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The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō

I chose to read the Book of Tea because I wanted to read something different from technology, interaction and design. And I was right, as the author talks about art, philosophy, religion, aesthetics and the most surprising to me: east-west relationship.

The books revolves around the Teaism – term created by the author – to define the Philosophy of Tea, a religion of aestheticism founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. The Teaism is based on principles of Tao and Zennism. Theoretically, on the Taoistic ideas of acceptance of the world as it is and on search of the beauty in our world of woe and worry. Practically, the Tea-ceremony would be a development of the Zen ritual, as a method of self-realisation. He also explains the influence of Tea-ceremony in the japanese architecture and in the emergence of the art of flower arrangement, due to the decoration of Tea-rooms by Tea-masters.

Regarding the east-west issue, it is important to illustrate the context this book was written: by a japanese scholar in the beginning of the 20th century. Okakura is disturbed by the way Westerns see and treat the Eastern civilization. He believes the West doesn’t understand the East. By that time, maybe the West had truly no interest in the East, except for money and tea, of course. However, this has changed fifty years later, with the growing interest of the Beat generation in anything Eastern. As a consequence, Yoga and Zen have become widely known and reflect the current stereotype the Westerns created about the East as something positive, instead of negative, as described in the book.

Okakura associates the Schools of Tea with the historical moment in China: the Boiled, the Whipped and the Steeped Tea are connected to the Tang, Sung and Ming dynasties. He claims that the West is not aware of all methods of drinking tea since Europe only knew it at the close of Ming dynasty. And actually, it reminded me of the fact that most Westerns don’t study the Eastern history in school. And I really think we should. I mean, how is it possible that many history classes just ignore that China, India, Korea, Japan and so many other countries were there for thousands of years?

Maria Paula Saba

18 comments to The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō

  • HannahMishin

    I agree that there is a distinct Western/Eastern divide (at least from the Western perspective), is ridiculous! (I know that the public schools system is over-taxed and under-funded, so I am saying this as more of a societal aim). I also know that most people (self included) tend to package things in knowable/ easily digested margins. That is how we find some version or another of ‘Chinese’ food in every small town in America (though, I am told, a Chinese person might find the menu odd/off). This is how culture becomes new culture, and how people create new things.

    I am certain that globalization will (one day) eradicate current social and cultural divides (which I find disappointing). That difference is still relevant now and may in other ways manifest, as the history of the formation of the ‘east’ is the history and formation of empires, languages, and ….tea. This is something westerners should understand about the east and vise-versa.

    I recently visited Korea and Japan and profoundly felt my own ignorance almost at every step.

  • Nancy

    My guess is that every country is self-centered in its own way. There’s a wonderful historical atlas by the London Times. When you look at it, you notice that at the center of the page/the map of the world is the civilization in question. So you see history/geography (<- often called history over time) from the POV of that country/culture. I think the character for China is a depiction of China as the center of the world. Correct me if I'm wrong, please!

    Who tells the stories of other cultures? How do we learn them? How do we make them our own and keep an identifiable character of our own? These are interesting points…to chew over over pizza or frenchfries or pot stickers or sushi!

  • Youjin

    All of the questions are really difficult to answer. I just want to say that it is our kind of responsibilities to learn about other cultures. When trying to understand other cultures, we could have chances to see our own culture in different perspective. In this way, we are able to see our culture clearly. It’s because as Nancy said, every country is self-centered in its own way. Also, I strongly agree with the opinion that Western students should have more opportunities to study the Eastern history in school.

  • vtj205

    I agree with what Youjin posted, and it’s very similar to what I was going to post myself. I believe we all need to educate ourselves more about other cultures. Since many are not capable of traveling for both financial reasons and due to time contraints, I believe we need to change the educational system. Children should be learning about different cultures. I have always complained about how in history class we NEVER learn about the history of other countries unless that country had something to do with the USA. I spent my junior year of high school in Brazil, where the educational system was very different. That year’s history class focused in the Americas, both North and South.

    I also believe the news channels should focus more on international news rather than just center on the USA. I personally feel very uninformed of what is happening outside of the country. CNN in the USA concentrate on the US news, while CNN in Europe focuses on the World. There are many things we can change in order to learn more about the Eastern vs Western cultures. The best starting point though is changing the educational system.

  • Susan Ettenheim

    While I most certainly agree that the educational system could be improved, as a high school teacher, it seems all too easy for everyone to blame our schools, not really even knowing some of the exciting things that do happen in schools today. Even while we are citing educational problems, we are not taking advantage of our own resources, right here in New York City. When is the last time you went to the Rubin Museum and engaged the museum educators available in the galleries in discussion about Himalayan Art? When is the last time you visited the illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library? You don’t even need to go north of 34th Street to travel the world!

    I also want to respond to any idea that Eastern culture became interesting to Westerners only through Yoga. What about the Impressionists? They were deeply moved by art from Asia. A wonderful little book, called The Japanese Tea Ceremony, by Julia V. Nakamura, written in 1965, is one of my treasured books. She wrote, “The circumstances of a Tea Ceremony demand of host and guest a rigid awareness.” She says that the serving of tea is “an exercise in paradox and that the Tea Ceremony is a life time challenge in decorum that leads to making life pleasant and facile.” What interesting ideas to toss around in 2012!

    I also highly recommend The Geography of Culture, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently .. and Why. Richard Nisbett wrote this in 2003 and tells a wonderful story about his student who said to him, ‘You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle and you think it’s a line.’ The more Nisbett read about the nature of thought from great thinkers around the world, the more his ideas came together in this book. It is an honest and insightful look into how our cultures molded us and the power of us working together, drawing upon the strengths and differences of the way we think.

    Thanks Maria Paula for writing about this book. I’m going to look for it as soon as I finish my current book!

  • On that subject of East and West and culture, here is a link to a current exhibition at MOCA (Museum of Chinese in America) on how eastern characters appear on western comic books!

  • Nadine Coleman

    I would like to preface this next statement by letting you all know that I love Asian culture, studied japanese for three years in middle school (no i’m not fluent at all), went to Japan as a foreign exchange student, and still have a great appreciation for the culture.

    Hmm. I have a very ambivalent perspective regarding the expectation of knowledge and education one should be in tuned with when it comes to eastern Asian culture. Should Americans try to learn more about it beyond the stereotype? Absolutely. However, to be frank, based on my own personal experiences, there are many Americans who aren’t even knowledgeable, in tuned or sensitive to other cultures within the USNot everywhere in the US is New York City–the ultimate, beautiful, diverse, giant melting pot, where everybody just understands everybody. Even within NYC, there are still cultural divides and misunderstandings. I mean look at what happened with this: .

    As far as the schools are concerned, as a former public school educator, most teachers do the best they can to expose kids to different cultures, beyond a stereotype. I know I did and I wasn’t even a social studies teacher. There is a Eastern Asian unit in Maryland public schools and teachers expose kids to different facets of Asian culture by reading, doing creative, and interactive group projects, But social studies teachers only have so much freedom over there curriculum and time. They have to teach a very specific amount of material in a very specific amount of time, to pass a very specific test, that they did not write. But all schools aside–ultimately more responsibility needs to be placed on parents at home, to encourage their kids to be respectful, open, and excited to learn about cultures that are different than theirs.

  • Sonia "Li"

    As someone who had lived in different countries and attended the local schools growing up, I got to experience educational systems in different cultures.

    I mostly grew up in Taiwan, and the educational system while I was a child was mainly a discombobulated system of reading textbooks, mandatory after school study sessions, tests and more tests with the same repeated questions over and over again. In fact, In order to pass some tests, my fellow classmates and I would memorize the questions and the answers; we knew they would give us the same tests in different configurations. The Taiwanese education system did not encourage us to think outside the box, nor did they promote any sort of creativity. As a willful child, I was never interested in anything in school other than art class, which was always easily replaced by subjects that they deemed more “important” – i.e. math, english, chinese. Art classes were not even in the secondary tier of “importance”; it was obvious that they were completely replaceable. While I can sort of understand that mentality, I can not help but feel glad that I never conformed to this type of thinking. Creativity is such an important source of life, without it I would be a very different person than I am today.

    While I lived in Germany for a little bit as a child, I had the pleasure of going to a local German public school. It was very refreshing on many levels; the kids had to manage their own schedules, create their own projects with a deadline, and art classes were treated with every bit of importance as the other subjects.

    I think if we can revolutionize the educational system to make it more interactive, incorporating technology and emphasize on “thinking”, “making” and “being”, kids would naturally develop an affinity for learning and going to school. Yes, they need to be encouraged to read, but that doesn’t mean they need to write papers (unless they wanted to); kids should be allowed to present their understanding of the subject matters in their own ways. I would have loved to do an art project based on geography or history, etc. It is with the fluidity of thinking that the real learning begins.

  • Maria Paula

    Nadine, the world need more educators like you! Thanks Susan for the references. In the book Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, Campbell also talks a lot about the difference of eastern and western religious thinking.

    Sonia, I was expecting your report about your university experience in the US. How did they treat eastern art? Did it have the same importance as western art?

  • jsp507


    Your response to the book, The Book of Tea reminds me of some Eastern efforts towards weaving minds and perspectives together. You may find some useful nuggets in the book titled, The Dalai Lama at MIT. It´s essentially about dialogue between Western Science and Eastern contemplative traditions, particularly Buddhism. The book inspires interrogations of the different knowledge traditions–for the purpose of deepening our understanding of the nature of reality and how humans construct reality. I was surprised to learn how much of Buddhism resides in observing science, especially Japanese sects.

    In the past I´ve worked with people from China and India and I quickly learned that my approach to understanding the world reveals itself in a very straightforward, no frills, linear way. For example, I´d present a sketch for an online ap to a programmer from India. He would spend all this time working on beautiful code. I´d review it and change it without thinking twice-all I wanted was prototypes but in response got something different that I wasn´t able to see any value in. In hindsight, I see that his way absolutely had value. I wasn´t open to the possibility at the time.

    In other situations in these group settings it was so difficult for me to understand what the hell was happening and if everyone was talking about the same project, and I had to be uncomfortably patient. I found that they would talk or work around the specific subject at hand in a circular way for the purpose of discovery. I try to remember how they thought and constructed reality in circles whenever I hit a wall with ITP stuff.

    Over the past few years I spent nearly four months in Vietnam. In comparison to the Western way of life, they don´t seem stressed at all. This could be due to the language barrier but it´s what I saw and felt. What I gathered from the places I went, the way of life in Vietnam relies on manual labor. In contrast, the way of life that I´m immersed in is mentally demanding and it comes at a price–it´s common and completely acceptable for us not to have time for ourselves or our families–this is a significant contrast across cultures. Does it have to be this way?

  • Andrew Cerrito

    I’m a Westerner who studied Eastern history in school! Take everything I say with a grain of salt, though – it’s been quite awhile and I’m rusty on details.

    One thing that has always struck me as interesting about tea ceremony (as least as it pertains to Japan, I can’t speak for China or other regions) is that nearly EVERYTHING about it is codified. There are prescribed dimensions for the room in which you enjoy tea. There are regulations about what decorative objects you can hang in the room that change for every season. All the objects used for preparation and serving are supposed to be cultivating a particular aesthetic of weathered beauty (tea objects aren’t supposed to be new or perfectly made – imperfections are valued). The ceremony itself is 3+ hours long and there are prescribed phases of showing the tea preparation objects to guests, pointing out the decorations, guests asking questions about the objects, there’s lots of ritual purification, etc, etc…. I’m fuzzy on this, but I don’t think they even get to the drinking tea part until at least halfway through the ceremony. And of course, all the actions (pouring tea, passing the cups, drinking the tea) should be performed in a prescribed, highly ritualized manner.

    To me, paradoxically, this was interesting because it seemed so incredibly boring! I remember thinking that there seemed to be very little room for creative expression in a tea ceremony. Of course, the host can pick the decorations and the objects, but there are so many rules to be obeyed that I could not imagine any two ceremonies being that radically different.

    I could go on to link this to differences in cultural values for another billion words, but instead I’ll ask this: We’re in a school highly prized for innovation, and yet ritualization and familiarity can provide feelings of deep comfort. Do you value innovation over tradition? If so, to what extent? What are the ideal environments for each?

    P.S. The man who basically spearheaded the tea movement in Japan, Sen no Rikyu, ended up getting ordered to commit ritual suicide by the shogun at the time for differences in opinion. Who knew tea could get so controversial?

  • mam1286

    This isn’t really on topic for the comments here, but I found the addition of this book interesting in the context of ITP.

    You note that Teaism is based, “Theoretically, on the Taoistic ideas of acceptance of the world as it is and on search of the beauty in our world of woe and worry.”

    This idea seems to me like a very important reminder, especially when we’re in the midst of finals. We’re constantly moving, immersed in the woe and worry around us and it’s easy to be overwhelmed sometimes. Searching for beauty and accepting the beauty that exists in the world instead of constantly immersing yourself in work is something I think is extremely valuable. It helps us to process what we learn, and can often reveal things to us that we would miss otherwise. It also seems like Teaism has a lot to do with simplicity and “white space”, which people often have trouble understanding. As artists and people who want to write elegant code, I think that coming to understand some of these concepts is essential to our success.

  • Nancy

    Thanks for those references, Susan.

  • Nancy

    There’s a lot to be said for the power of ritual and formality, too. Not always creating anew.

  • Nancy

    Nice thought, Mike. Breathe.

  • Yang Wang

    I feel happy to find there are someone are interested in the cultural differences between western and eastern civilization. The fact which you can not negate is – the tendency of whole world’s civilization has been dominated by the western culture. Sadly speaking, in China, no matter mainland or Hong kong, the cult of western culture has become more and more apparently, in people’s mind, it seems like that stuff coming from western society is much more better or advanced than our own culture, I don’t know if this phenomena (consider the other culture is better than native’s ) existing in USA or not. But yes, consumerism has seized all of the world radically. One of the view of value has becoming the extreme king in the world, the rest, are being abandon, ignored.

    If you have read some books about Philosophy, you will see that the aims are quite different between western and eastern. The western Philosophy derived from ancient Greece, the goal of western Philosophers is finding the truth of the world, the principle of the universe, and what in essence of matter is, something like this, of course they have Ethics, discussing what is moral. But that’s still different with Asian Philosophy. Seriously speaking, asian don’t have philosophy as western’s, they only have the rules of being good people, mostly, like the Confucianists, the core goal of it is to teach people how to be a 君子 (Chinese gentleman), all things are surround 修身养性 (cultivate one’s mind). Although we have Taoists for exploring the essence of the world, but still much more shadowy, you know, western philosopher are serious and full of logic deduction. The reason why I typed so much about the differences is to paint a picture in the future, we consider all the civilization on the same level, western, eastern, all will be a important role in the world, that’s must be a huge revolution, must be involved the rethink of what logic is and the root of our value and the view of world.

    If there is the end of the world, I believe that must be something happen to let people realize the logic is not the only way to touch the ultimate truth,

    Sorry for diverging so much, just said what jumped out in my mind.

  • Azure Q

    Hangzhou, my hometown, which is a half-city, half-garden place in China, also enjoys good fame on Longjing Green Tea. The best season of my hometown is spring.

    Imagine, the hand picked tender green shot brewing into a small cup of green tea. Relax and enjoy, every sip of it— a mouthful fresh spring air.
    Oh my~the best of spring is the moment of peace with a cup of tea.

    Well, when I was a child, coffee, hot chocolate, Coke, and Sprit have been popular for decades. However, I switched my drinking habit from soft drinks to tea during my college years when I started to learn an ancient musical instrument –Qin-zither.

    My Master-Shifu kept drinking different tea and he has good knowledge not only about different types of tea but also the Cha Dao (The tea ceremony). I fell grateful that my mom sent me there and I leave with the master’s family for half a month. Those days gave me a chance to gradually get the sense of how the ancient scholars live in the past.

    I followed their daily-schedule everyday. In the morning, all the family members were wake up early. When they were preparing the breakfast; I was using a writing brush to draw and write. After breakfast, Shifu taught me the 7-stringed musical instrument, which is very flexible with the rhythm. Just like Jazz, you can change the rhythm flowing your feeling. I kept learning and practicing for 2 hours. And then, after eating lunch, taking a nap, I enjoyed tea with Mater Shifu. He taught me more sophistic theory during the tea and chatting time. We usually choose more than 2 types of tea for the afternoon teatime. The different tea has different taste and health benefits.

    Sometimes, I joined them boating and walking after sunset. I appreciate those peaceful days.

    It’s so pity that the old country lost its way of enjoying life but becoming the world factory only for the temporary benefits by sacrificing the environment. More and more people can’t slow down their life pace any more.

    My grandfather used to tell me, where there is one more poet, there is less criminal. I shall add that where there has more people in China who drinking tea again, there will be more people enjoy life rather than rushing for money.

  • Max Ma

    Mike mentioned about “white space”, it reminds me that there is a common technique has been used in the traditional Chinese painting called “Liu Bai”. This Chinese word means not to fill in all the spaces on a canvas. This is an art representation way that allows the general surfaces of a painting to be able to “breathe”. Check the famous painting by Ma Yuan (). There is only one small boat on the whole canvas, can you feel the breeze whispers across the lake?,_by_Ma_Yuan,_1195.jpg