Final Comments on Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea

I was surprised how much I found about Kakuzo OkakuraThe Book of Tea online. It has obviously been the subject of considerable research. Luckily, that research frees me from feeling I have to give the work its full due. Others have already done that. All I want to do here is to point you in the direction of the work, and you can explore it as deeply as you desire. These passages are simply those that helped me to helped me to crystallize my own thoughts or to see Taoism and Zenism in a slightly different light.

As an outsider, I think I’ve generally interpreted the Tao literally as the Way, the path, and not how Okakura explains it here:

The Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path. It is the spirit of Cosmic Change,--the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds as do the clouds. The Tao might be spoken of as the Great Transition. Subjectively it is the Mood of the Universe.

Of course, this is not a new idea to me. I’m pretty sure that I would have agreed with Emerson when I read “Life is a journey, not a destination.” The INTP in me certainly tends that way, but somehow I never read the Tao Te Ching in quite that way.

Though I’m not unaware that it’s ironical an English major should grow weary and distrustful of words, Yakuza points out another reason I’ve probably been attracted to Zen writings.

To the transcendental insight of the Zen, words were but an incumbrance to thought; the whole sway of Buddhist scriptures only commentaries on personal speculation. The followers of Zen aimed at direct communion with the inner nature of things, regarding their outward accessories only as impediments to a clear perception of Truth. It was this love of the Abstract that led the Zen to prefer black and white sketches to the elaborately coloured paintings of the classic Buddhist School. Some of the Zen even became iconoclastic as a result of their endeavor to recognise the Buddha in themselves rather than through images and symbolism.

Looking back I suspect I have long favored concrete poetry that focuses on images rather than philosophical poetry that gets caught up in words. That tendency has simply been reinforced as I’ve aged. Now, sitting in quiet meditation for 20 minutes seems more refreshing than reading a work of philosophy for 20 minutes, or, worse, two or three hours. The first Asian art is discovered was Sumi, which I loved, but I was greatly disappointed when I discovered that an Asian Art museum I visited contained mainly classic works.

This passage from Okakura somehow reminded me of Walt Whitman, another long-time favorite.

A special contribution of Zen to Eastern thought was its recognition of the mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual. It held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. The seeker for perfection must discover in his own life the reflection of the inner light.

It would be hard to find a better description of The Leaves of Grass than this.

I’ve always thought that my taste in home furnishings was closest to Danish Modern, or perhaps Shaker, but perhaps it runs even closer to Japanese:

To a Japanese, accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and frequent change of decorative method, a Western interior permanently filled with a vast array of pictures, statuary, and bric-a-brac gives the impression of mere vulgar display of riches. It calls for a mighty wealth of appreciation to enjoy the constant sight of even a masterpiece, and limitless indeed must be the capacity for artistic feeling in those who can exist day after day in the midst of such confusion of color and form as is to be often seen in the homes of Europe and America.

As much as I like my photographs, I’ve never hung a single one on my walls because it always seems to me that there is too much already hanging there. I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the solution is to buy and electronic frame that will change the photos before they become invisible to me or to my guests. Although I think of my house as an evolving organism, changing to suit my needs, I like the idea that a house is “only a temporary refuge for the body.”

Zennism, with the Buddhist theory of evanescence and its demands for the mastery of spirit over matter, recognized the house only as a temporary refuge for the body. The body itself was but as a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy shelter made by tying together the grasses that grew around,--when these ceased to be bound together they again became resolved into the original waste. In the tea-room fugitiveness is suggested in the thatched roof, frailty in the slender pillars, lightness in the bamboo support, apparent carelessness in the use of commonplace materials. The eternal is to be found only in the spirit which, embodied in these simple surroundings, beautifies them with the subtle light of its refinement.

The more I read Okakura's The Book of Tea the more I wondered if Emerson and the Transcendentalists could have been influenced by Taoism and Zennism. I never did find an answer to that question, but I did find a link to a book entitled “The Tao of Emerson: The Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching as Found in the Words of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” So, even if he never read about Taoism or Zennism, Emerson’s ideas obviously paralleled much of what they were saying.

Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea

I’m not sure what inspired me to read Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, but I’m glad I did because it was more interesting than the title first suggested, at least to me. After reading it I would even like to experience a Tea Ceremony, something that would never have considered doing before reading the book. With that title I probably wouldn’t have started reading it if wasn’t free on Kindle, but once I started reading the sample I was hooked.

Needless to say, the book does much more than merely describe a formal tea ceremony. It explores the complex relationship between Taoism and Zen, while contrasting certain aspects of them. Okakura’s definition of Teaism

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. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

also reveals that the book, written in 1906, sees both Taoism and Zen from a modern perspective, as revealed through phrases like “sordid facts of everyday existence” and “this impossible thing we know as life.” No wonder Eliot and Pound were attracted to his book.

Early on Okakura traces the Taoist/Zen evolution of Teaism back to its beginnings.

Among the Buddhists, the southern Zen sect, which incorporated so much of Taoist doctrines, formulated an elaborate ritual of tea. The monks gathered before the image of Bodhi Dharma and drank tea out of a single bowl with the profound formality of a holy sacrament. It was this Zen ritual which finally developed into the Tea-ceremony of Japan in the fifteenth century.

Though no longer a Zen ceremony, the Tea-ceremony retains the sense of sacredness from those early beginnings. What was most interesting to me, though, was how that sacredness was transferred to the mundane aspects of preparing and drinking a cup of tea:

Tea with us became more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life. The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane. The tea-room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travellers could meet to drink from the common spring of art- appreciation.

In a sense, the religious ceremony became an expression of art, as in the Art of Tea. Removed from the strictly religious setting, the ceremony reverted to the artistic tendencies of the Taoists, which makes perfect sense after Okakura points out the difference between Zen, Confucianism, and Taoism:

But the chief contribution of Taoism to Asiatic life has been in the realm of aesthetics. Chinese historians have always spoken of Taoism as the "art of being in the world," for it deals with the present--ourselves. It is in us that God meets with Nature, and yesterday parts from to-morrow. The Present is the moving Infinity, the legitimate sphere of the Relative. Relativity seeks Adjustment; Adjustment is Art. The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings. Taoism accepts the mundane as it is and, unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry. The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar--the emblem of life--and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

Reading Okakura’s distinction was an “aha” moment for me, instantly revealing why I have always been drawn more to Taoism than Buddhism. Philosophically, the hardest part of Buddhism to me is the idea that life is “bitter” and our main goal is to overcome suffering. Perhaps that also explains why “sweet-and-sour” is my favorite kind of food, and my favorite life motto, which I don’t really have, is “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Perhaps what I most liked about The Book of Tea is that it constantly reminded me how little I know about Taoism and Zen:

A special contribution of Zen to Eastern thought was its recognition of the mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual. It held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. The seeker for perfection must discover in his own life the reflection of the inner light. The organisation of the Zen monastery was very significant of this point of view. To every member, except the abbot, was assigned some special work in the caretaking of the monastery, and curiously enough, to the novices was committed the lighter duties, while to the most respected and advanced monks were given the more irksome and menial tasks.

This appeals to the craftsmen in me — the feeling that a particularly fine cabinet I have made has more than just material value. To a certain extent, I feel the same way about photographs I’ve spent a lot of time on.

The perfectionist in me can also identify with the Zen idea that actions should be done perfectly.

Such services formed a part of the Zen discipline and every least action must be done absolutely perfectly. Thus many a weighty discussion ensued while weeding the garden, paring a turnip, or serving tea. The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life. Taoism furnished the basis for aesthetic ideals, Zennism made them practical.

I failed a woodworking class at a young age because I refused to rush through projects, finishing them rapidly and producing quantity not quality. If I was planning a board I wanted it perfectly square and smooth, nothing less. I can’t always live up to those ideals, but they’re always a part of me.