For those of my dear readers who did not know me in college, I am a tea connoisseur. My preference for tea has existed at least since I turned ten. Some time after that, I began to indulge in coffee but always considering it a lesser drink to be enjoyed with much milk and five teaspoons of sugar until after my college years. Indeed, in my dorm room, you could find eight to ten high quality teas and a box of Folger’s bagged coffee just in case I needed a change of pace. Even now that I enjoy coffee more, I usually keep only one premium coffee. You see, I felt that all coffees were the same, but tea held real variety! In the early days, Bigelow’s Raspberry Royal was the most prized of teas, now it’s Phoenix Mountain Oolong (a Peet’s item. In addition to their coffees, they also offer some very high quality tea).
In order to enrich my tea hobby, I got a couple of works on tea. One is an incredibly dense and informative work called The Tea Drinker’s Handbook by Francois-Xavier Delmas et al. and the other is Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, which will be the book under review. Okakura is famed for his resistance to the Westernization trend during the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). He wrote two other works (also in English): The Ideals of the East and The Awakening of Japan in order to explain Japanese Culture to a Western audience. He strove to demonstrate that there is much good to Asian culture and that it is worthwhile for Westerners to understand it–samurai are not the only worthwhile part of Japanese culture! For someone working in a second language, his skill with English is incredible. Also, the boldness of his style seems equal to the best passages in Nietzsche, and the variety of information and humor in this particular work make its 49 pages fly by! I’d highly recommend picking this work up, especially as it deals with a part of Japanese culture which has almost disappeared.
The author states that the subject under review in his book is Teaism, which “is Taoism in disguise.” He avers that this philosophy has filtered down to every part of Japanese society; even laborers have some culture due to their celebration of the tea ceremony and flower arrangement, which is closely connected to the former. Like Taoism, “Teaism, is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order.” From there, he describes how tea has become popular even in Western countries. As if the one thing combining East and West is their love of tea! Both sides can come together over a cup of tea!
From there, he gives a brief history of tea all the way from the days when tea leaves were ground, made into cakes, and “boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions!” He then describes how tea cakes gave way to powdered tea in China–in which form, it was introduced to the Japanese. Later on, the tea leaves we all know and love came into ascendency; however, the Japanese did not start using them until the mid-17th century. During this beverage’s history, it also took on a religious significance, particularly when certain Zen monks gathered together before a statue of Bodhi Darma to share tea from a single bowl. From this originated the Japanese tea ceremony.
After this, Okakura gives a brief description of Zennism and Taoism, showing the parallels which one finds in the tea culture of Japan. Taoism believes that change is the only eternal, where is this seen more clearly than in how nature changes with each season? So, the Japanese have a deep appreciation of nature, which shows itself in their love for flowers (a very popular decorative motif in the tea house) and the garden paths leading to their tea houses. Taoists love modesty and simplicity. The tea house is a small cottage with a thatch roof, only capable of holding five people at a time. Few decorations adorn the places, and repetition and redundancy are forbidden. The door to the tea house is only three feet high, obliging the guests to bow when entering, symbolizing humility. Another similarity with Zen is how one tries to empty oneself in the tea ceremony: the garden path symbolizes them separating themselves from the cares of the world. As they walk closer and closer to the tea house, they distance themselves also from their possesses, and the spareness of the decorations and silence within the tea house further impose the idea of emptiness. All these themes recur in Japanese culture!
Okakura gives an amazing amount of credit to tea masters in the formation of Japanese customs and character. Of course, religion has always played the greatest part in forming the character of a people, but the way tea masters incorporated Taoism and Zen into the consumption of tea made it more accessible. Okakura plays them a great tribute: “Not only in the usages of polite society, but also the arrangement of all our domestic details, do we feel the presence of the tea masters. Many of our delicate dishes, as well as our way of serving food, are their inventions. They have taught us to dress only in garments of sober colors. They have instructed us in the proper spirit in which to approach flowers. They have given emphasis to our natural love of simplicity, and shown us the beauty of humility. In fact, through their teachings tea has entered the life of the people.” If you want to understand Japanese culture–at least, the way it used to be, one must read this book!