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.

Leopold’s Wilderness

I was as strong advocate of Wilderness areas long before I read Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River, but his short essay reminded me of many reasons why all of us, even if we never visit a wilderness areas, should be wilderness supporters. As a life-long city dweller whose relatives have been farmers, I could identify with Leopold when he pointed out that:

To the laborer in the sweat of his labor, the raw stuff on his anvil is an adversary to be conquered. So was wilderness an adversary to the pioneer.

But to the laborer in repose, able for the moment to cast a philosophical eye on his world, that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to his life. This is a plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.

Anyone who has ever read Giants in the Earth realizes just how hard it was for pioneer farmers to survive. Small wonder, then, that many of them came to see wilderness as an enemy to be conquered, an oft-repeated theme in American literature. Modern farmers have it much easier, but even under the best of conditions it continues to be a tough job as shown by the number of farm children who end up in large cities rather than taking over the family farm.

For a city-slicker like me, though, the wilderness has been a god-send. My fondest adult memories are inextricably linked to Wilderness Areas in Washington, Oregon, and Montana.

Wilderness areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing. I suppose some will wish to debate whether it is important to keep these primitive arts alive. I shall not debate it. Either you know it in your bones, or you are very, very old. European hunting and fishing are largely devoid of the thing that wilderness areas might be the means of preserving in this country. Europeans do not camp, cook, or do their own work in the woods if they can avoid doing so. Work chores are delegated to beaters and servants, and a hunt carries the atmosphere of a picnic, rather than of pioneering. The test of skill is confined largely to the actual taking of game or fish. There are those who decry wilderness sports as ‘undemocratic’ because the recreational carrying capacity of a wilderness is small, as compared with a golf links or a tourist camp. The basic error in such argument is that it applies the philosophy of mass-production to what is intended to counteract mass-production. The value of recreation is not a matter of ciphers. Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life. By these criteria, mechanized outings are at best a milk-and-water affair. Mechanized recreation already has seized nine-tenths of the woods and mountains; a decent respect for minorities should dedicate the other tenth to wilderness.

I feel blessed to live in an area that has only recently seen the kind of growth that threatens to destroy what little wilderness is left, especially since those living in the East have realized what they have already lost and have made attempts to preserve more land in the West. Washington State has a large number of National Parks and Wilderness Areas, as well it should have, and there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than high up in the Cascades on a crisp, sunny morning.

I’ve spent considerable time signing petitions and sending comments on recent attempts in America to not only delist wolves from the endangered species list but to totally eradicate them from some states. Sure enough, years ago Leopold saw the dangers of eliminating predators:

One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control. It works thus: wolves and lions are cleaned out of a wilderness area in the interest of big-game management. The big-game herds (usually deer or elk) then increase to the point of overbrowsing the range. Hunters must then be encouraged to harvest the surplus, but modern hunters refuse to operate far from a car; hence a road must be built to provide access to the surplus game. Again and again, wilderness areas have been split by this process, but it still continues.

I’ve long felt cheated that I’ve never managed to hear, much less see, wolves in any of my many backpacking trips to wilderness areas. Nor have I managed to see a mountain lion. But even if I never see one I would feel better knowing that they are there.

Permanent grizzly ranges and permanent wilderness areas are of course two names for one problem. Enthusiasm about either requires a long view of conservation, and a historical perspective. Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly. But if education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new. Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren’t looking.

Wilderness really doesn’t seem like “wilderness” without all those species that evolved with us and recent studies seem to show that predators play a vital part in maintaining a healthy wilderness ( see this informative video on the role of the wolves in Yellowstone: .

Leopold also argues that is not only those of us who would experience life at its most primitive level that lose when wildernesses are lost. Scientists can learn much about nature from studying wilderness,

Paleontology offers abundant evidence that wilderness maintained itself for immensely long periods; that its component species were rarely lost, neither did they get out of hand; that weather and water built soil as fast or faster than it was carried away. Wilderness, then, assumes unexpected importance as a laboratory for the study of land-health.

and what they learn can help us learn to farm more productively.

While even the largest wilderness areas become partially deranged, it required only a few wild acres for J. E. Weaver to discover why the prairie flora is more drouth-resistant than the agronomic flora which has supplanted it. Weaver found that the prairie species practice ‘team work’ underground by distributing their root-systems to cover all levels, whereas the species comprising the agronomic rotation overdraw one level and neglect another, thus building up cumulative deficits. An important agronomic principle emerged from Weaver’s researches.

It would be hard to find a better rational for preserving the few wildernesses that are left than this essay, especially when read in the context of Leopold’s whole book.

Guilty as Charged

This passage from Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac seemed particularly relevant after my recent encounter with the Sandhill Cranes at Ridgefield.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

I’m definitely guilty as charged. I began bird photography trying to capture the beauty of certain birds that I admired when I first saw them. I’m probably still guilty of paying more attention to those species I consider beautiful, like the male Wood Duck or the male Harlequin Duck than to their drabber relatives. But it seems impossible when you’re actually out there paying attention to birds you admire to ignore those other animals that don’t meet the common definition of beauty.

For instance, I doubt that many people would view the American Coot as a beautiful bird, but over the years I’ve found myself fascinated with them and have spent much time trying capture pictures of them with their offspring, one of the scruffiest birds I’ve ever seen. Over the years I’ve probably learned more about them than I have about either the Wood Duck or the Harlequin Duck.

American Coot

In fact, my appreciation of the American Coot seems to have evolved very much as Leopold’s appreciation of the crane did. One look at those strange green feet and I was hooked (and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the American Coot closer to the Sandhill Crane than to the ducks most people identify it with.)

This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

Although I have life-long love of nature and wilderness areas, I discovered birding relatively late in life, and will never have the kind-of-in-depth knowledge of wildlife that Leopold possesses,

And so they live and have their being—these cranes—not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.

but the more I learn about the birds I photograph the closer I feel to nature, and to the environment. No one who birds would ever underestimate the value of marshes, with or without cranes, though until recently they were regarded as worthless areas to be filled so that houses could be built on the shores of beautiful lakes or, worse yet, filled in as garbage dumps so that they could be paved over as parking lots. Indeed, it seems rather ironic that the college where I got my undergraduate degree relied on a land fill to provide parking for its thousands of commuters, a college well known for its fisheries and oceanography programs.

It would be too bad if people only appreciated nature for its beauty, but if that beauty leads them to a true appreciation of nature in all its beauty and complexity then it’s a wonderful tool that I don’t mind relying on regularly in this blog.