The Book of Teaby Kakuzo Okakura
“A seminal guide to Asian life and thought. . . . Very highly recommended.”—Midwest Book Review
The classic 1906 essay on tea drinking, its history, aesthetics, and deep connection to Japanese culture. Kakuzo Okakura felt “Teaism” could influence the world: “Tea with us becomes more than an idealisation of the/i>… See more details below
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“A seminal guide to Asian life and thought. . . . Very highly recommended.”—Midwest Book Review
The classic 1906 essay on tea drinking, its history, aesthetics, and deep connection to Japanese culture. Kakuzo Okakura felt “Teaism” could influence the world: “Tea with us becomes more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life.”
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In one of the most often quoted passages in Japanese literature, the poet Basho wrote at the beginning of his
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 animal heart and mind, to become one with nature.
At first glance it may seem peculiar to the Western mind that one of Japan's greatest poets would equate the simple tea ceremony with the best classical verse and painting. It's not exactly like comparing a perfect latte with an exquisite painting by Morris Graves or Van Gogh, but the comparison serves to present Zen mind at its best. One may address any art form by considering
"right mindfulness" and "right practice" essential to any art; thus, the art of making coffee and the art of painting are direct expression of mindfulness and practice. The "simplicity" of the tea ceremony is as complex as the richest painting or poem, and like painting and poetry, the ceremony draws upon centuries of tradition in order to arrive at what is fully present. Nearly a hundred years ago, Okakura Kakuzo wrote:
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. We stagger in the attempt to keep our moral equilibrium, and see forererunners of the tempest in every cloud that floats on the horizon. Yet there is a joy and beauty in the roll of the billows as they sweep outward toward eternity. Why not enter into their spirit, or like Liehtse, ride upon the hurricane itself? He only who has lived with the beautiful can die beautifully.
"die beautifully" is to makes one's life a part of a greater work of art.
"Beauty and ugliness have origins," Lao Tzu warns, and they are less a matter of received opinion than a consequence of acting upon whatever is already within each of us. While Western materialist culture declares that certain paintings are worth millions of dollars, Zen reminds us that the masterpiece is temporal, and that Hui Neng (638–713), the sixth patriarch of Zen,
expressed his enlightenment by burning an image of the Awakened One. Zen mind rings with quiet laughter. "Have a cup of tea!" Or, "Paint the sound of the wind in the pines!"
Speaking of art appreciation, Okakura writes, "Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece. The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message, as the artist must know to impart it." The artist, the painting, and its audience are not three things,
The founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect and one of the earliest importers of
Chinese tea seeds, Kukai (774–835), taught that Buddhism contained all of the essential elements of both Taoism and Confucianism, and he made the tea ceremony an expression of nature in an evanescent existence. Yet despite his interest, the tea ceremony remained an obscure Buddhist practice for several hundred more years. Kukai was a renowned artist, calligrapher, and Sanskrit scholar, whose view of Buddhism was simultaneously scholarly and religious. He insisted upon learning directly from the Sanskrit in order achieve the "true word" (shingon), containing absolute truth. Other forms of Buddhism, he believed, treated only "illnesses of the mind." For Kukai, tea was probably considered a healthful and good ceremonial drink, but his religious practice was rooted in study, not in simple ceremony.
born in the interaction of Buddhism with Taoism in sixth century China, was said to be "transmission outside scripture—no dependence upon written words; pointing directly within, seeing one's own nature, attaining
Buddhahood." The practice of sitting meditation eliminates dualistic thinking such as subject/object or true/false. Hui Neng insisted upon "silent,
solitary self-illumination," and advocated
or "sitting" as the key. Zen, then, remains much more a school of philosophy than a conventional religion. And that certainly has been a part of its appeal in the West: one may practice Zen while remaining a devout Jew,
Catholic, or atheist. There is no religious conflict because the practice of
Zen does not address whether or not there is a god, nor does it pass judgment on religious texts. Zen mind is "ordinary everyday mind," and the tea ceremony is, like the garden or planting rice or working at a desk, refined but commonplace, a ritual performed not as an emblem, but as useful in and of itself. Bringing Zen mind to the task at hand, every detail of every task becomes simple and luminous. The tea ceremony becomes art, a ceremony performed not as a symbol or allegory, but as the ultimate expression of the here-and-now in which Zen practice is rooted. In many ways, tea mind resembles
Basho's advice to poets, "Learn all the rules, then forget them." He doesn't mean to throw out the rules of composition; rather, he means to learn the tradition so thoroughly that one becomes at one with tradition. For Basho,
haiku mind, tea mind, and painting mind are all merely aspects of Zen practice—the consciousness of the artist opened through years of sitting daily.
In the twelfth century, the Zen monk Eisai, founder of the Rinzai Zen sect (named after Lin Chi, d. 866), returned from studying Buddhism in China and planted tea seeds on the temple grounds. He wrote Japan's first tea book,
(Drinking Tea for Health), and became the man most often credited with beginning the tea industry. Although Eisai did much to promote tea, once again the tea ceremony apparently did not take hold except in early Rinzai monasteries. Today, we know that many of Eisai's claims for the healthfulness of green tea have proven true. Modern research suggests it helps prevent cancer, lowers cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and helps to control high blood pressure.
it wasn't until Zen master Rikyu codified the tea ceremony in the fourteenth century that it became inextricably bound to Zen. The tea ceremony has remained relatively unchanged over the last 500 years. Simplicity is the rule:
simple tools, simple surroundings, no noise, no unnecessary chit-chat, no clutter. Each motion requires a clear, attentive mind. The tea room or tea house avoids any note of ostentation. It is made of common materials. The tools, the table, the teapot, and the ornament—all must be humble and harmonious. The whisk is simple bamboo, the pot iron. Each part of tea practice is like the mind of the art aficionado, becoming a small part of the greater whole. A flower, twig or scroll reflects the season and an ink painting may contain haiku, but there is no religious tract, no philosophy.
Each gesture, like all the materials involved, is reduced to the essential.
Kakuzo was born into a merchant family in Yokohama in 1862, and he began studying English in his infancy. While studying economics and law at Tokyo
Imperial University in 1877, he came under the influence of Ernest Fenollosa, a
Boston professor who had gone to Japan to teach political economics only to become an impassioned student of Japanese and Chinese art. The young Okakura worked diligently with Fenollosa and a small group of fellow enthusiasts to preserve Japanese art during a frenzy of Westernization in which treasures such as the art of Hokusai and Hiroshige were destroyed. Fenollosa's notes on classical Chinese poetry, made in Tokyo with the assistance of two Japanese professors, Mori and Ariga, became the source for Ezra Pound's translations,
one of the most important volumes of poetry in the last century. Fenollosa and
Okakura immersed themselves in classical Asian poetry and art, each teaching the other.
1902, on a trip to India and China, Okakura met and exchanged ideas with the
Nobel poet Rabindranath Tagore, who reinforced Okakura's notions of Asian philosophy being the perfect counterpoint to Western materialism. Their conversations resulted in Okakura's first publication in English,
Ideals of the East
(1904), shortly before he completed
Book of Tea
Boston, where he became Curator of the Department of Chinese and Japanese Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He spent the last years of his life traveling extensively, especially in Asia, collecting and cataloguing art until his death at Akakura Hot Springs in the Japan Alps in 1913.
Kakuzo possessed an expansive imagination and a notably eccentric manner, as well as a passion for art and learning. A century—or very nearly so—after the writing of the first Asian tea manual in America, we would do well to keep in mind the historical perspective of some of his comments. His apology for
Japanese nationalism, for instance, was written at a time when Japan and Russia were quarreling and two decades before Hirohito's ascension to the throne.
"The tea room," Okakura observed, "was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travelers could meet to drink from the common spring of art-appreciation." Behind the tea ceremony, he saw the long traditions of
Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen blossoming as one, including even "the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself." And why was such import placed within the arena of such a brief, simple drama? "Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves," Okakura writes in an almost exact quotation from
Confucius, "are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others."
Book of Tea
is a classic. Nearly a hundred years after it was written, it remains the one
English language masterpiece on the subject. While the author's substantial contribution to the salvation and appreciation of Asian art is largely forgotten in the West, his little book on the history and culture of tea has been read by generation after generation. But it would be foolish to think of his book as only a treatise on tea. It has and will continue to be a classic in part because of its author's insights into Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen. In
Japan Okakura is still revered, known not by his family name, but simply as
Tenshin, "Heaven Heart/Mind."
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