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The Book of Tea    by Kakuzo Okakura order for
Book of Tea
by Kakuzo Okakura
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura was written in English in 1906 (the author died in 1913). This latest gift edition comes with a Foreword and Afterword by Hounsai Genshitsu Sen, himself a grand master of the Urasenke Tea School and a descendant of tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). He provides a brief biography of the author and calls this small volume 'one of the most perceptive introductions to Asian life and thought in English.' He speaks of chanoyu (the tea ceremony) as 'a way of life', an opportunity for friends to win a respite from daily concerns and to relate 'with directness, immediacy, and profound appreciation.'

Kakuzo Okakura's own description of Teaism reminds me of the more spiritual translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He calls it 'a worship of the Imperfect ... a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.' He speaks, with light irony and a degree of whimsy, of the evolution of three schools of Tea - 'the Boiled Tea, the Whipped Tea, and the Steeped Tea' - in China and Japan. Choice of water is important as are stages of boiling (which are described lyrically here). The author often strays into philosophy, contrasting Confucianism and Taoism ('the art of being in the world'). He speaks of the 'Zen ritual which finally developed into the tea-ceremony of Japan in the fifteenth century' and tells us that 'Teaism was Taoism in disguise.'

There's a fascinating discussion of the importance of a vacuum in both martial arts (jiu-jitsu in particular) and visual arts. Regarding the latter, the author says that 'In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it.' He tells us that Teaism results from the 'Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.' He discusses the appearance and structure of the Sukiya (the tea room), the effect to be achieved, even how to make the kettle sing correctly. Cleanliness is important, along with 'the beautiful and natural'. Repetition is to be avoided, and asymmetry valued. An entire chapter covers flowers and tea masters' choices of flower arrangements for the tea room, whether as a solo or 'in a concerto with painting and sculpture'.

The influence of tea masters on all aspects of Japanese society is discussed, and The Book of Tea ends with a description of Rikyu's death after a last tea ceremony. In addition to his reflections on Teaism, I enjoyed the author's general comments on art appreciation - such as 'Would that we loved the ancients more and copied them less! It has been said that the Greeks were great because they never drew from the antique' (a comment that applies to many aspects of art, including publishing). In his Afterword, Hounsai Genshitsu Sen speaks of the benefits of modern advances, but also of the threats, and advocates, 'It is surely time to look at tea anew, taking the broad perspective that Okakura first proposed, of human culture transcending the boundaries of nations.' Give this invaluable book to anyone who appreciates beauty or seeks 'harmony, respect, purity, tranquillity' in life.

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