Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mumblings on Kakuzo Okakura’s 'The Book of Tea '

Sitting seiza, alone in my Tea room, I pondered Kakuzo Okakura’s writings on Teaism in his book The Book of Tea. Overall, this book is very insightful for readers to help them understand the Tea Ceremony and the history and philosophy behind it. Many of his stories and explanations are very thought provoking; for instance, the explanation of the Zen concept of all things being of equal importance (Okakura 28). However, one aspect of the book that I did not prefer was the negative tone he uses in the cultural comparisons of the East and West. In my opinion, Okakura appears to reflect a prejudice that since Chado developed in Japan, Westerners would not be able to fully appreciate the underlying tenets of Teaism.

Many of the concepts that Okakura shared about Chado and its philosophy made lasting impressions with me. One example that I particularly liked was the Zen concept of the equal importance of small and large things. As Okakura states, seeing “the mundane as equal importance with the spiritual,” one can reach enlightenment even when doing the most menial activities (Okakura 28-29). This concept has had a lasting impression on my philosophy of life since I first read it many years ago. Another concept that Kakuzo Okakura touches on that impressed me was the comparison of a minimally decorated Tea room to that of listening to just one piece of music at a time. This enables someone to put their full attention to the piece of art being displayed (Okakura 39). I find myself daily, sitting in my Tea room focusing my whole attention on some piece of artwork that one of my kids made or a flower arrangement my spouse gave me. The bare quality of a Tea room encompasses time and space that promotes reflections on the important aspects in life.

The comparisons that Okakura illustrates between Western and Eastern cultures and the tone he writes in suggests that the ideals of Tea could be better understood by Japanese versus Westerners. Okakura asserts “the average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities of the East to him (Okakura 2).” In addition, from the comparison of interior decorations (40-41) and flower arrangements (Okakura 52-53) as well as to the ways of life of the Japanese peasants and meanest laborers (Okakura 2), he remains attached to the notion that the essence of Chado could be most appreciated by the Japanese. It made me feel he has not grasped the Zen aspect of non-attachment in the Way of Tea, which is one of the most important aspects of the way of tea. The essence of Chado transcends culture and can be found in all tenants of life.

In contrast, an author that shows non-attachment to his culture is Soshitsu Sen XV in his book Tea Life, Tea Mind. Soshitsu Sen XV states that “our spirit should flow through life like the wind that flows through all of nature. Identifying with nature in this matter necessarily creates a state of mind with a detached objective quality (Soshitsu Sen 66).” He continues to provide an example of an American acquaintance who was using a pair of metal chopsticks as a wind chime (Soshitsu Sen 67). The acquaintance was able to see another beautiful use for an object that others did not see. One must approach Chado in this spirit because the essence of Chado can be experienced from many perspectives and cultures.

The Book of Tea is an in-depth source for the history and philosophy of Teaism. Okakura shares many wonderful anecdotes reflecting on the Way of Tea and Eastern Way of Life. Many of the concepts that he shares about Chado and its philosophy made lasting impressions with me and have been implemented in my life since I first shared a bowl of tea many years ago. All people have the ability to fully appreciate the underlying tenets of Teaism.

— Eric Scheenstra

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