The Philosophy of Tea

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Of late, the Embassy of Japan organized the Japanese National Day Reception, which celebrates the 82nd Birthday of His Majesty the Emperor of Japan (the Emperor’s actual birthday is on 23 December) at the residence of the Ambassador of Japan.
Amongst the exhibitions adding color to this year’s National Day Reception were booths by Hiroki, which produces high quality jackets for export and andu amet, a boutique company concentrating on ladies bags that has become quite popular in Japan; they are two Japanese leather companies operating in Ethiopia. In addition to that, a photo exhibition depicting 80 years of Japan-Ethiopia relations and a Tea Ceremony was also held.
An invariably impressive event that attracted many attendees was a demonstration of the way of the tea by Embassy staff spouses. The Japanese Tea Ceremony transcends a mere ritualization of tea in the presence of guests.
It is the philosophy of tea in action, during which the host and the guest participate in aesthetic and intellectual engagements contemplating the Japanese holistic view between man and nature.
To understand the many aspects of values signified in the philosophy of tea, I resort to the extraordinary work of Kakuzo Okakura, a brilliant Japanese philosopher who offered a rich philosophical interpretation of the way of the tea. Here, the writer of this piece wants its readers to be able to feel this unique and flamboyant aspect of Japanese culture.
In his sovereign masterpiece, THE BOOK OF TEA, Okakura presented a complete philosophical reflection, poetic aphorism and discursive genres assembled in such a way as to afford a particular reading experience of the way of the tea. His writing can be by turn and by design, philosophically rigorous and poetically evocative. Summarization of such a work may be a betrayal of the text, and the task of summarizing finds its challenge and its limit in a certain fidelity to this heterogeneity. Accepting this challenge, I have attempted to remain faithful to the philosophical register of Okakura’s massive work.
Excerpts:
“Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others”
According to him, Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity and the romanticism of the social order.
The Philosophy of Tea expresses, conjointly with ethics and religion, the whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, in as much as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.
“It is in the Japanese tea ceremony that we see the culmination of tea-ideals”
Tea has its periods and its schools. Its evolution may be roughly divided into three main stages: the Boiled Tea, the Whipped Tea, and the Steeped Tea. We moderns belong to the last school.
By the fifteenth century, under the patronage of the Shogun Ashikaga-yoshimasa, the tea ceremony was fully constituted and made into an independent and secular performance. Since then Teaism has been fully established in Japan.
The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane. The tea-room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travelers could meet to drink from the common spring of art appreciation.
Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities. Each preparation of the leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with water and heat, its own method of telling a story. The truly beautiful must always be in it.
The ceremony was an improvised drama whose plot was woven about the tea, the flowers, and the paintings. Not a color to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surroundings, all movements to be performed simply and naturally–such were the aims of the tea ceremony.
“The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of the Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life”
A special contribution of Zen to Eastern thought was its recognition of the mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual. It held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. The seeker for perfection must discover in his own life the reflection of the inner light.
The organization of the Zen monastery was very significant from this point of view. To every member, except the abbot, was assigned some special work in the caretaking of the monastery, and curiously enough, to the novices was committed the lighter duties, while to the most respected and advanced monks were given the more irksome and menial tasks. Such services formed a part of the Zen discipline and every last action must be done absolutely perfectly. Thus many a weighty discussion ensued while weeding the garden, paring a turnip, or serving tea.
“The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world”
The tea-room (Sukiya) does not pretend to be other than a mere cottage–a straw hut, as it is called. It is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse. It is devoid of ornamentation except for what may be placed in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment. It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical in as much as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.
That a tea-room should be built to suit some individual taste is an enforcement of the principle of vitality in art. Art, to be fully appreciated, must be true to contemporaneous life. It is not that one should ignore the claims of posterity, but that one should seek to enjoy the present more. It is not that one should disregard the creations of the past, but that one should try to assimilate them into our consciousness.
The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world. There and there alone one can consecrate himself to undisturbed adoration of the beautiful.
“Art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us”
Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognize, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their color; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.
Art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many hitherto unrecognized expressions of beauty. But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe, our particular idiosyncrasies dictate the mode of our perceptions.
The tea- masters collected only objects which fell strictly within the measure of their individual appreciation.
“Some flowers glory in death–certainly the Japanese cherry blossoms do”
Surely with mankind the appreciation of flowers must have been contemporaneous with the poetry of love. Where better than in a flower, sweet in its unconsciousness, fragrant because of its silence, can we image the unfolding of a virgin soul?
Flower-masters must have noticed the religious veneration with which they regard flowers. They do not cull at random, but carefully select each branch or spray with an eye to the artistic composition they have in mind. They would be ashamed should they chance to cut more than were absolutely necessary. It may be remarked in this connection that they always associate the leaves, if there be any, with the flower, for the object is to present the whole beauty of plant life.
When a tea-master has arranged a flower to his satisfaction he will place it on the tokonoma, the place of honour in a Japanese room. Nothing else will be placed near it which might interfere with its effect, not even a painting, unless there is some special aesthetic reason for the combination. It rests there like an enthroned prince, and the guests or disciples on entering the room will salute it with a profound bow before making their addresses to the host. When the flower fades, the master tenderly consigns it to the river or carefully buries it in the ground.
The adoration of the flower for its own sake begins with the rise of “Flower-Masters,” toward the middle of the seventeenth century. It now becomes independent of the tea-room and knows no law save that the vase imposes on it. New conceptions and methods of execution now become possible, and many were the principles and schools resulting there from. There are over one hundred different schools of flower arrangement.
Flower-arrangements of the tea-master are an art in its proper setting and appeals to us on account of its true intimacy with life. The tea-master deems his duty ended with the selection of the flowers, and leaves them to tell their own story. Entering a tea-room in late winter, you may see a slender spray of wild cherries in combination with a budding camellia; it is an echo of departing winter coupled with the prophecy of spring. Again, if you go into a noon-tea on some irritatingly hot summer day, you may discover in the darkened coolness of the tokonoma a single lily in a hanging vase; dripping with dew, it seems to smile at the foolishness of life.
In such instances we see the full significance of the Flower Sacrifice.
“The Tea-master strove to be something more than the artist-art itself”
The tea-masters held that real appreciation of art is only possible to those who make of it a living influence. Thus they sought to regulate their daily life by the high standard of refinement which is obtained in the tea-room. In all circumstances, serenity of mind should be maintained, and conversation should be conducted as to never mar the harmony of the surroundings. The cut and color of the dress, the poise of the body, and the manner of walking could all be made expressions of artistic personality. Thus the tea-master strove to be something more than the artist-art itself.
All the celebrated gardens of Japan were laid out by the tea-masters. Japanese pottery would probably never have attained its high quality of excellence if the tea-masters had not lent to it their inspiration. The Seven Kilns of Enshu are well known to all students of Japanese pottery. Many of the textile fabrics bear the names of tea-masters who conceived their color or design.
Many of the Japanese delicate dishes, as well as the way of serving food, are their inventions. They have taught how to dress only in garments of sober colors. They have instructed the proper spirit in which to approach flowers. They have given emphasis to the natural love of simplicity, and shown the beauty of humility. In fact, through their teachings tea has entered the life of the people.
Final
A wave of rare incense is wafted from the tea-room; it is the summons which bids the guests to enter. One by one they advance and take their places. In the tokonoma hangs a kakemono,a wonderful writing by an ancient monk dealing with the evanescence of all earthly things. The singing kettle, as it boils over the brazier, sounds like some cicada pouring forth his woes to a departing summer.
Soon, the host enters the room. Each in turn is served with tea, and each in turn silently drains his cup, the host last of all. According to established etiquette, the chief guest now asks permission to examine the tea-equipage.
Conclusion
One has to have these immense interpretations of Okakura in mind to fully grasp the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

(Embassy of Japan)