Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Book of Tea

Okakura Kakuzo's oft-quoted The Book of Tea is nothing new to most tea enthusiasts. I imagine many of us have read it at one time or the other, but what surprised me, and pleasantly so, is how little it had to do with tea as a beverage. Not merely a book of warm anecdotes, Okakura sought to explain to the Western world why tea was held in such high regard, and in doing so, explores Japanese and Chinese aesthetics and the influence of Tao and Zen on art and tea.

"But I am not to be a polite Teaist."

From the beginning Okakura's tone can at times be mildly aggressive as he defends Japanese culture and art. To understand his frustration, it is beneficial to realize what was happening in Japan before and during his life.

Japan had been largely closed to foreigners during the 265 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or Edo Period--in later chapters, Okakura explains how Japan's isolation, not only then but also in resisting the Mongol invasion, was instrumental in the continuity of teaism in Japan. The first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, was quite fond of trade with the outside world, and allowed the Portuguese Jesuits to build churches in Japan; compared to his successors, this was remarkably tolerant.

However, Christian priests began encouraging their Japanese converts to disobey their lords in favor of obedience to the Church, which threatened the order of things, and possibly worse, demonstrated clear foreign interference with Japanese affairs. Further exacerbating the situation, when the priests were told to leave, they instead flocked to Ieyasu's rival, the son and proper heir of Toyatomi Hideyoshi, Hideyori, in Osaka. This was the end of the Portuguese in Japan, and incidentally, of Hideyori as well. With the death of William Adams, the English eventually departed as well, and by the time the of third Tokugawa shogun, Japan was forbidden to all foreigners by pain of death, save for the Dutch, who were still allowed to trade in Nagasaki.

Combine this with the relative peace of the Edo Period, and a renaissance emerged, one often depicted in Ukiyo-e, a world of geisha and sumo and kabuki.

This lasted of course until Commodore Perry forced open Japan's harbors in the 1850's, precipitating the Meiji Restoration. Japan was quick to embrace Western culture, which didn't sit well with everyone, leading to the Satsuma Rebellion and the end of the Samurai and of Feudal Japan. Japan was rapidly growing into a dominant world power.

"Tea is the art of concealing things so that you may discover it."

Okakura was born in 1863 during the midst of the Meiji Restoration. A man who loved his country and culture and art, would have spent his life witnessing the erosion of the things he held most dear. Which is not to say he was completely opposed to Western culture or the modernization of Japan, instead he only sought to preserve Japan's distinct identity.

Now...if you're still with me, you understand, I hope, some of the historical context in which The Book of Tea was written, and can see that the book is not a quaint collection of romanticized musings and tea fancy, but rather an impassioned description of a country's aesthetic ideals.

Even so, in the book you will find much information about tea. Okakura explores the development of tea over the centuries, from cake tea to powdered tea to tea as we know it now. He also goes into some of the particulars of cha no yu, or the tea ceremony, describing the tea room and periphery details such as flowers. He dedicates a whole chapter to flowers. You will also discover accounts of tea masters such as Rikyu.

But what speaks to me the most is the continuous theme of tea as a metaphor or an actualization of something greater than ourselves. Teasim has its roots in Taoism and Zennism, and once you grasp the spiritual significance of it, you can see that the tea ceremony was no less profound than partaking of the holy sacrament.

I think on some level we, my fellow tea bloggers, sense this. We turned away from teabags and instant tea and microwaved water to pursue countless hours of careful tea preperation and knowledge, with little or no thought to the current tea/health craze. I do not think this is simply an epicurean venture on our part. Do you not in some part agree that the current tea culture in America is similar to taking Communion from a vending machine, quick, easy, and selfish, instantly gratifying but forsaking all that may be eternal.

Eh, maybe its just me.

I don't know how spiritual tea is for me. I do know, that as much as I enjoy drinking tea, for me the pleasure is found in the process. This is clear in the disproportionate amounts I spend on teaware vs tea, or my refusal to settle for teabags when at work or elsewhere. If I can't have good tea, I would just as soon not. Making tea, I feel connected, grounded in something beyond all the irrelevancies of my daily life. A daily affirmation that everything is transitory, that so much thought to be important, really is not.

I'll end with a story from the book that's stuck in my head and doesn't have much to do with anything else I've said here.

"This dialogue recalls that of Soshi, the Taoist. One day Soshi was walking on the bank of a river with a friend. 'How delightfully the fishes are enjoying themselves in the water!' exclaimed Soshi. His friend spake to him thus: 'You are not a fish; how do you know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?' 'You are not myself, how do you know that I do not know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?'"

Sources: Concerning my unsolicited history lesson, all dates used are taken from Wikipedia. Most everything else was taken from Giles Milton's Samurai William.

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