The Book of Tea — Kakuzo Okakura

It’s no secret that I am interested in Eastern thought. Unlike others who freely make this statement, I am more interested in the Eastern aesthetic than the Eastern philosophy/religion.

This is a somewhat funny statement to make when talking about The Book of Tea by Kakuzo OKAKURA. Writing in 1906, OKAKURA examines the Western view of the East and particularly the way that the two relate to modernisation of Japan through the lens of the Japanese relationship with tea.

It’s only a short book but is very profound all the same. Here were some of my favourite parts:

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.

This is wise:

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.

I wish I saw life as clearly as this:

Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.

And the more I experience, the more I realise this to be a true statement:

People are not taught to be really virtuous, but to behave properly.

This extract makes me think of so much of the New Testament:

The Taoists claimed that the comedy of life could be made more interesting if everyone would preserve the unities. To keep the proportion of things and give place to others without losing one’s own position was the secret of success in the mundane drama. We must know the whole play in order to properly act our parts; the conception of totality must never be lost in that of the individual. This Laotse illustrates by his favourite metaphor of the Vacuum. He claimed that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible. One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. The whole can always dominate the part. These Taoists’ ideas have greatly influenced all our theories of action, even to those of fencing and wrestling. Jiu-jitsu, the Japanese art of self-defence, owes its name to a passage in the Tao-teking. In jiu-jitsu one seeks to draw out and exhaust the enemy’s strength by non-resistance, vacuum, while conserving one’s own strength for victory in the final struggle. In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

This is a wonderful image:

Yeno, the sixth patriarch, once saw two monks watching the flag of a pagoda fluttering in the wind. One said “It is the wind that moves,” the other said “It is the flag that moves”; but Yeno explained to them that the real movement was neither of the wind nor the flag, but of something within their own minds.

I find it quite wonderful that OKAKURA should write this in the East while Proust wrote his own version in the Western tradition:

At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory.