The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

“Saigyo in poetry, Sogi in linked verse, Sesshu in painting, Rikyu in the tea ceremony- the spirit that moves them is one spirit. Achieving artistic excellence, each holds one attribute in common: each remains attuned to nature throughout the four seasons. Whatever is seen by such a heart and mind is a flower, whatever is dreamed is a moon. Only a barbarian mind could fail to see the flower; only an animal mind could fail to dream a moon. The first task for each artist is to overcome the barbarian or the animal heart and mind, to become one with nature”

These impressive words from the poet Basho illustrate the philosophy and art of the tea ceremony elegantly. Kakuzo Okakura wrote The Book of Tea to educate the Western world to more properly understand Japanese culture. He understood perfectly well that people would sneer or find it peculiar that someone would make such a fuss about tea as to write a book about drinking the stuff. The Japanese though have a much more refined attitude regarding tea. That tea is so intrinsic to Japanese culture makes much more sense when we understand why. In his book, he teaches us how religious traditions of India, China and Japan refined the art of tea into a cultural and religious institution.

Lao Tzu said that he who lives beautifully dies beautifully. To live beautifully isn’t to surround one’s self with opulence, but to appreciate the true nature of life. Beauty and ugliness have their origins, and those origins aren’t in the world, they are in one’s mind. Before you can truly appreciate a great piece of art, you have to learn how to see the art, so that you can understand it correctly.

To truly appreciate the beauty of life, you have to view it without your ego. When viewing the world, we project our ideas into it. If we project our ideas into the world, we are unable to truly take in what the world has to offer, we have already decided what we understand about the things we see. Take a glass for example, what makes a glass useful isn’t what is in it, it is its ability to contain something, which makes it useful. Tea drinking in the ceremonial manner can be understood as a meditative act. Meditating on an object, in this case tea, breaks the subject/object divide, and the two things become one. Okakura says that one truly becomes a great artist when one lives and practices an art so much that one becomes the art.

The history of the tea ceremony teaches us the value of tea drinking. We start with Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. The Tao is known as The Way or The Path. To illustrate what this means, we take a wonderful analogy from Alan Watts. He asks us what the best part of a piece of music is. Surely it can’t be the end, for if it was, we’d only be interested in hearing the final note of every song. People would go to concerts just to hear a single cymbal crash! Instead, it is the music its self which is to be enjoyed, for each nuance and change. Life is like that piece of music. You don’t live life waiting for the end. Like the piece of music, you are meant to be singing and dancing to every note. The point of life is the journey, not the end. Tao is a religion of subjectivity, the aim is to live its twists and turns, to learn about life through its changes and its nature of impermanence. To listen to Alan Watts talk about this, click here (2 mins).

Their religious worldview was in contrast to that of Confucius. Confucius taught that people should learn about life through conduct. He created lists of rules for people to live by. He believed that correct conduct inculcated correct thought. Some people, it is noteworthy, believe that the popularity of Confucianism was a perfect context for the style of communism which China adopted. Confucius believed in a system of absolute ethics and cultural values. However, since Taoism is a religion of change, they believed in a subjectively relative system of ethics. They do believe in an absolute, but that absolute is relative to the experiencer, I.E. the subjective practitioner of the Tao.

One thing they took from Confucianism is that the art of life can be found in the art of the things we do. As the laws of the world can be found in the cosmos, so too can the cosmos be found in the basic things. So why not a cup of tea? Confucians believe that we reveal ourselves in the small things in life, making them the most important things to learn from. Practicing the Tao is the art of being in the world, and it has famously contributed a lot to the art of the east. They believe that “it is in us that God meets with nature, and yesterday parts from tomorrow. The present is the moving infinity, the legitimate sphere of the relative. Relativity seeks adjustment, and adjustment is art”. This clearly demonstrates that the artist’s job is more important that we consider it to be in Western culture.

Taoism took teachings from Confucianism, and morphed into Zen after it met with Buddhist teachings. The Zen school took the living practices and love of aesthetics that the Taoists had, and placed emphasis on meditation which the Buddhists had. The Zen school took the relativity of Taoism, and emphasised it further in their contemplations, believing that “truth can be reached only through the comprehension of opposites”. This is one reason why they emphasise the use of Koans. For some examples of Koans, click here. Koans are little puzzles which one isn’t necessarily meant to find an answer to, but upon contemplating, will gain insights into life.

One further contribution of Zen was the emphasis that the mundane in life is of equal importance to the greatest of things. The tearoom is of highest importance in the ceremony- it must be plain, conducive of thoughts from the mind and from the tea, not from objects, and as such, the tea room emulates the aesthetics of a Zen monastery. The door to a tearoom is traditionally only three-foot high. This is to force people to bow when entering, and therefore instils humility. Everyone is the same in the tearoom, egos are left at the door with their shoes!

The Zen school had many reasons for emphasising meditation, but one of those is that they believed words encumbered our thoughts. One can catch a glimpse of infinity in art, but cannot voice true understanding or delight, this is because “the eye has no tongue”. Art becomes akin to religion, ennobling the mind and producing states of understanding beyond that of traditional thought. The more human the message of the art, the deeper it touches us, and the greater the art. The words about becoming a vessel resonate as doubly true in the realm of aesthetics. Art doesn’t impart its lesson when we think about it in logical terms, we must cultivate the mindset for receiving the message of the art, “lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance”. When we become a receptacle, we will learn from the art, from the tea, from the Koan, from the Zen master, from life.

Buddhists of early ages used to drink large amounts of tea to help them stay awake for long periods of meditation, but in the east, the refined culture of art and aesthetics, coupled with the belief of living beautifully and living our art, appreciating the smallest things in life as the biggest things, the Zen school turned tea drinking into a meditation. One goes to a tearoom to cultivate a state of mind. One would then try to bring the mind of the tearoom into one’s life. The tearoom mind is the mind one aspires to in life. Perfection is everywhere, if only we aspire to find it. If we find perfection in every action of making and drinking tea, we can find perfection in anything in life. A book about tea is never just a book about tea, it is a book about living.

This is a short but beautiful book which I highly recommend. He imparts lessons of Eastern religion and culture, and teaches us to love and understand life through living it. The tea ceremony really is a beautiful thing to watch. Click here to see.

The universe is in your cup of tea as much as your cup of tea is in the universe.

Thank you for reading, and once more, if you wish to read more, please do scroll to the bottom and subscribe in the box by email.

Until next time.

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