Okakuro Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea was first published over 100 years ago, and is considered one of the classics of tea. Given its age and weight within the tea world, it may be more value to explore the impact of The Book of Tea rather than review it.
Kakuzo begins his work by defining teaism. For him, teaism is the philosophy behind tea. If he were to summarize the purpose of his essay in Daoist terms, he might say that teaism is the walls and base of the cup. However it is the emptiness, the unstated, that allows each of us to define tea for ourselves.
Is tea a religion? Kakuzo says teaism is a religion of aestheticism. To him, the Japanese tea tradition carried the worship of the imperfect to its apex. While not everyone will agree that the Japanese tea ceremony is the epitome of tea aesthetics, The Book of Tea shows how Zen and Daoism shaped tea and Asian culture. Perhaps the degree to which a people can appreciate tea and see beauty in simplicity is the better yardstick of civilization.
In addition to flowers, the tea-room, and tea-masters, The Book of Tea speaks of appreciating the art of tea and the tea ceremony. In doing so, he quotes a Song Dynasty art critic: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgment matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” As this applies to tea and the art of tea, we are still reminded that the classics and tribute teas are the ones the masters would have us like. The tea practices established by the masters are the ones we are to appreciate more.
Teaism may not be a religion. The divide between East and West may be smaller. The interpretation of Daoism and Zen may have changed. Flowers and tea-rooms may not be a part of every sublime tea experience, but The Book of Tea still has a place in opening our minds to recognizing the primitive yet profound beauty that tea can offer.
The Book of Tea can even be found online for free. There is a certain beauty in the imperfection in this .pdf version available from the University of California’s Digital Library.
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