The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, 1906
The Book of Tea (茶の本 Cha no Hon) by Okakura Kakuzō (1906) is a long essay linking the role of chadō (teaism) to the aesthetic and cultural aspects of Japanese life. This essay, or book, was written for a Western audience where the book emphasizes how Teaism taught the Japanese many things; most importantly, simplicity. Kakuzō argues that this tea-induced simplicity affected art and architecture in Japan. It is a 53 page book that can be easily found in PDF format if one has a desire to read and study his writings on this subject.
Okakura Kakuzō (February 14, 1863 – September 2, 1913) was a Japanese scholar who made contributions to the development of art in Japan. Okakura was one of the principal founders of the first Japanese fine-arts academy, Tokyo bijutsu gakko (Tokyo School of Fine Arts). He also founded Nihon Bijutsuin (Japanese Institute of Fine Arts) with Hashimoto Gahō and Yokoyama Taikan.
Our study of this book was to gain influence into the Japanese aesthetic and a way of seeing beauty. Our desire was then to apply these concepts to our study and practice of suiseki. Today’s blog post will contain a few key quotes from his essay and our thoughts on them.
“The long isolation of Japan from the rest of the world, so conducive to introspection, has been highly favorable to the development of Teaism. Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting—our very literature—all have been subject to its influence…Our peasants have learned to arrange flowers, our meanest laborer to offer his salutation to the rocks and water. In our common parlance we speak of the man “with no tea” in him, when he is insusceptible to the serio-comic interest of the personal drama. Again we stigmatize the unnamed aesthete who, regardless of mundane tragedy, runs riot in the springtide of emancipated emotions, as one “with too much tea” in him.
The Outside may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a tea-cup! He will say. But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.”
What a start to his essay. He quickly grabs the reader’s attention. Tea was introduced to Britain in the 1700s and any student of history understands its significance to the creation of the United States of America. However, how many of us would view a cup of tea in the context in which it is being presented here?
We are also struck by his observation “how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is” as insightful for 1906 but how even more insightful for us more than 100 years later. Life is so busy, so full of mundane or meaningless activities. How often can we say our days are full of enjoyment, much less our very lives?
Let’s move forward.
“In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself….Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”
Note: Confucius (551–479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. The philosophy of Confucius, also known as Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. Traditions hold that Lao Tse lived in the 6th century B.C., possibly from around 570 to 490 B.C. He served as keeper of the imperial archives or court librarian at Loyang, in Honan province, and was a contemporary of Confucius, though about 20 years older. Sakyamuni is one of the titles of the Buddha, deriving from the name of Sakya where he was born.
How do we interpret the author’s view that if we cannot “feel the littleness of great things then we are likely to overlook the greatness of little things in others?” I think of the many times in the evaluation of suiseki how quickly I make a “decision” on what I see! How this initial view entrenches me into a position that with further study holds no value whatsoever.
I distinctly recall seeing this stone for the first time in the book Suiseki An Art Created by Nature, The Nyogakuan Collection of Japanese Viewing Stones, Volume I. This is the first stone discussed in the book and carries the label A-1. Staring at it I could not fathom why this stone was in the book much less the first to be described! The description for this Kamagawa stone is as follows: “This stone appears plain at first glance, but when observed closely, it can be noticed that it is plump and warming.”
Quickly I flipped the pages to the next stone hoping there were better examples to be found. This was more than 10 years ago and over the years I found myself returning to stone A-1 to study and enjoy it. What changed? As Kakuzō so eloquently writes, perhaps I was becoming better at seeing the “greatness in little things.” The Unjo Enbo is plump; it does have a warm feeling. Is it a classical distant mountain stone with sharp peaks – well no – but it certainly does in a romantic way represent a distant view over clouds doesn’t it?
I learned from this experience to withhold quick judgments with suiseki. We must study to see what the stone is offering to us and how it speaks to our view and perspectives on life. How does it interact with our surroundings, what memories does it invoke and what feelings are derived from its study?
“For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal. It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humor itself—the smile of philosophy…The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”
Evanescence is defined as disappear, vanish. There is a dual meaning for me in this statement as the viewing of suiseki leads to both an eventual remembrance and disappearance of memories invoked by the stone itself while at the same time realizing the experience of observing and feeling at that very moment will also vanish quick quickly. So there is a longing of desire to linger in its beauty for a few more moments.
“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. 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 surrounds, all movements to be performed simply and naturally-such were the aims of the tea-ceremony. And strangely enough it was often successful. A subtle philosophy lay behind it all.”
“In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. 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. A vacuum is here for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.”
As we think of stone display, stones are often placed on a stand or perhaps a white museum box with barely another article surrounding it. There might be a singular colored material covering the display tables. Does this lack of complexity inhibit or improve our aesthetic emotion?
Or is it better to add an object, or two, to the scene to better yet contribute to how the stone is received? Does this add to its aesthetic emotion?
Clearly a exhibition like this has an obligation to its participants to display numerous stones so that its many visitors have an opportunity to see a large collection of suiseki. But from our viewpoint, these types of shows have a very different purpose than that of the historical tea room or the tokonoma found in Japanese homes.
We find that attempting to study stones in a general exhibition is quite difficult due to not only the volume of stones being displayed but also inability to quietly study the stone without distractions such as noise and lighting. This is not to be taken that exhibitions should not be planned and executed, not whatsoever. We are challenging the notion that one can really achieve what is being written by Kakuzō in these types of displays; therefore shouldn’t we attempt to create some type of atmosphere that gains us entry into the tea-room concept for stones?
“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 surrounds, all movements to be performed simply and naturally-such were the aims of the tea-ceremony.”
This ideal seems to us to be better achieved in a display such as a Tokonoma. The NSA catalog beautifully illustrates this point with 10-15 types of these displays where the owner/artist can evoke a vision as to their intended purpose in the display.
Our collection contains stones that at first do lend themselves to continue to be in our collection. Yet, with quiet contemplation, sometimes over a period of years, we begin to see a hidden beauty in these ancient stones. Is it possible that we needlessly discount beauty simply because we the viewer will not take the time to properly establish the appropriate conditions for study?
In addition, even with stones that upon first glance capture our imagination, we find that quiet contemplation of these stones allow us to capture more nuanced aspects of them.
A striking stone that has been suiseki for a very long time. When observing this stone we are drawn to its mountain peaks and the flowing lines from right-to-left. But one can easily miss the valley floor at the bottom of the stone almost immediately below the highest peak on the right. This small detail when carefully observed adds a great deal of texture and context to the stone and It adds a sense of three dimensionality that is often missing in stones whose fronts simply descend in an angular line to the bottom of the stone.So how best to display this, or any other, stone so that we can attempt to achieve this concept? Let us review again what Kakuzō states:
“In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. 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. A vacuum is here for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.” [Emphasis added by author.]
In our next blog post, we will further explore Kakuzō’s writing of the tea-room’s characteristics and the importance of same.