"Strangely enough, humanity has so far met in the tea cup,” writes Kakuzō Okakura in the first of seven chapters, The Cup Of Humanity, in The Book Of Tea. And I couldn’t have found a better way to spend the new year weekend than with this classic among tea books, written over a hundred years ago, and in English, mind you.
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The Book Of Tea is the Japanese writer’s treatise on teaism and why it lies at the centre of Japanese culture. Okakura speaks mainly to a Western audience, reminding it of the East’s intellect, aesthetic and wisdom. The chapters set the context, introducing tea history and philosophy before venturing into architecture and art, and ending with tea masters.
Okakura describes teaism as “the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal”. But he isn’t speaking of tea here, not of the depth of flavour in a cup of loose leaf tea or the promise of rejuvenation. For Okakura, an artist himself, teaism is a way of life.
It is to the chapters on tea rooms and tea masters that I find myself returning. I read and reread lines, trying to soak in some wisdom to face another year. It suits the brooding moodiness that has opened the year. “Art, to be fully appreciated, must be true to contemporaneous life,” he writes. This is neither to ignore “the claims of posterity” nor disregard “the creations of the past” but only to “enjoy the present more”. Words that rang true in 1906, that ring true today.
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My favourite part is on the changing interiors of a Japanese tea room. The West tries to make it museum-like, filled with things, constant and unchanging, demanding one to repeatedly find an appreciation for the same pieces of art. Okakura contrasts this with the Japanese tea room, with its ever-changing interiors, changing as seasons do, the lack of symmetry and an even more determined lack of repetition in the elements that decorate it, with the desire to create a sanctuary, to relieve its visitors from “the vexations of the outer world”. And the tea master? Part artist, part teacher, part enlightened being, devoted to the creation of this space, of harmony.
The Book Of Tea was a gentle reminder that tea itself is a means to our pursuit of harmony. Every tea, every conversation, every story returns to this idea of teaism. “It insulates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order,” he writes. “It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
I learn, too, that there are two kinds of people. Those with no tea in them, referring to those too busy to enjoy the mundane, and those with too much tea. This year, I wish you all the pursuit of teaism, to enjoy the present, to find harmony in chaos, and to be one with neither too much tea in you nor too little.
The Book Of Tea has been translated into many languages, most recently into Hindi, as Chaiwaad, by anthropologist Lav Kanoi.
Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1