Published in 1906, Okakura’s ‘Book of Tea’ espouses that tea is the foundation for a system of life, a philosophy, and it’s associated benefits all conspire to bring together that which is fundamental, holistically and spiritually. From Taoist and Zen upbringings, Teaism (not a typo!) comes with an admixture of the two as a world-philosophy, disposition and mindset. Being in the here and now and as Okakura writes: ‘The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.’ (308) And beyond the philosophy which is the works pertinence, we are given a glimpse of the importance of the things of everyday life and how they should be approached, also we get both an education in tea-making and architecture.
It’s a pretty neat, quick, read if you have any interest in Eastern Philosophy / Religion.
Broken into brief segments the work includes:
1. The Cup of Humanity.
2. The Schools of Tea.
3. Taoism and Zennism.
4. The Tea Room.
5. Art Appreciation.
The work begins with Okakura’s reaction of the end of Japanese Isolationism (mid-1600’s to mid-1800’s), the bemuddled feeling of the people when they’ve realized that their governments xenophobia has led them to all sorts of bizarre conceptions and contrarily, that Westerners also have laid many poor misconceptions upon the Japanese people. However, the binding, humanitarian element throughout the discourse between the east and west, the thing that weaves together our humanity, has been the reverence and esteem toward good tea – ‘The white man has scoffed at our religion and our morals, but has accepted the brown beverage without hesitation.’ (53), since at least 1610 when the Dutch East India Company brought tea first to Europe.
The second part of the work deals with the beginnings of tea. It focuses on preparation: boiled (Sang), whipped (Tong) and steeped (Ming) - (100). Okakura acknowledges that the Western world is bereft of the prior two methods because Europe entered the picture at the end of the Ming Dynasty (in China: 1368-1644). He elaborates on the preparation methods, detailing them finely and with the care one would expect of a teaist.
The third segment of the book brings about a discussion regarding Taoism and it’s component philosophies as they relate to both enhancing characteristics of Zen and Confucianism, the major players in, then, Eastern philosophy / religion. The major tenants include: present-mindedness, laughter at absurdity, an easy demeanor and path, way, means, mode… of being, existing, in the world.
The fourth section puts on display the tea-room and it introduces the tea ceremony. Much time is given the architectural process and much thought put into criticizing Western architecture for using oft repeated styles and this is usually coupled with, upon strolling the inside, a lack of modesty so great as it regards material matter, that one is stricken by its indecency. Whereas the tea-room was a small, non-descript, humility begging structure, which may have one or two decorations and seat no more than usually 5 at a time. A very intimate gathering, and one full of custom as Okakura goes on to explain in the sixth section during his analysis of the use of flowers during the tea ceremony.
Sections 5 and 6 are brief and deal mainly with what truly appreciating the respective titles means (art, flowers) and their usefulness and symbolism in Japanese culture, and specifically as it may relate to the tea rooms. Here is learned a snippet of some of Japan’s earliest competitive decorative florists: the Ikenobos (Formalistic School)! But Okakura finds that to be a topic which would be too long discussed and probably insubstantiate a work about tea.
The work concludes with a summary of how a tea-master lives his life and directs his abilities. There is found here much accreditation, justly due, to the inventions of Japans tea-masters.
‘Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.’ (3)
‘… scarcely any attention has been drawn to Teaism, which represents so much of our Art of Life.’ (24)
‘Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal.’ (78)
‘Teaism was Taoism in disguise.’ (192)
‘People are not taught to be really virtuous, but to behave properly. We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious.’ (229)
‘How can one be serious with the world when the world itself is so ridiculous!’ (231)
‘But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe, - our particular idiosyncrasies dictate the mode of our perceptions.’ (505)