The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

Much has been said and written about the differences between the East and the West, but perhaps none really boils down to the essence of it as this little book about the philosophies surrounding tea. Written in 1906 and published recently in the popular Little Black Classics series by Penguin, Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea guides the reader through the history of tea and the rules of the ceremony surrounding it.

I have been a tea drinker for 10+ years but in the British style with black teas and cream or drinking infusions of herbs and flowers. Never the Japanese matcha until very recently. Having finally tried the fine green powder (don’t sneeze!) and experienced its transformation into a hot liquid through whisking and pouring from cup to cup, I get a much clearer glimpse of Okakura’s vision and philosophy. The book is very poetic and soothing in its tone, like a good cup of tea can be – a hug in a cup. Your blood pressure will fall and you will feel relaxed just by reading. Like he states, tea ‘has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.’ There are some truths in these characteristics or perhaps personalities of your beverage of choice. Coffee has often that to-go feel to it despite recent hipster-ish attempts of making the brewing part a ceremony like with tea. Wine is either a vice or a luxury item depending on vintages, and cocoa is most often served for children.

Tea has a temper and an internal clock that you cannot force if you want a good cuppa. You will have to wait for the water’s right temperature if not accidently ruining the tea, you have to choose the right strainers, whether you want it to go with milk or not, and finally you also have to wait for the flavour to unfold before it is ready. That can easily take ten minutes which can seem like a waste of time in today’s go-getting mentality. However, this pause can be precisely what we need. Recent years have seen an avalanche of Eastern philosophies and practices take hold of the West, like mindfulness and yoga. Ironically, most of them are treated as a quick gateway to do things faster and be – the holy grail of Western capitalism – efficient. Take a power-nap, do desk yoga, yet none of them really takes hold of us and force us to experience what the intention of the original practices wanted.

Personally I find that I am forced to take a break long enough to actually feel the break when I drink tea. It is not over before I am mentally prepared for it. I change within those minutes and come down to earth again regardless whether it is a tea with caffeine or not. Whenever I have felt the most stressed and coffee simply does not cut it for me, I have changed to tea and I can feel from the first sip my life slow down, I can catch my breath and my mind clears. This clearly envokes the practice of Zen and Tao which Okakura talks about in his poetic book.

Here in Scandinavia we have a strong aesthetic kinship with the Japanese despite not looking very similar. However, both cultures focus on materials and the importance of air and light, especially in interior decorating. Many foreigners think we are very minimalistic and monochromatic but the truth is that we see details in Nature and prefer wood, marble, and light enhancing textures to an overflow of objects. Both tend to avoid symmetry in favour of a more organic and natural feel. Symmetry is math, logic, power, closed, static. Asymmetry is individuality, flawed, open, energy. Relative.

‘The Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path. It is the spirit of Cosmic Change, – the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It fold and unfolds as do the clouds. The Tao might be spoken of as the Great Transition. Subjectively it is the Mood of the Universe. Its Absolute is the Realtive.’ In other words perhaps, the journey is more important than the destination. That is the essence of tea as well. It is those moments when you enjoy the wait and are in between things that provides freedom to be who you truly are and carry that knowledge along with you.

There is no need to reach an ideal or a maximum. Such a thing most likely does not even exist. What does exist is our presence here and now with all our human flaws and details. We can benefit from this knowledge that everyone has flaws and details and start looking for the beauty of the moments – the true mindfulness. Whether you can find it through drinking tea is up to your tastebuds and temper but I think Okakura has a point well worth over a hundred years later. Even if you will never drink a cup of tea I still highly recommend this little book for its writing, its philosophy, and for it creating a greater understanding of the differences between the East and the West.

{all images are mine}


DANSK:

I den fine serie af Little Black Classics fra Penguin er der denne skønhed om thé og filosofien bag den. Hvis man læser relativt let på engelsk er den helt klart værd at have, særligt da priserne i denne serie er så dejligt lave (jeg gav 30kr i en dansk boghandel). Men selve skønheden i den lille bog er sproget, som er så poetisk selvom det ikke er et digt. Man følger fortryllet med på Okakuras rejse gennem théens historie og hvordan dens essens hænger sammen med zen og taoisme.

Jeg følte mig ligeså fredfyldt af at læse den, som en god kop thé gør når man drikker den. Man bliver med et til stede og den pause man nærmest tvinges til at tage i venten på vandets rette temperatur, trækningen, eller piskningen hvis det nu er matcha som her, og alle de små gøremål der er omkring en ordentlig kop thé giver én overskud ligegyldigt om théen har koffein eller ej. Det er bedre mindfulness end de fleste kurser og det kræver faktisk lidt af os moderne vesterlændinge at lade théens temperament bestemme for en stund. Vi kan ikke skynde på den for det ødelægger den. Vi er nødt til at respektere den pause og de ritualer, som der skal til. Til gengæld tillader det os at lade hovedet falde på plads igen, for hvor mange af os føler ikke at hovedet er både foran og halter bagefter os konstant? Her hænger det hele sammen og vi bliver opmærksomme på os selv men ikke på en dårlig måde. Vi ser vores fejl og mangler, men indser også at andre har det ligeså. Der er ikke noget ideal eller maksimum der skal jages for det absolutte i livet er relativt og foranderligt, ifølge Okakura. Dét er tao og dét er thé.

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About Ann-Cathrine 38 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.