“Tea is a religion of the art of life.”

-Okakura Kakuzo

Okakura Kakuzō’s The Book of Tea revealed one of Japan’s most sophisticated practices, the tea ceremony, to the Western world. Published in 1906 in New York and originally written in English, the book describes the ritual which, for its author, implied an entire philosophy of life and art, one related intimately to mental discipline and a love for the natural world.

After a brief history of tea and the practices surrounding it, Okakura discusses a movement known as chadō, literally teaism. Described by the writer as a “Taoism in disguise,” the movement accepts an implied cult of beauty which, in turn, permeates art, architecture, and even gardening, within the larger Japanese culture. Okakura thus relates the tea ceremony with Zen and one of its more complex concepts: the importance of emptiness (synthesized in the Japanese term ma and later one of the theoretical seeds of minimalism in art). Asymmetry, the nature of which is encountered within the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, also plays an important role in chadō aesthetics, representing beauty in nature and its many forms.

Later in the book, Okakura describes the traditional tea house. Here, the concept of emptiness is equally paramount. The space, influenced by Zen monasteries, should represent a kind of refined poverty, the aesthetics of which reflect humility, peace and, above all, discretion. The book closes with a chapter on the Masters of Tea, key characters within the ceremony and all of the philosophy that emerges from that same ceremony.

Written for a Western audience, The Book of Tea raises the possibility of harmonious coexistence between East and West. For Okakura, the tea and the deep beauty of its simplicity are among the greatest gifts the two worlds could share. The book in the end also reflects Okakura’s own duality. Born in Japan, he was educated in the English tradition at his father’s insistence and eventually went to live in the United States. There he struck up a friendly intellectual relationship with the poet and scholar of Japanese culture, Ernest Fenollosa. Although he wasn’t able to read Japanese, during his time in America, Okakura always wore a kimono as a way of preserving the essence of his culture and of sharing it with the world (as he did also through his writing). This duality is reflected, sometimes surreptitiously, in his commentaries within the book, which reflect his clear displeasure at the way in which Japan and its culture had been treated by the West prior to then.

The Book of Tea, written after his two earlier treatises on Japanese culture, was to play a key role in the Orientalist movement in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. It influenced the imaginations  and work of great artists and writers of the period, among them T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The writer put forth, within the pages of this curious book, two great lessons. The first explains, with the  thoroughness of the Eastern spirit, that the tea ceremony is a way of life, and moreover, a way of thinking and being. Against this background, he also knew that a generous translation into another culture of the ritual and its philosophy would represent an invaluable gift to the lovers of beauty from any place and epoch.

 

 

 

Image: Public domain

“Tea is a religion of the art of life.”

-Okakura Kakuzo

Okakura Kakuzō’s The Book of Tea revealed one of Japan’s most sophisticated practices, the tea ceremony, to the Western world. Published in 1906 in New York and originally written in English, the book describes the ritual which, for its author, implied an entire philosophy of life and art, one related intimately to mental discipline and a love for the natural world.

After a brief history of tea and the practices surrounding it, Okakura discusses a movement known as chadō, literally teaism. Described by the writer as a “Taoism in disguise,” the movement accepts an implied cult of beauty which, in turn, permeates art, architecture, and even gardening, within the larger Japanese culture. Okakura thus relates the tea ceremony with Zen and one of its more complex concepts: the importance of emptiness (synthesized in the Japanese term ma and later one of the theoretical seeds of minimalism in art). Asymmetry, the nature of which is encountered within the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, also plays an important role in chadō aesthetics, representing beauty in nature and its many forms.

Later in the book, Okakura describes the traditional tea house. Here, the concept of emptiness is equally paramount. The space, influenced by Zen monasteries, should represent a kind of refined poverty, the aesthetics of which reflect humility, peace and, above all, discretion. The book closes with a chapter on the Masters of Tea, key characters within the ceremony and all of the philosophy that emerges from that same ceremony.

Written for a Western audience, The Book of Tea raises the possibility of harmonious coexistence between East and West. For Okakura, the tea and the deep beauty of its simplicity are among the greatest gifts the two worlds could share. The book in the end also reflects Okakura’s own duality. Born in Japan, he was educated in the English tradition at his father’s insistence and eventually went to live in the United States. There he struck up a friendly intellectual relationship with the poet and scholar of Japanese culture, Ernest Fenollosa. Although he wasn’t able to read Japanese, during his time in America, Okakura always wore a kimono as a way of preserving the essence of his culture and of sharing it with the world (as he did also through his writing). This duality is reflected, sometimes surreptitiously, in his commentaries within the book, which reflect his clear displeasure at the way in which Japan and its culture had been treated by the West prior to then.

The Book of Tea, written after his two earlier treatises on Japanese culture, was to play a key role in the Orientalist movement in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. It influenced the imaginations  and work of great artists and writers of the period, among them T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The writer put forth, within the pages of this curious book, two great lessons. The first explains, with the  thoroughness of the Eastern spirit, that the tea ceremony is a way of life, and moreover, a way of thinking and being. Against this background, he also knew that a generous translation into another culture of the ritual and its philosophy would represent an invaluable gift to the lovers of beauty from any place and epoch.

 

 

 

Image: Public domain