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That a nation should construct one of its most resonant national ceremonies round a cup of tea will surely strike a chord of sympathy with at least some readers of this review. To many foreigners, nothing is so quintessentially Japanese as the tea ceremony - more properly, "the way of tea" - with its austerity, its extravagantly minimalist stylisation and its concentration of extreme subtleties of meaning into the simplest of actions.
The Book of Tea is something of a curiosity: written in English by a Japanese scholar (and issued here in bilingual form) it was first published in 1906, in the wake of the naval victory over Russia with which Japan asserted its rapidly-acquired status as a world-class military power. It was a peak moment of Westernisation within Japan. Clearly, behind the publication was an agenda, or at least a mission to explain. Around its account of the ceremony The Book of Tea folds an explication of the philosophy, first Taoist, later Zen Buddhist, that informs its oblique celebration of simplicity and directness - what Okakura calls, in a telling phrase, "moral geometry".
And the ceremony itself? Its greatest practitioners have always been philosophers, but also artists, connoisseurs, collectors, gardeners, calligraphers, gourmets, flower-arrangers. The greatest of them, Sen Rikyu, left a teasingly, maddeningly simple set of rules: "Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration."
A disciple remarked that this seemed elementary. Rikyu replied, "Then if you can host a tea gathering without deviating from any of the rules I have just stated, I will become your disciple." A Zen reply. Fascinating. --Robin Davidson
The Book of Tea (lifestyle)
Kakuzo Okakura (Author)
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Reviews from Amazon:
Even though this book was written ages ago, it is very relevant to our modern hectic lifestyle. Reading the book was a pleasure and it made me aware of the power of tea. Now, tea has become a major part of my life and coupled with Za-Zen gives me a lot of peace. I would recommend this book.
This little booklet, written in 1906, is still one of the absolute classics on the Japanese tea ceremony. This essay about Japanese culture as it is epitomized in the "way of tea" (chadô) also served as an apology for Eastern traditions at large to the Western world. Okakura was a practitioner, art critic and connoisseur, and a collaborator of Fenellosa and his circle, who introduced Japanese art in the United States. Although detailed technical information about the ceremony is avoided, the latter's historical background as well as its relation to Japanese attitudes, Zen, Tao, art and art appreciation are treated in a suggestive and essayistic vein. The way of tea appears as a "moral geometry" embodying particular values than a particular set of beliefs. There is, thus, a "philosophy of tea", at least in the sense that the practice of tea wholly constitutes a "form of life".
The book was written in a graceful, clear and precise English, which is in itself a remarkable feat.
Amateurs of the way of tea should combine this reading with more detailed studies such as Sadler's, Shositsu Sen's and Horst Hammitzsch's, or the academic and up to date study by Jennifer Anderson.
I spotted this in passing looking for another Japanese author. Seeing the high rating I decided to give it a go, although I usually drink coffee. I read it over two evenings, a can't put down - tea cup in hand. I admit finding it a short, fascinating and succinct account about the tea ceremony, and the interplay of Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Confucianism in the early development of Japan and China. That might seem a little bland for current tastes. However the written style pulls the reader along, as though on a crest of a wave. Although written in English, it seems quite unlike the typical western literature style of a century ago. Lyrical yet concise, I suspect this flowing text a polished Taoist style; as is explained Tao is all about movement. It is never dull irrespective of the topic on the page.
The artistry and individualism of the tea masters must surely have been balanced by a rigid enforced code of conformity on the part of the recipient tea drinkers. The author's pride over the artistic perfectionism of the Tea ceremony I can accept. The direct criticism of Western culture in comparison I find less palatable. In this I had an uneasy scent of cultural and religious elitism, nationalism not far away. It ultimately smacks of intolerance, or is that too strong? I would invite the author around to argue over a cup of tea!
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