Kakuzō Okakura: The Book of Tea

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

I started drinking tea in 2008 having put off the habit for some time (23 solid years, to be exact). Being a young one, I was more interested in partying and living a hedonistic lifestyle than sipping at a cup of hot water with leaves in it. Of what possible interest could that be?

I was also keen to veer well clear of the, seemingly, internationally recognised image of Brits sitting about sipping at tea, wearing monocles, and speaking in posh accents.

Life in England isn’t like that. For a start, most people in England now prefer coffee – with our hectic lifestyles, and relentlessly busy jobs, millions aid themselves by downing stimulants such as harsh granule coffee, Red Bull, or those awful Monster drinks which contain about a litre of fizzy stuff.

It’s a societal shift, as sitting about having a leisurely cup of tea is, for a start, not feasible for many people, nor is it as desirable, or trendy, as downing a concoction from Starbucks.

I’m not a coffee drinker. I don’t mind the stuff – it’s fine in moderation – but I couldn’t make it part of my daily routine. A bitter war may one day develop between coffee and tea drinkers but, for now, there’s casual indifference between the two sides peppered with the occasional caustic remark.

In advance of this, almost a decade into my tea drinking career, I’m here to bring to your attention the ancient art of tea consumption (whether you like it or not)!

This leads us to Kakuzō Okakura (1863-1913), who penned the Book of Tea for confused Westerners who fail to understand why those in the East take tea drinking so seriously. The result is a brilliant essay – a classic work of literature and an impassioned cry for moments of calm in an otherwise hectic world.

The Book of Tea

In a short, sharp, insightful little book, Okakura puts forward the art of Teaism in a treatise for everything that is glorious about boiling water, adding tea leaves, and sipping away.

It wasn’t written to belittle those ignorant of the East’s fascination with tea, nor is it a haughty account of why Westerners are living their lives incorrectly. It’s simply a didactic essay about how to find inner harmony, written by a magnanimous individual who wanted to share one of life’s pleasures with a newly opened up world.

This doesn’t mean the writer holds back. When he wrote the Book of Tea, it was the dawn of a new age. Industrialisation was here, along with big business, and those from the East and West, respectively, eyed each other curiously due to cultural differences – this does make him rather outspoken and provocative at times, but he is always erudite and fascinating in his commitment to the Teaist cause.

I: The Cup of Humanity

Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism – Teaism.

This opening paragraph immediately introduces the Teaist concept, which had been foreign to me throughout my tea drinking career until I read this book in 2016. Okakura goes on to explain further the allure of tea and the philosophy behind its consumption, setting the themes down for the rest of the book.

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, and romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

Okakura is keen to stress the Philosophy of Tea is more than simple aesthetics.

It expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the Universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.

He then highlights the end of Japan’s “long isolation” from the rest of the world, which he states was “conducive of introspection”, has been beneficial for global Teaism. He’s right – Eastern culture and mysticism have swept through to the West throughout the 20th century and beyond – it’s been an inspirational benefit for myself and many millions of others, whether it’s through the intake of Buddhist practices, Studio Ghibli’s films, Nintendo’s creative genius, or Japanese literature. Eastern cultural influences have been rather magical and, of course, tea remains an ever popular export. Of it, Okakura states:

No student of Japanese culture could ever ignore its presence.

A brief history lesson – head back to 1853 and the land of Nippon (Japan is an exonym, let’s not forget) was in self-imposed isolation and pretty much refused to have anything to do with the rest of the world. Since the Tokugawa period (circa 1600-1868) the country had nothing to do with international politics. By 1853, the Americans grew bored with this obstinate display and sent Commodore Matthew Perry (of Friends fame) over to Nippon with a fleet of enormous warships to demand compliance or face annihilation.

The Americans, having been so influential during the Industrial Revolution, were technologically far in advance and the Japanese knew it. When the Americans returned a year later to hear the reaction to the ultimatum, there was unity and Japan made the bold step towards modernisation.

Stunningly, in the course of only 20 years, the nation blasted itself forward by several centuries and rapidly became a leading industrial nation. It remains a startling achievement, but the world was well and truly changing and everyone had to adapt to emerging revelations. Okakura writes at that time humans were truly feeling a “sense of proportion to the Universe” –  in 1905, the year before the Book of Tea became available, Albert Einstein handed four articles into the Annalen der Physiks and changed the course of human history.

With a greater sense of understanding of the Universe came liberation, enlightenment, and a yearning to understand more. Yet, for many others, it also provoked unease, anxiety, and a complete rejection of the advances – the probability all is absurd sat uncomfortably for some, but the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre (see The Age of Reason), later in the 20th century, would develop existential philosophy, which tied in with the revelations from the world of physics.

Simply put, I think it was the perfect time for Teaism to take off across the globe, but the tea-ceremony, and many other intricacies of the East’s infatuation with tea, were still baulked at by uncertain Westerners.

The outsider may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a tea-cup! he will say. But when we consider how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.

He adds:

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

Okakura remonstrates the West in its criticism of Eastern practices. Even now, in this year of almost 2018, many look to Japan and see a quaint, twee, and alien world which many of us (myself included) haven’t visited – a country steeped in noble ancient traditions, yet now also infatuated with kawaii (cuteness culture), cats, sushi, and strict discipline. Yet, as Okakura realised, back in the early 20th century this was a world of change where business empires were making the world revolve, as opposed to imperialism of old.

Commerce has forced the European tongues on many an Eastern port. Asiatic youths are flocking to Western colleges for the equipment of modern education. Our insight does not penetrate your culture deeply, but at least we are willing to learn.

He has a bit of a go at Western ignorances here, clearly irritated by the behaviour of other countries.

Its [Teasism] very spirit of politeness exacts that you say what you are expected to say, and no more. But I am not to be a polite Teasist. So much harm has been done already by the mutual misunderstanding of the New World and the Old, that one need not apologise for contributing his tithe to the furtherance of a better understanding. The beginning of the twentieth century would have been spared the spectacle of sanguinary warfare if Russia had condescended to know Japan better. What dire consequences to humanity lie in the contemptuous ignoring of Eastern problems! European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realise that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster. You may laugh at us for having ‘too much tea,’ but may we not suspect that you of the West have ‘no tea’ in your constitution?

He ends his point on an optimistic note:

Let us stop the continents from hurling epigrams at each other and be sadder if not wiser by the mutual gain of half a hemisphere.

It’s clear tensions and frustrations were rather high at the time (big surprise, the state of affairs hasn’t changed much since), but through tea Okakura is able to see a common love – “Strangely enough humanity has so far met in the tea-cup”:

It is the only Asiatic ceremonial which commands universal esteem. The white man has scoffed at our religion and our morals, but has accepted the brown beverage without hesitation. The afternoon tea is now an important function in Western society. In the delicate clatter of trays and saucers, in the soft rustle of feminine hospitality, in the common catechism about cream and sugar, we know that the Worship of Tea is established beyond question. The philosophic resignation of the guest to the fate awaiting him in the dubious decoction proclaims that in this single instance the Oriental spirit reigns supreme.

After this, we get a short history lesson from the tea expert detailing tea’s first recorded history in Europe. In 879, an Arabian writer acknowledged, in Canton, tea and salt sales were soaring. Hundreds of years later, the legendary traveller Marco Polo recorded the “deposition of a Chinese minister of finance in 1285 for his arbitrary augmentation of the tea-taxes.”

By the 16th century, Holland’s sailors brought the news of a pleasant drink made in the East by utilising leaves from a bush. Tea was then believed to have arrived in Europe, specifically in France, in 1638. Notably, England embraced it from 1650. In a 1656 issue of the, then popular, magazine Mercurius Politicus we have this historical record:

That excellent and by all physicians approved China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, and by other nations Tay, alias Tee.

Not everyone took delight in its arrival. Opinions are always there waiting to try and derail a new craze. The likes of one Henry Saville considered tea to be a disgrace – the swine! In Essay on Tea from 1756, others such as Jonas Hanway stated men lost their stature and women their beauty by drinking tea.

As with modern times, coffee houses were all the rage in early eighteenth-century London, but the arrival of tea transformed those into tea houses and, certainly in England, the obsession with tea as a national tipple skyrocketed.

This begs the question – why drink tea? What is it about the stuff? Whilst Okakura is eager to explain, I’ll also get to the matter after he’s had his say:

There is a subtle charm in the taste of tea which makes it irresistible and capable of idealisation. Western humourists were not slow to mingle the fragrance of their thought with its aroma. It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.

For me, the pleasant taste aside, daily tea consumption is primarily due to the inspiration and relaxation it provides. It remains a tremendous source of creative energy and inspiration. I’m occasionally asked how (rather than why, thankfully) I manage to write so much (blundering absurdist inanities primarily, over on my site Professional Moron, but I do also dabble in more serious work) – it requires sacrifices in the removal of much socialising, but also the commitment to get up rather early on one of my rare days off.

Ultimately, after a few years of not finding the right formula, I settled on the pattern of rising at around 5am, getting a pot of Clipper’s fabulous Assam Tea with Vanilla on the go, and letting rip on my laptop. By 11am, I’ve completed a vast amount and still have the rest of the day to fit in whatever I want.

Getting up so early provides me with a natural high, elevated considerably by drinking the aforementioned black tea. With it comes inspiration, energy, and peace of mind – this approach may not be for everyone, I am aware. Sunday, for instance, is a day for lying in, yes? For someone such as myself, lounging around until 11am is time atrociously wasted. Clearly, I’m an advocate for Teaism. There have been plenty of others:

Charles Lamb, a professed devotee, sounded the true note of Teaism when he wrote that the greatest pleasure he knew was to do a good action by stealth, and to have found it by accident. For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal. It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humour itself – the smile of philosophy. All genuine humourists may in this sense be called tea-philosophers – Thackeray, for instance, and, of course, Shakespeare. The poets of the Decadence (when was not the world in decadence?), in their protests against materialism, have, to a certain extent, also opened the way to Teaism. Perhaps nowadays it is our demure contemplation of the Imperfect that the West and the East can meet in mutual consolation.

Away from the creative side, tea is a moment of simplicity in a world full of mayhem.

For a 10-30 minute spell at a time it can remove all irrelevancies from your life and allow you, as a person, to enjoy some relaxation, or to heighten your enjoyment of the positive things around you, such as listening to classical music (have a gander at 10 Glorious Classical Music Animations for inspiration there), watching a film, or playing a stimulating video game (not forgettable trash like Call of Duty, try out the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild).

Cultural moments deeply embedded in one of life’s greatest pleasures – escapism – enhanced with cheap, healthy, and mood enhancing cups of hot stuff.

In a similarly whimsical vein, Okakura concludes his first chapter:

The Taoists relate that at the great beginning of the No-Beginning, Spirit and Matter met in mortal combat. At last the Yellow Emperor, the Sun of Heaven, triumphed over Shuhyung, the demon of darkness and earth. The Titan, in his death agony, struck his head against the solar vault and shivered the blue dome of jade into fragments. The stars lost their nests, the moon wandered aimlessly among the wild chasms of the night. In despair the Yellow Emperor sought far and wide for the repairer of the Heavens. He had not to search in vain.

Out of the Eastern sea rose a queen, the divine Niuka, horn-crowned and dragon-tailed, resplendent in her armor of fire. She welded the five-coloured rainbow in her magic cauldron and rebuilt the Chinese sky. But it is told that Niuka forgot to fill two tiny crevices in the blue firmament. Thus began the dualism of love – two souls rolling through space and never at rest until they join together to complete the universe. Everyone has to build anew his sky of hope and peace.

The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through bad conscience, benevolence practised for the sake of utility. The East and West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.

II: The Schools of Tea

Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities. We have good and bad tea, as we have good and bad paintings – generally the latter. There is no single recipe for making the perfect tea, as there are no rules for producing a Titian or a Sesson. Each preparation of the leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story.

This is, indeed, correct! Most people when they make tea, particularly herbal tea, will just boil some water and hurl the teabag, or leaves, in. This is disastrous as the searing heat finishes off many of the nutrients – let the water cool for a few minutes, then add the herbal tea to a teapot. If it’s mint, for instance, add the lid back on to trap in the healthy oils. Incidentally, for herbal tea, do not add milk. We knew someone who did this once… it’s just wrong.

Tea is simple to make, but many don’t understand the intricate nature of it, a state of affairs which irritated Okakura, too:

How much do we not suffer through the constant failure of society to recognise this simple and fundamental law of art and life; Lichihlai, a Sung poet, has sadly remarked that there were three most deplorable things in the world: the spoiling of fine youths through false education, the degradation of fine paintings through vulgar admiration, and the utter waste of fine tea through incompetent manipulation.

He states the evolution of tea is set out in three eras. These are: the Boiled Tea, the Whipped Tea, and the Steeped Tea: “We moderns belong to the last school”.

These several methods of appreciating the beverage are indicative of the spirit of the age in which they prevailed. For life is an expression, our unconscious actions the constant betrayal of our innermost thought. Confucius said that ‘man hideth not.’ Perhaps we reveal ourselves too much in small things because we have so little of the great to conceal. The tiny incidents of daily routine are as much a commentary of racial ideals as the highest flight of philosophy or poetry.

This comparison between art and tea is rather interesting and he goes on to clarify:

If we were inclined to borrow the much-abused terminology of art classification, we might designate them respectively, the Classic, the Romantic, and the Naturalistic schools of Tea.

He becomes whimsical here (an endearing trait he often relies upon), calling on history as a reminder of human consumption of tea (for thousands of years).

It is alluded to in the classics under the various names of Tou, Tseh, Chung, Kha, and Ming, and was highly prized for possessing the virtues of relieving fatigue, delighting the soul, strengthening the will, and repairing the eyesight … The Taoists claimed it as an important ingredient of the elixir of immortality. The Buddhists used it extensively to prevent drowsiness during their long hours of meditation.

Apparently, in the fourth and fifth centuries of humanity, tea was a big hit with the locals in the Yangtse-Kiang valley. An ideogram (a character which symbolises something) came into creation around this time: Cha.

The poets of the southern dynasties have left some fragments of their fervent adoration of the ‘froth of the liquid jade.’ Then emperors used to bestow some rarer preparation of the leaves on their high ministers as a reward for eminent services. Yet the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Thibetans and the various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients. The use of lemon slices by the Russians, who learned to take tea from the Chinese caravansaries, points to the survival of the ancient method.

The Tang dynasty (established rather specifically on June 18th, 618 – the seventh century), which Okakura considers a period of “genius” progression, transformed the once protracted method.

From Luwuh in the middle of the eighth century we have our first apostle of tea. He was born in an age when Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were seeking mutual synthesis. The pantheistic symbolism of the time was urging one to mirror the Universal in the Particular. Luwuh, a poet, saw in the Tea-service the same harmony and order which reigned through all things. In his celebrated work, the ‘Chaking’ (The Holy Scripture of Tea) he formulated the Code of Tea. He has since been worshipped as the tutelary god of the Chinese tea merchants.

Luwuh’s book consists of three volumes and 10 chapters – some people really take their tea seriously. It does become a way of life, to the extent where robbing me of my daily cups of tea would be a great insult and would leave me feeling out of sorts. I simply cannot fathom life without it and cannot remember the last day I went without any.

Chaking would have caused a sensation at the time. Emperor Taisung (763-779) befriended Luwuh and the writer and tea fan became something of a celebrity. Time rolls on, however, and by the Sung (also known as Song) dynasty – 960 onwards – there was the whipped tea period, which provided the second school of tea evolution.

The leaves were ground to fine powder in a small stone mill, and the preparation was whipped in hot water by a delicate whisk made of split bamboo.

This led to many advances over Luwuh’s era. These steps forward included a change in tea equipment, choice of tea leaves, and salt was finally removed from the equation forever.

The enthusiasm of the Sung people for tea knew no bounds. Epicures vied with each other in discovering new varieties, and regular tournaments were held to decide their superiority. The Emperor Kiasung (1101-1124), who was too great an artist to be a well-behaved monarch, lavished his treasures on the attainment of rare species. He himself wrote a dissertation on the twenty kinds of tea, among which he prizes the ‘white tea’ as of the rarest and finest quality.

As Okakura points out: “[The Sungs] sought to actualise what their predecessors tried to symbolise.”

To the Neo-Confucian mind the cosmic law was not reflected in the phenomenal world, but the phenomenal world was the cosmic law itself. Aeons were but moments – Nirvana always within grasp. The Taoist conception that immortality lay in the eternal change permeated all their modes of thought. It was the process, not the deed, which was interesting. It was the completing, not the completion, which was really vital.

All of this ensured, due to tea, new ways of contemplating and living life were formulating in the East.

A new meaning grew into the art of life. The tea began to be not a poetical pastime, but one of the methods of self-realisation. Wangyucheng eulogised tea as ‘flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the after-taste of a good counsel.’ Sotumpa wrote of the strength of the immaculate purity in tea which defied corruption as a truly virtuous man. Among the Buddhists, the southern Zen sect, which incorporated so much of the Taoist doctrines, formulated an elaborate ritual of tea. The monks gathered before the image of Bodhi Dharma and drank tea out of a single bowl with the profound formality of a holy sacrament. It was this Zen ritual which finally developed into the Tea-ceremony of Japan in the fifteenth century.

These days, we have the steeped tea era. Add boiling (or near boiling) water to tea. Then let it do its thing. Of course, Okakura being Japanese, he notes above Chinese tea history, but indicates Japan “followed closely” in the footsteps of China during the above periods and also enjoyed the three stages of tea evolution. There’s a historical record, in 729, of the Emperor Shomu offering tea to 100 monks who had gathered at his palace.

Sung tea reached Japanese shores by 1191. During the Shogun era, the 15th century, tea rituals and ideals were well underway. As we know, Teaism is now a major deal in the country and, seemingly, only China and England hold the same regard for it. Rather proudly, it appears, Okakura goes on to state:

It is in the Japanese tea-ceremony that we see the culmination of tea-ideals. Our successful resistance of the Mongol invasion in 1281 had enabled us to carry on the Sung movement so disastrously cut off in China itself through the nomadic inroad. Tea with us became more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life … Teaism was Taoism in disguise.

III: Taoism and Zennism

The connection of Zennism with tea is proverbial. We have already remarked that the tea-ceremony was a development of the Zen ritual. The name of Laotse, the founder of Taoism, is also intimately associated with the history of tea.

Okakura laments how, by 1906, there wasn’t an accurate presentation of Buddhist religious or philosophical doctrines in the West. In 2018 this is no longer the case. And over 100 years after his essay, many Westerners are more open to taking the shift towards Buddhism. And this includes whether the person is an atheist or otherwise.

He then raises an interesting note about the problems with translations:

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade, – all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design.

I covered this recently in brief form during a review of Paulo Coelho’s the Alchemist, a novel I’m not overly fond of, but one which has proven hugely influential and a great source of inspiration for many millions. Okakura’s concern is the fundamental aspects, the most essential elements, of Buddhist philosophy and Teaism. Could we lose them to the Western world due to translations lacking linguistic verve?

As he explained in chapter II, Teaism is Taoism in disguise. This explains why those in the East took (and still take) it all so seriously – tea is another arm of Buddhism, their way of life, which assists them with finding moments of relaxation.

Laotse himself spoke of [Taoism] thus: ‘There is a thing which is all-containing, which was born before the existence of Heaven and Earth. How silent! How solitary! It strands alone and changes not. It revolves without danger to itself and is the mother of the universe. I do not know its name and so call it the Path. It is the spirit of Cosmic Change, – the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds as do the clouds. The Tao might be spoken of as the Great Transition. Subjectively it is the Mood of the Universe. Its Absolute is the Relative.’

Okakura goes on to explain Buddhist religions in greater detail, evidently due to concern the West remained completely clueless about it. His passion for the subject shines through to this day, as does his opinionated nature.

Above all we should pay homage to Taoism for what is has done to the Celestial character, giving to it a certain capacity for reserve and refinement as ‘warm as jade.’ Chinese history is full of instances in which the votaries of Taoism, princes and hermits alike, followed with varied and interesting results the teachings of their creed. The tale will not be without its quota of instruction and amusement. It will be rich in anecdotes, allegories, and aphorisms. We would fain be on speaking terms with the delightful emperor who never died because he never lived. We may ride the wind with Liehtse and find it absolutely quiet because we ourselves are the wind, or dwell in mid-air with the Aged One of the Hoang-Ho, who lived betwixt Heaven and Earth because he was subject to neither the one nor the other. Even in that grotesque apology for Taoism which we find in China at the present day, we can revel in a wealth of imagery impossible to find in any other cult.

He states:

Taoism accepts the mundane as it is and, unlike the Confucians and Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry.

There’s a comparison for life and art here, again, as the enthusiastic writer was keen to make clear:

These Taoists’ ideas have greatly influenced all our theories of action, even to those of fencing and wrestling. Jiu-jitsu, the Japanese art of self-defence, owes its name to a passage in the Tao-teiking. In jiu-jitsu, one seeks to draw out and exhaust the enemy’s strength by non-resistance, vacuum, while conserving one’s own strength for victory in the final struggle. In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up to the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

Zennism, Okakura states, “emphasises the teachings of Taoism”. He runs through its history and concludes with:

Zennism, like Taoism, is the worship of Relativity. One master defines Zen as the art of feeling the polar star in the southern sky. Truth can be reached only through the comprehension of opposites. Again, Zennism like Taoism, is a strong advocate of individualism.

From my perspective, you don’t need to be spiritual or religious to enjoy tea as its properties ensure some peace of mind and nourishment regardless. It’s an interesting stance to promote, however, the merger of Teaism with Buddhist rituals – meditation, yoga etc. Okakura concludes his chapter with the following succinct summary:

The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life. Taoism furnished the basis for aesthetic ideals, Zennism made them practical.

IV: The Tea Room

In the West we have cafés, a tea-room if you will, which in Japan is a Sukiya – a synonym is chashitsu (茶室). Over in the East, that’s where the tea-ceremony takes place. In the West, you usually get a teapot crammed with the stuff and you’re left to your devices.

This chapter is about Japanese architecture, which is markedly different from most of the rest of the developed world. The use of wood and bamboo “seems scarcely worthy to be ranked as architecture”, the writer muses.

The tea-room does not pretend to be other than a mere cottage – a straw hut, as we call it. The original ideographs for Sukiya mean the Abode of Fancy. Latterly the various tea-masters substituted various Chinese characters according to their conception of the tea-room, and the term Sukiya may signify the Abode of Vacancy or the Abode of the Unsymmetrical. It is an Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse. It is an Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is devoid of ornamentation except for what may be placed in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment. It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving some thing unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete. The ideals of Teaism have since the sixteenth century influenced our architecture to such a degree that the ordinary Japanese interior of the present day, on account of the extreme simplicity and chasteness of its scheme of decoration, appears to foreigners almost barren.

Okakura states the first tea-room came about in the sixteenth century by Senno-Soyeki, “the greatest of all tea-masters.” All those years ago, this one guy perfected the tea-ceremony and this has been in play ever since. As our writer has already mentioned, the tea-room is entirely different to how we in England, for example, would go about it. As he freely acknowledges, the Japanese tea-room also differs enormously from classic national architecture. This is, simply put, due to the need for simplicity the tea-ceremony demands.

All of our great tea-masters were students of Zen and attempted to introduce the spirit of Zennism into the actualities of life. Thus the room, like the other equipments of the tea-ceremony, reflects many of the Zen doctrines.

The orthodox tea-room consists of four mats and a half – ten feet square – which is a requirement determined by a piece of literature: “a passage in the Sutra of Vikramaditya.” Again, it’s a stripped-down room with an emphasis on solitude and “utter loneliness” – it blocks out external noise and sights in the attempt to remove whatever is currently vexing. In modern times, this doesn’t mean you need to live with a garden – even somewhere as crowded as New York city offers up areas of extreme solitude amidst the mass of bustling bodies.

What is lacking from the above clip is the traditional roji, which is essential for tea-master status. This is the garden path which leads up to the tea-room from the machiai (a small area for guests to wait until they’re cleared to enter the tea-house). For a tea-master like Senno-Soyeki, this ancient poem explains the process:

I look beyond;

Flowers are not,

Nor tinted leaves.

On the sea beach

A solitary cottage stands

In the waning light

Of an autumn eve.

It’s an elongated haiku, then, although tea-masters such as Kobori-Enshiu attempted different approaches to the roji and believed this verse to be the perfect influencer:

A cluster of summer trees,

A bit of the sea,

A pale evening moon.

As Okakura evocatively puts it:

He wished to create the attitude of a newly-awakened soul still lingering amid shadowy dreams of the past, yet bathing in the sweet unconsciousness of a mellow spiritual light, and yearning for the freedom that lay in the expanse beyond.

Each tea-house has a different roji, of course, so the intended effect is down to the owner. Whatever route the owner takes with this design, the guest will approach the tea-house silently (back in the past, samurai would even take their sword off outside). The doorway, barely three feet tall, would require a bit of bending and then the tea-enthusiast(s) would be inside.

The host will not enter the room until all the guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the kettle. The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or a soughing of pines on some far away hill.

Now, this sort of silence is highly awkward in Western society, particularly in England. I get the feeling, say, in America, it would just be impossible – the exuberant nature of its citizens means constant chatter is about. Back in England, people would sit in silence if asked, but there embarrassed foot shuffling and nervous coughs would remain. Perhaps someone a bit older, attempting to break the tension in the air, would say, “Gosh, isn’t this super?” or some such. Still, it’s great to see the Japanese can manage this with cool aplomb – after all, why is some peace and quite abnormal?

In addition to the above demands, the tea-room must be absolutely clean. Okakura goes as far to state even a particle of dust would mean the host is not a tea-master! Moody lighting is also essential (as discussed by another great Japanese writer, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, during the 20th century – check out In Praise of Shadows) in order to assist with dimmed lighting:

That the tea-room should be built to suit some individual taste is an enforcement of the principle of vitality in art. Art, to be fully appreciated, must be true to contemporaneous life. It is not that we should ignore the creations of the past, but that we should try to assimilate them into our consciousness. Slavish conformity to traditions and formulas fetters the expression of individuality in architecture.

In his conclusion to this chapter, Okakura reiterates the nature of Teaism, this time as it permeates its way into architecture:

The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world. There and there alone can one consecrate himself to undisturbed adoration of the beautiful … Nowadays industrialism is making true refinement more and more difficult all over the world. Do we not need the tea-room more than ever?

V: Art Appreciation

Having dedicated myself to studying literature over the last two decades, art is a topic I’m only just beginning to pick up, so this chapter was rather intriguing. Okakura begins it with a summary of the fable called the Taming of the Harp. In this, a musician named Pai Ya is able to play a special harp crafted out of the finest wood in the land – when asked how he achieves what all else could not, Pai Ya informs his followers he let the harp choose the music; he remains unsure if he was playing the harp, or if the harp was playing him. Okakura states:

The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.

In other words, when we view a vibrant piece of art, and the viewer receives stimulation from this, we can connect with it in harmony.

In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: ‘In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgement matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.’

The writer does mention art regularly throughout the Book of Tea and it’s clearly an extension of Teaism for him, being a cultural delight he held in the highest esteem.

Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in art. At the moment of meeting, the art lover transcends himself. At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has not tongue. Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece something sacred.

Whilst it’s tempting to correct Okakura with modern sensibilities (he/she, humankind etc.), his enthusiasm for art is very endearing. He also laments, bearing in mind the age of his essay, the changes in social attitudes of his day and age – this isn’t some right-winger banging on about “back in t’olden days”, as he does raise a solid point.

It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful.

This would certainly go some way to explain the popularity of the horror story that is rap “music” here in 2017. For Okukara, his sights are also set rather firmly in the past.

We should be foolish indeed if we valued [artists from antiquity] achievements simply on the score of age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when the artist is safely laid to his grave.

He concludes the chapter:

The art of today is that which really belongs to us: it is our reflection. In condemning it we but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses no art: who is responsible for this? It is a shame that despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients we pay so little attention to our own possibilities. Struggling artists, weary souls lingering in the shadow of cold disdain! … We are destroying art in destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose strings would resound to the touch of genius.

VI: Flowers

In the trembling grey of a spring dawn, when the birds were whispering in mysterious cadence among the trees, have you not felt that they were talking to their mates about the flowers?

Continuing on with his interest in natural aesthetics, our emotive writer remains in a passionate frame of mind.

Where better than in a flower, sweet in its unconsciousness, fragrant because of its silence, can we image the unfolding of a virgin soul? The primeval man in offering the first garland to his maiden thereby transcended the brute. He became human in thus rising above the crude necessities of nature. He entered the realm of art when he perceived the subtle use of the useless.

He opines: “In joy or sadness, flowers are our constant friends. We eat, drink, sing, dance, and flirt with them.” In modern times, flowers are still a regular part of life, but they’re something of an afterthought for many people (myself included) – I have been ignorant on the subject, perhaps more conscious of it as a child when romping about in fields and whatnot, but these days I don’t have the time to stop and stare at some daffodils. Okakura would no doubt chastise me for this state of affairs.

Their serene tenderness restores to us our waning confidence in the universe even as the intent gaze of a beautiful child recalls our lost hopes. When we are laid low in the dust it is they who linger in sorrow over our graves.

He opines some more, clearly troubled by the destructive nature of humanity.

Sad as it is, we cannot conceal the fact that in spite of our companionship with flowers we have not risen very far above the brute. Scratch the sheepskin and the wolf within us will soon show his teeth. It has been said that man at ten is an animal, at twenty a lunatic, at thirty a failure, at forty a fraud, and at fifty a criminal. Perhaps he becomes a criminal because he has never ceased to be an animal. Nothing is real to us but hunger, nothing sacred except our own desires.

He goes on to state: “Much may be in favour of him who cultivates plants”:

The man of the pot is far more humane than he of the scissors.

You’re welcome to join in as well, ladies. Don’t feel left out!

The ideal lover of flowers is he who visits them in their native haunts, like Taoyuenming [a celebrated Chinese poet and philosopher], who sat before a broken bamboo fence in converse with the wild chrysanthemum, or Linwosing, losing himself amid mysterious fragrance as he wandered in the twilight among the plum-blossoms of the Western lake.

He goes on to indicate flowers are regularly used by tea-masters to replicate art through life.

When a tea-master has arranged a flower to his satisfaction he will place it on the tokonoma, the place of honour in a Japanese room. Nothing else will be placed near it which might interfere with its effect, not even a painting, unless there be some special aesthetic reason for the combination. It rests there like an enthroned prince, and the guests or disciples on entering the room will salute it with a profound bow before making their addresses to the host … When the flower fades, the master tenderly consigns it to the river or carefully buries it in the ground. Monuments even are sometimes erected to their memory.

The arrival of what he calls the “Art of Flower Arrangement” was simultaneous with Teaism around the 15th century. By the 17th century, Flower-Masters had become prominent and it was a skill as revered as any great tea-master, with Japanese artistic styles such as Ukiyo-e and Shijo influenced by both.

The former is arguably most famous and features famous woodblock prints such as Katsushika Hokusai’s legendary Great Wave off Kanagawa. This depiction of a giant wave (not a tsunami, as many people often believe) came about due to the Naturalesque and Formalistic schools of art.

This is where idealism and nature merge with Japanese cultural history – Teaism and minimalist ceremonies, such as flower arrangement.

Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

As Okakura is again keen to point out, understatement and modesty are virtues.

Let us not be too sentimental. Let us be less luxurious but more magnificent.

He concludes his notes on flowers with the following sentiment.

Some flowers glory in death – certainly the Japanese cherry blossoms do, as they freely surrender themselves to the winds. Anyone who has stood before the fragrant avalanche at Yoshino or Arashiyama must have realised this. For a moment they hover like bejeweled clouds and dance above the crystal streams; then, as they sail away on the laughing waters, they seem to say: ‘Farewell, Spring! We are on to Eternity.’

VII: Tea-Masters

In religion the Future is behind us. In art the Present is the eternal. The tea-masters held that real appreciation  of art is only possible to those who make of it a living influence. Thus they sought to regulate their daily life by the high standard of refinement which obtained in the tea-room.

In this short final chapter, Okakura finally reaches his thoughts and feelings on the legendary tea-masters. Am I a tea-master? Certainly not by Japanese standards, I don’t think he’d agree with my habit of sitting about drinking tea amongst my gadgets and with a pet hamster hurtling around in the background. Full respect to this noble tradition – perhaps I should try to rid all the external nonsense when consuming tea. As he notes:

In all circumstances serenity of mind should be maintained, and conversation should be so conducted as never to mar the harmony of the surroundings … Thus the tea-master strove to be something more than the artist, – art itself. It was the Zen of aestheticism. Perfection is everywhere if we only choose to recognise it.

Of the tea-masters, then, we have a man who held them in the highest of regards. He attributes much of the greatness of Japan to their sterling efforts.

Manifold indeed have been the contributions of the tea-master to art … All the celebrated gardens of Japan were laid out by the tea-masters. Our pottery would probably never have attained its high quality of excellence if the tea-masters had not lent to it their inspiration, the manufacture of the utensils use in the tea-ceremony calling forth the utmost expenditure of ingenuity on the part of our ceramists.

He adds their importance extends far beyond art:

Great as has been the influence of the tea-masters in the field of art, it is as nothing compared to that which they have exerted on the conduct of life. Not only in the usages of polite society, but also in the arrangement of all our domestic details, do we feel the presence of the tea-masters … They have given emphasis to our natural love of simplicity, and shown us the beauty of humility. In fact, through their teachings tea has entered the life of the people.

He then lands a prescient statement which could be true of any age, but seems particularly well suited to life here in 2017 where money and power are all that seem to matter:

Those of us who know not the secret of properly regulating our own existence on this tumultuous sea of foolish troubles which we call life are constantly in a state of misery while vainly trying to appear happy and contented.

He adds:

He only who has lived with the beautiful can die beautifully. The last moments of the great tea-masters were as full of exquisite refinement as had been their lives. Seeking always to be in harmony with the great rhythm of the universe, they were ever prepared to enter the unknown. The ‘Last Tea of Rikiu’ will stand forth for ever as the acme of tragic grandeur.

To be clear on Rikiu (also known as Sen no Rikyū, but Rikiu is the spelling in the Penguin edition I’ve used for this post), he was the tea-master for the feudal warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi who, after a difference of opinion, ordered Rikiu to commit ritual suicide. Of this, Okakura states:

The friendship of a despot is ever a dangerous honour. It was an age rife with treachery, and men trsuted not even their nearest kin.

Hideyoshi’s enemies had spread a rumour Rikiu would murder the warlord by poison during a tea-ceremony. As it was in 1591, “suspicion was sufficient ground for instant execution.” After this, one last wish went the way of the unfortunate man. He chose to die by self-immolation.

Rikiu held an exquisite tea-ceremony and invited his closest disciples. Of his tea bowl, he insisted on keeping it, apparently saying: “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man.” He then broke this cup into fragments, ending the ceremony.

The ceremony is over; the guests with difficulty restraining their tears, take their last farewell and leave the room. One only, the nearest and dearest, is requested to remain and witness the end. Rikiu then removes his tea-gown and carefully folds it upon the mat, thereby disclosing the immaculate white death robe which it had hitherto concealed. Tenderly he gazes on the shining blade of the fatal dagger, and in exquisite verse thus addresses it:

‘Welcome to thee,

O sword of eternity!

Through Buddha

And through Dharuma alike

Thou hast cleft thy way.’

With a smile upon his face Rikiu passed forth into the unknown.

A Teaist Conclusion

It may be over 100 years old, but the Book of Tea is a treatise for everything glorious about tea consumption. Public opinion may have shifted, and coffee become the favoured beverage of those on the go, but there remains in tea a historic record of how to find moments of delight in day-to-day life.

Kakuzō Okakura’s fabulous essay expounds on it all and provides an essential insight into why many people turn tea into a way of life. His essay is also a call to humanity for a sense of humility and the need for simplicity – now, at a time when excess is hailed as the route to happiness, this is more essential than ever.

Ultimately, even if you’re not interested in drinking tea, you’ll find here a spirited and challenging piece of writing which captures a turning moment in history when globalisation was about to peak its head over the horizon, bringing with it far-flung new fancies which have enlightened the West to new possibilities and a way of life.

Addendum: Tea & I

My tea collection

Any tea addict will be precious about their tea collection, as I am (note the image – to be clear about the above, I just finished a job and my colleagues bought me a load of tea as a “good riddance!” gift).

For clarity purposes, there are two types of this stuff – your normal green, white, or black teas, and then there’s the herbal tea lot. The latter, strange concoctions mixing otherworldly delights such as ginger, nettle, cinnamon, mint, and dandelion may seem too bizarre to behold. But humans have used these herbs for thousands of years to support health and well-being.

In India, it’s known as Ayurvedic medicine. Simply put, it works! Ginger or mint, for instance, will ease stomach upsets, whilst dandelion or nettle will cleanse your whole system. You can combine these for fabulous concoctions – nettle and mint together remain remarkable in their ability to soothe digestion and provide a lift.

Arguably Britain’s finest writer of the 20th century, and certainly the most influential, was George Orwell. In an essay for the Evening Standard on 12 January 1946 called A Nice Cup of Tea, he explains his process of making the ideal “cuppa” (as the horrible term goes here in the UK). A fastidious man, Orwell was incredibly specific with his instructions, which really highlights how seriously we Brits take our tea (even if many of us have defected to coffee like seditious fools):

Tea – unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

I suppose I share the same meticulous approach – although I don’t ever have sugar or milk with my tea, I prefer it to be in a large mug and, when making at home, a teapot is essential to place the lid over the steeping teabag and trap in those healthy oils, nutrients, and ghosts of Teaists from days gone by.

I’ll conclude with the following – if you’re currently not into tea, it’s never too late to take it up. In the UK, my favourite brands are Clipper, Pukka, and Yogi – from Clipper, you’ll find the truly remarkable Assam Tea with Vanilla (31/12/2018: It’s now, sadly, defunct). This is my favourite tea ever and one which I have twice daily, the one I drink at 5am on a Saturday whilst writing nonsense, and the one I’ve become infatuated with.

Those brands are entirely organic, ethical, and also provide a wide range of herbal teas which are quite remarkable, frankly, and crammed full of health benefits. It’s an inspired world to step into, so why not give it a whirl?

8 replies to “Kakuzō Okakura: The Book of Tea

  1. Alex, you have done a marvelous review of Kakuzo Okakura: The Book of Tea.
    I knew some, but learned lots. I love the history, and all the philosophy and esthetics of art and architecture.
    Your review is elegant, yet down to earth.
    I do like tea. I have a collection of herbals. The only time I’ve been to an actual tea house, I had a Vanilla Earl Grey. It was delicious.
    Okay, I’ll make a tea date with myself! I’ll see if I can buy your suggested tea here in Canada. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanking you muchly, madam! It was supposed to be much shorter, but then I got a bit involved with all the history stuff. I’m currently binge watching Friends on Netflix. Who’d have thought Matthew Perry led an invasion?!

      I highly recommend the tea I banged on about here. It’s life changing. For some people. Earl Grey is excellent, too. You have yourself a super weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

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