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The Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura
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May 27, 2010

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The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō

Too little tea, we learn, was a Japanese expression used in reference to a person too busy to stop and smell the roses. Too much tea, then, refers to a person so busy smelling the roses he has little time for much else. In my humble estimation, Mr. Okakura had a little too much tea in him.

The Book of Tea makes a number of interesting points. I agree with its author that we Occidentals tend to downplay the Orient’s contributions to such fields as philosophy, religion, art, music, etc. -- although I would guess that’s probably a lot less true today than when the book was published in 1906. I also agree with the author’s contention that Hesperian displays of art and culture tend toward ‘promiscuity’ and could do well to take lessons from the East’s more minimalist traditions.

Okakura loses me, however, when he tries to make of Teaism a religion -- specifically, Taoism in disguise. I have no quarrel with the cultivation of refined aesthetic sensibilities, but I consider such cultivation to be an accomplishment rather than a virtue. This might seem like splitting hairs, but I believe it’s a very important distinction. For me, cultivating refined sensibilities is something akin to working very hard to learn to swim a mean 100M backstroke. Kudos to you if you’ve done it, but it you haven’t it’s a lack of accomplishment on your part rather than a moral or ethical failing.

Okakura’s would-be marriage of refined aesthetic sensibilities with virtue reminds me very much of the Russian concept poshlost. We have no good English translation of poshlost is because it combines characteristics which our English-speaking tradition does not [thank goodness!:] necessarily combine: ethical or spiritual bankruptcy with common lack of taste. Even my main man Anton Pavlovich -- who in The Cherry Orchard pokes great fun at the concept -- falls victim to it in Three Sisters. Natasha’s wearing of colors which clash is undeniable evidence of her poshlost and a dead giveaway that by the end of the play she will become the shameless adulteress and household tyrant she does. How many of you believe that a failure to recognize which colors clash represents an unambiguous signal of turpitude?

I consider myself to have great taste in literature and rather plebeian taste in food and drink. Much as I might like sometimes to pretend to the contrary, I don’t actually believe that my enjoyment of Gogol’ or Twain makes me the moral superior of some other sad schmuck enjoying his Grisham or Crichton or Louis L’Amour. Nor do I believe the tea master’s appreciation of his briskly whisked goodness renders him my spiritual superior as I enjoy my skim milk and peanut butter sandwich.

P.S. It has been kindly brought to my attention that I've neglected to mention Okakura's offer of the tea master's gentle, contemplative Taoist perspective as a native Japanese alternative to the stern, imperialistic Shinto perspective gathering steam in Japan at the time The Book of Tea was written. That's an inexcusable oversight on my part, especially given that I've read The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Okakura's meditative appeal against the strident militarization of his homeland's culture is eerily foreboding of the atrocities shortly to come in his countrymen's near future. I would heartily recommend that anyone with an interest in modern Asian history read The Book of Tea and The Rape of Nanking back to back.
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Leah Thanks for the great review! I love the reference to The Cherry Orchard. I'm not especially well-versed in Russian literature so I'm now excited to go back and understand it (slightly) more.

I did want to point out that although virtue is a term that is used, it has a slightly different meaning in Japanese (it's less exclusive, more related to a transcendent practice applied in every day life). I'd say the contemplative nature of the book is imbued with the basic idea of appreciation. The book also highlights Zen Buddhist concepts of mindfulness and being in the present totally without judgement, including that of self or others. Finally, the idea of relinquishing social strata while in the tea house brings to mind metaphysical contemplations of oneness.

Yes, the book definitely illustrates a refined symbolic ritual that in Okakura's time was exclusive as only men in the 'superior' echelons of society were able to enjoy it. The aesthetics (such as wabisabi), philosophy (wakeiseijaku) and seasonal deference to nature influenced Japanese architecture, food, dress and culture heavily, and it can be argued that it makes up most of the lens through which outsiders have seen Japan (and how the Japanese see themselves in some sense as well). Okakura himself explains that he wanted to illustrate these concepts to Westerners. I think the feeling that he is denoting Cha no yu as a superior technique is due to the strict in-group/out-group mentality of the Japanese (that has only waned some, even today). The idea of the "Inscrutable Oriental" was in fact encouraged and strengthened from the "oriental" side of the world. I actually find him to be very progressive for his time, considering that it was widely believed in Japan that Westerners could never understand the Japanese. I'm glad he thought otherwise.

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