The Book of Tea

In this journal entry we share with you our impressions about the book that inspired us - a century old classic - The Book of Tea written by Japanese art scholar and historian Okakura Kakuzo. Original, opinionated and captivating, the book was originally written in English and is one of the very first books to introduce Eastern culture and philosophy to the Western world, lifting the veil of mystery about the Japanese tea ceremony. The Bible of Tea, one may say...

The book of tea by Kakuzo Okakura by Shibumi New Zealand

When you start reading the first pages of The Book of Tea, you get a feeling as if you were transported to a different space – elevated and expanded, sparkling with mind provoking insights on culture, arts, history, spirituality and philosophy.

Written at a time when Western culture was changing Japan’s cultural landscape, it was the book that “spoke back” to the Western world defining the essence of Japanese living – simplicity – and inviting the whole of humanity to meet “in the cup of tea”.

Okakuro Kakuzo explains how for Japanese, tea is not just a beverage but a form of art, weaving into the everyday fabric of social texture as if it were the very DNA of Japanese culture. He takes the reader back in time to China, tracing the roots of the tea ceremony and examining the philosophies behind it; delving into history how it got wiped out by the Mongols, but preserved and refined by Zen monks in Japan to become a worship of the Beautiful Imperfection.

Although full of rigid formalities, the tea ceremony as formulated by famous Zen monk and tea master Rikiu in the16th century does not aim to dogmatise but rather liberate its participants. Different schools of tea at different times had their own takes on certain aspects of the tea ceremony. Even a perfectly conducted tea ceremony may fail to express the tea spirit, but a less skillful host may succeed. It is the combination of skill and spirit that evokes the authenticity of tea philosophy.

“It is in the Japanese tea ceremony that we see the culmination of tea­-ideals. Our successful resistance of the Mongol invasion in 1281 had enabled us to carry on the Sung movement so disastrously cut off in China itself through the nomadic inroad. 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 tea­room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travellers could meet to drink from the common spring of art­-appreciation. The ceremony was an improvised drama whose plot was woven about the tea, the flowers, and the paintings. Not a colour to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surroundings, all movements to be performed simply and naturally ­such were the aims of the tea­ ceremony. And strangely enough it was often successful. A subtle philosophy lay behind it all. Teaism was Taoism in disguise.“ - Okakuro Kakuzo, The Book of Tea

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