Kakuzo Okakura

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.”

The Book of Tea is a beautiful essay on the aestheticism of the Japanese tea ceremony and its deep roots in Japanese culture and faith.

Scholar Kakuzo Okakura (1862 – 1913) wrote in English to acquaint the West with the harmony, purity, and mystery of this honored ritual.

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
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Okakura draws out the deep humanity of the ceremony and argues within it can be found many features which 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 this connection to humanity, to nature and to ourselves, that empowers tea with balance, serenity. It might even return us to our best self.

As a hopeless tea enthusiast, I find this abundant love for tea, and all it inculcates, exactly appropriate.1

As to particular favorites:

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 is are no rules for producing a Titian or a Sesson. Each preparation of leaves has its individuality.

I gravitate towards books that open widely in generous guidance. This is one. Another is Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled which ushers us gently into writing poetry. Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies a book simply written but bestowing a mountain of insight on a marvelous topic.