Okakura Kakuzō

The Book of Tea

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. . . It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect.”

If I were to parse the emotion that sings along with this book, it would be one of expansion, an emptying and an openness. Words beyond our Western canon, some presence of a maternal force, an eternal. The Book of Tea is a supple and urgent exposition on the aestheticism of the Japanese tea ceremony and its deep roots in Japanese culture and faiths.

The Tao literally means a Path. It has been severally translated as the Way, the Absolute, the Law, Nature, Supreme Reason, the Mode. Laotse himself spoke of it thus: “There is a thing which is all-containing, which was born before the existence of Heaven and Earth. How silent! How solitary! It stands alone and it changes not. It revolves without danger to itself and it is the mother of the universe. I do not know its name so I call it the Path. With reluctance I call it the Infinite.

Teaism, as explained by Scholar Okakura Kakuzō1 (February 14, 1863 – September 2, 1913) is a philosophy that developed as a way to adhere and revere aspects of the Japanese religious traditions.

The long isolation of Japan from the rest of the world, so conducive to introspection, has been highly favourable to the development of Teaism. Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting—our very literature—all have been subject to its influence.

Okakura wrote The Book of Tea in English to acquaint the West with the harmony, purity, and mystery of this century-honored ritual. As te author noticed, the West was eager to drink the drink but fell short of appreciating the philosophy that formed it.

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of the little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea-ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him.

tea and poetry
Silver canisters of Fortnum & Mason blended teas. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Okakura draws out the deep humanity of Teaism and argues within it can be found many features that fortify our nature:

The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole 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 is Teasism’s connection to humanity, to nature, and to ourselves that allows us to slip into a balance, into serenity. It is, taken in deep reverence, empowering of pause and stillness.

With ceremony and ritual we grab time and wring it dry of urgency.

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. The truly beautiful must be always in it.

As a hopeless tea enthusiast, I find this abundant love for the individuality of tea, the personal selection, the lack of pomposity exactly appropriate.1

Blending history, anecdote, imaginative metaphors, and the close relationship between tea and flowers, to the selection and development of tea-masters, to the variation of flavors and tastes.

Tea in Morocco. Featured in Okakura's "Book of Tea" in the Examined Life Library.
Tea in Morocco. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“The quality that we call beauty,” wrote Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, “must always grow from the realities of life.” Like Tanizaki’s appraisal of Japanese aesthetics, Okakura’s writing is steeped in exquisite, poetic metaphor.

Those of us who know not the secret of properly regulating our own existence on this tumultuous sea of foolish troubles 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 we see forerunners of the tempest in every cloud… Yet there is 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?

Teaism isn’t about stepping outside life or habit, it is life and habit, akin to Mary Oliver’s quest to “stay forever in the stream.” It is a method of filling our minds and souls with beauty, rest, adoration, contemplation.

tea and poetry
Teapots crafted by British ceramicist Richard Brendon. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Like Nan Shepherd, a Scottish writer who rhapsodized about “Two pine trees that stood out against the sky” while hiking in the Highlands, Okakura delivers us an eternity of peace and contemplation.

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.

“Many reflections are born of the steam from my tea.” Sylvain Tesson wrote in Consolations of the Forest, may they always appear.

Enjoy The Book of Tea alongside my own contemplation of poetry as an agent of peace, and perhaps settle yourself in front of the universe’s most salient conundrums: unknowable death, the limits of knowledge, and, most personally, who we really are.