On tea and the Asian philosophy of life:The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

The Book of Tea was a book I picked after going through several others to suit my mood that was the equivalent of a warm, humid day. The book is written by Kakuzo Okakura, an early 20th century writer known for his views on a united Asia. The book was published in New York in 1906.

The book talks of small things and big things: it talks of tea and the North-South divide in the same languorous and uncomplicated manner. Although the thread of the narration remains focussed on ‘teaism’ as a philosophy that guides life, the author takes us through a journey along the history of the beverage, its cultural transitions as well as his sceptical views on (the lack of) Western appreciation of the Orient.

Lamenting the attention given to the Code of the Samurai symbolising the Art of Death, over teaism which symbolises the Art of Life, the author very systematically presents his view that the Western world has continually appreciated competition and destruction over aesthetics and harmony.

Stating that tea is the “only Asiatic ceremonial which commands universal esteem”, Okakura discusses the three stages of the use of tea in China – in the Tang, Sung and Ming eras respectively, and their corresponding stages in Japan. Okakura states that Japan continued the true practice of using tea that was lost to China: he says the Japanese practice of teaism was ‘Taoism in disguise’.

The Book of Tea tells a number of Tao tales and beliefs, illustrations and examples of the philosophy in motion, and celebrates the Asian way of life that is practiced through molding oneself to nature, and becoming the master of oneself. Okakura also discusses the confluence of Taoism, Zennism and Buddhism.

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Okakura describes a culture of teaism that is all about the decadence of youth, a belief in illusions, poetry and romance, and appreciation of art that is bound by the human capacity for emotion. Okakura adds that tea-masters feel the genuine appreciation for art and enjoyment that leads to an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. This life, as Okakura says, is one that revels in the Imperfect and embraces duality as a crucial and perfectly natural construct.

 

With interesting and elaborate discussions on the Art of Flower Arrangement, Japanese architecture and interior decoration of tea rooms, the book assumes a wonderful story-telling character, where the reader feels like she is sitting on the floor listening to an old Japanese man tell tales from his bygone age. Unfortunately, this is also a story that lulls you occasionally and you have to shake yourself up to continue reading.

The book is an expression of the love and loyalty that the author feels for his country and its practices that is palpable in his careful, loving description of his culture; and his displeasure with the Western perceptions of Japan is plainly evident when he says that translation is treason and ‘can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade’.

The Book of Tea is recommended for those who like to learn about other cultures and philosophies, and will make for a good reading on a slow, unhurried day when you want to just sit in the verandah on a comfortable swing with a glass of lemonade in one hand. To end this review, I will leave you with an excerpt from the book that perfectly catches the tone and feel of the book:

The East and the West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. 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.

 

 

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