in the same person.

She eventually explains how those whose philosophy so despised the destruction of life and beauty came to engage in flower arranging. “We shall atone for the deed by consecrating ourselves to purity and simplicity.”

The final part tells us about the nature of the tea master–a monk of leaf and beverage, if you will.

“The tea-masters held that real appreciation of art is only possible to those who make of it a living influence.”

“He only who has lived with the beautiful can die beautifully.”

I recommend giving this thin book a read. I packs a lot of food for thought into a small package. The language is excellent. (The book was originally written in English, and directed toward a Western audience. Hence the extensive defense of Eastern thinking up front.Therefore, there is no worry about getting a particular translation.)

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