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.
– The Book of Tea
It has been over 100 years since The Book of Tea was published. So much has changed since then. And then again, so much hasn’t. While Kakura Okakuro was introducing the West to the aesthetic and cultural treasures of Teaism, John Muir was re-introducing Americans to the spiritual nourishment available in the natural beauty of their country. Each man saw how the conditions of their era were producing distracted, drained people.
As part of the remedy, The Book of Tea offers the Japanese culture or philosophy of tea. In this sense, Teaism is the tea and the elements that accompany the experience: flowers, art, the tea room, etc. The Book is a guide to recognizing the artfulness of tea preparation, tea appreciation, and the tea environment. That artfulness brings healing and wholeness.
One gets the impression that Okakuro and his audience were less interested in, or had less understanding of the complexities in the ways teas are processed or produced. The general reader of today, however, can find much more information on how long jing tea leaves get their flat shape.
And so, if Okakuro were writing about Teaism today, he would go beyond his chapter on art appreciation to expand the idea that tea production is art.
It is reasonable to expect that if tea production is art, then many of the more classic, original teas like long jing and tie guan yin, if still done in an artful manner, will continue to displace the less artful blends and bottled brews of this age.
True Tea is art. It is art in processing the pure leaf. It is the art of the master in responding to Nature to build upon the harmonies. It is the work of a conductor who may signal the softening the woodwinds so that they entwine with the strings. Withering, rolling and roasting are the movements within this tea symphony. Only through the artfulness of processing can the artfulness of steeping and drinking reach a resounding crescendo.
To a degree, the same can be said of the carrot or the grape, or many other fruits of of the Earth. But with tea, the contact is more direct, more intimate. More listening and attunement is needed.
Borrowing from the words of The Book of Tea, tea artfully made from the leaf and in the cup, is a “union of kindred spirits.” The tea drinker “moves within the rhythm of things.” The tea drinker transcends self and approaches the convergence of Nature, Tea Master, others, and even Self.
As with Art, Tea of this kind “ennobles mankind.” It builds sapience. It draws the tea drinker into the chamber of the Now to glean the richness of mental and sensory experiences, their woven-ness in the fabric of the Present.
Cheaper teas hold no promise of this. Their art is the art of convenience; their mastery that of appealing to the base common denominator. If this tea has any heart, it is one that echoes with the sound of many hollow chambers.
Men like Okakuro and Muir remind us of the chronic struggles of humanity and the nurturing capacities of Art and Beauty. Regardless of the economics of tea, the Art of growing, processing, and preparing ennobling tea will always outpace the need for poorer alternatives.
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