Part II, The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, 1906

If you haven’t read Part I, we suggest you do that before beginning Part II.

“The tea-room (the Sukiya) does not pretend to be other than a mere cottage—a straw hut, as we call it. The original ideographs for Sukiya mean the Adobe of Fancy.  Latterly the various tea-masters substituted various Chinese characters according to their conception of the tea-room, and the term Sukiya may signify the Abode of Vacancy or the Abode of the Unsymmetrical.  It is an Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse.  It is an Abode of Vacancy inasmuch as it is devoid of ornamentation except for what may be placed in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment.  It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.”

“The first independent tea-room was the creation of Senno-Soyeki, commonly known by his later name of Rikiu, the greatest of all tea-masters, who, in the sixteenth century, under the patronage of Taiko-Hideoshi, instituted and brought to a high state of perfection the formalities of the Tea-ceremony.”

“The Sukiya consist of the tea-room proper, designed to accommodate not more than five persons. The tea-room is unimpressive in appearance.  It is smaller than the smallest of Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty.  Yet we must remember that all of this is the result of profound artistic fore-thought, and that the details have been worked out with care perhaps even greater than expended on the building of the richest palaces and temples.”

To be noted is this reinforcement of the concept of “unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.”  In Part I, the author connects this concept with the following:

“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.”

Let’s for a moment leave the tea-room and discuss how this concept adds value to suiseki display.  Does our display concept allow for this “leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination” to complete?  Let’s take a moment to study this brilliant stone from the Iwasaki collection.


Kamaogawa Yase Sudachi-Maguro-ishi (A-8); Title: “Ugo no Sansui” (The Landscape After Rain)

Before you proceed into the following text take a moment and truly study this stone.  Click the above image to see the full resolution photo while also obscuring the text.  Spend 3-5 minutes observing each aspect of the stone and its display.  See you back in a few!

I hope you will agree that this is a fabulous example of suiseki.  This Iwasaki stone carries the number 2 in kanji character form and also the number 18.  So what do you see?  Let’s take a moment to analyze this stone.

We find a well-proportioned stone with a distinctive peak that has a beautiful waterfall cascading down the right-hand side of the tall peak.  What about the white inclusions we see running across the bottom of the stone?  Is this tidal foam or as the name suggests simply the reflection of rain off the landscape? The stone is presented in river sand contained with an older bronze/copper doban that shows great age and patina.  The doban is well matched to this stone as there seems to be from the photo just a hint of red in the stone.  The texture of the stone and doban is rough – a smooth doban would not seem as congruent with the roughly textured stone, so an excellent choice by its owner.

This rather quiet, un-busy display, in our opinion, speaks volumes to this concept of letting us “complete the idea” of what we are observing.  How so, let us give just a few thoughts to this subject. When we see this stone our mind’s eye can be taken into two directions, or more.  One this distant mountain stone rises from a vast plain.  After an afternoon storm, the sun just begins to peak out amongst the clouds and as the heat begins to rise so does the evaporation of the late afternoon rain from the forest trees and plants.  Do you recall on a hot summer day after a cooling rain seeing what looks like water evaporation almost like mist rising into the sky?

A secondary view might be of a coastal mountain.  Now the sand represents the ocean. The waterfall is moving the fallen rain; thus returning it to the vast ocean below.  Also we can see the remnants of the tide cascading up the slope of the mountains rocks. If we continue with the later view, we might also add the sounds of gulls, plovers, terns or sanderlings.  The added noise of a cacophony of elephant seals might mentally enhance our view of this stone.

In a Tokonoma, a scroll might be added to provide some visual clues as to the season, the locale or even the weather.  But absent of anything else is this the end of the display or where we should start?  I think perhaps that the inclusion of only a few elements allows us a rather quiet, un-busy display, in our opinion, speaking volumes to this concept of letting us “complete the idea” of what we are observing.

To stand across the street, so to speak, on this issue is there anything wrong with adding even more elements? No, and especially if this is a display primarily for us or our home.  However, might we be wise in a more public setting to allow each viewer to visually and mentally explore the scenes evoked by this wonderful suiseki without too many added elements?

Let’s continue with more of Kakuzō writings.

“The simplicity and purism of the tea-room resulted from emulation of the Zen monastery.  On the altar, flowers and incense are offered up on the memory of the great contributions which these sages made to Zen.  We might add here that the altar of the Zen chapel was the prototype of the Tokonoma—the place of honor in a Japanese room where paintings and flowers are placed for the edification of the guests.”

“The roji, the garden path which leads from the machiai to the team-room, signified the first stage of mediation-the passage into self-illumination.”

Note: The koshikake Machiai is an area for guests, who have come from the Yoritsuki (waiting shelter of the outer garden) and walked down the garden path. Here, they wait for the host to welcome them inside the tea house. It is usually fitted with Enza, individual round mats of woven rush, and an ashtray. In colder months, there is often a small heater for guests to warm their hands.

“The roji was intended to break connection with the outside world and produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself.  One who has trodden this garden path cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he walked in the twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed beside the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above ordinary thoughts.  One may be in the midst of a city, and yet feel as if he were in the forest far away from the dust and din of civilization.”

Let’s pause for a moment and discuss this idea of a transitionary approach to the tea-room.  The concept of using a transition point is paramount as the author states its purpose is for “breaking connection with the outside world.”

Someone that understood this well was Walt Disney.  Disney World is 40 square miles or the same size of the city of San Francisco, CA.  Upon taking the exit into Disney Land, Walt was intent in having a great deal of land, thus a drive, before entering into the actual theme park.  He wanted to remove you from the busyness outside the park so he could begin to bring you into his magic kingdom.

As noted earlier, for me attempting to contemplate suiseki at a show is very difficult based on the number of distractions present.  In your mind think through the last experience you had at a stone show. What was that experience like in terms of attempting to contemplate each stone? Museums attempt to correct these problems in how they present art.  The room is lit only where it enhances the art, the room tends to be very quiet, and often there is a place to sit and observe.  All of these help us to transition to a mode of contemplation.  Our Dixon Gallery, located in Memphis, TN, utilizes a tree lined walkway that guides you from the parking lot to the ticket kiosk from where you are led next to a continuation of the tree-lined path leading into the entrance of the museum.  This is quite effective at beginning to “calm the soul” before entering into this house of art.

As we think of contemplating suiseki for ourselves, we like many of you, have stones scattered around our house amongst other pieces of art, furniture, rugs, and the like.  Frankly, it is so busy it is hard to compare it to this idea of the roji as one approaches the tea-room.  Perhaps this is why garden stones were so popular in China and Japan as the ability to set a mood was easier to establish in a garden setting.  Before we delve deeper into a potential solution for the contemplation of stones, let’s continue in the text as Kakuzō is about to really enlighten us on what to me is one of the most key attributes of the tea-room.

“Thus prepared the guest will silently approach the sanctuary, and, if a samurai, will leave his sword on the rack beneath the eaves, the tea-room being preeminently the house of peace. Then he will bend low and creep into the room through a small door not more than three feet in height. This proceeding was incumbent on all guests—high and low alike—and was intended to inculcate (instill) humility. The order of precedence having been mutually agreed upon while resting in the machiai, the guests one by one will enter noiselessly and take their seats, first making obeisance to the picture or flower arrangement on the Tokonoma.  The host will not enter the room until all the guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the iron kettle. The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some faraway hill.”

Close your eyes for just a moment and replay this scene in your mind’s eye.  As you have walked down the garden path and your mind and soul begin to relax immersed in the trees and moss and soft wind, the approach to the entry to the tea-room creates the need to bend low to move into the room.  This requirement of bending down will be discussed later in this post, but remember it well as it is highly important to this experience.  Quietly in silence one enters into the tea-room and takes their place amongst the other guests.  Entering into this quiet space the outside fades away and we are introduced into a new environment; one where virtually the only noise is that of boiling water in a kettle.  Note how the author describes for some it is as if the sea is breaking for others a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest or lastly the soughing (moaning, whistling, or rushing sound) of pines on a faraway hill.  This reminds us of his earlier admonition to allow us to complete the idea of our surroundings.

I find that I don’t often allow sufficient time for this transition of busyness to quietness when observing to occur.  A fast entry into the room where the stone is displayed, an immediate thought as to what I see, my mind racing.  This often, perhaps always, leads to a quick review of the stone and then my mind is off to the races again. Is it no wonder that I don’t often see the greatness in the little things of the stone?  Shouldn’t we transition from the point of busyness and distraction to quietness so that we can at least give respect to the stone via our full attention?

Let’s continue…

“Even in the daytime the light in the room is subdued, for the low eaves of the slanting roof admit but few of the sun’s rays. Everything is sober in tint from the ceiling to the floor; the guests themselves have carefully chosen garments of unobtrusive colors. The mellowness of age is over all, everything suggestive of recent acquirement being tabooed save only the one note of contrast furnished by the bamboo dipper and the linen napkin, both immaculately white and new.  However faded the tea-room and the tea-equipage may seem, everything is absolutely clean…not a particle of dust will be found in the darkest corner, for if any exists the host is not a tea-master… what Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness.”


We love the thought of allowing dripping water to be present as the author writes.  One must be careful that the environment doesn’t become sterile.  To confirm this view, Kakuzō continues.

“In this connection there is a story of Rikiu which will illustrate the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters.  Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. “Not clean enough,” said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished the task, and he bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: “Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining from a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground.” “Young fool,” chided the tea-master, “that is not the way a garden path should be swept.” Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.”

One might propose in establishing a display for our stones this concept of cleanliness but also room for the beautiful and the natural as well should be followed.  I seek the reader’s guidance in how this might be accomplished.  Should our display include a freshly cut flower in an earthen or bronze vase with water droplets on the leaves of the flower slowly dripping to the surface of the display.  Might it be as simple as a grouping of flowers but yet one small petal has fallen to the floor?

Let’s continue…

“The term, Abode of Vacancy, besides conveying the Taoist theory of all-containing, involves the conception of a continued need of change in decorative motives.  The tea-room is absolutely empty, except for what may be placed there temporarily to satisfy some aesthetic mood…To a Japanese, accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and frequent change of decorative method, a Western interior permanently filled with a vast array of pictures, statuary, and bric-a-brac gives the impression of mere vulgar display of riches.  It calls for a mighty wealth of appreciation to enjoy the constant sight of even a masterpiece, and limitless indeed must be the capacity for artistic feeling in those who can exist day after day in the midst of such confusion of color and form as is to be often seen in the homes of Europe and America.”

“The Abode of the Unsymmetrical suggests another phase of our decorative scheme. The absence of symmetry in Japanese art objects has been often commented on by Western Critics.  The dynamic nature of their philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself.  True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete…In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself.  Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and flowers became the favorite subjects for depiction rather than the human figure, the latter being present in the person of the beholder himself.”

There is a great deal to digest in these last two paragraphs.  Do we merge the idea of vacancy and unsymmetrical into our display methodology?  I believe the author is correct that in the West we tend to overwhelm our designs with too many objects—often random and without connection to the whole; but perhaps more importantly too many items thus relegating the viewer to the displayer’s perspective rather than allowing the viewer to “complete the total effect” individualistically.

Can we begin to understand the philosophy of stressing the “process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself?”  This idea of dissymmetry as something imperfect which is in the process toward perfection is difficult to grasp.  “Perfection” is grasped as an ideal end to arrive at, whereas the dissymmetry is understood as something which, being imperfect, has not yet arrived at the end and which is halfway to being completed by one’s imagination.  So might we then consider that “perfection” is different for each individual, therefore if I as the displayer achieve perfection is that perfection only for me, such then the display must be headed towards perfection thus allowing the imagination of each viewer to continue on the journey to “their” view of perfection.

This is such a central core thought for the tea ceremony that it bares spending some time considering its potential influence for the our personal, or small group, study of suiseki.  Let’s review the photograph of stone A-12, titled “Araiso” (reef).  This is a Kamogawa Shizuhata Itomaki-ishi and is displayed in an oval basin of white Cochin ware.

Kamogawa Shizuhata Itomaki-ishi A-12

The Iwasaki family stone, number 6 written in red and in kanji the character three in white, is described as a scene of roaring waves dashing against coastal reefs.  The name “Araiso” translates as reef.

This is further emphasized in this photo through the use of a small bronze figure on the leftmost jutting point on the stone.  So does this element help to complete the display? It certainly adds scale doesn’t it.  However, in the context of the ideal that we should allow the viewer’s imagination to complete the picture does the addition of the small figure go too far, or does it help move the scene more towards perfection but still allowing the viewer to use their imagination to complete the scene?

For me personally, I would prefer it without the figure, but I can see its use in that the stone has somewhat of an odd shape for a coastal stone with the secondary jutting precipice at the top left.  Perhaps the use of the figure centers the viewer that this is a coastal scene and now the imagination of the viewer can be utilized more towards what is unseen in the display.

Is the person fishing, staring into the distance attempting to see an approaching vessel, or perhaps just lost in thoughts of someone they miss seeing?    Perhaps one can see that with a simplistic display such as this one’s imagination and what our mind’s eye sees can be vastly different than the person sitting next to us viewing the very same display.  One can only assume that is the point of this ideal.

Let’s continue…

“In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence.  The various objects for the decoration of a room should be so selected that no color or design shall be repeated twice.  If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable.  If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular. A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with a tea-caddy of black lacquer. In placing a vase of an incense burner on the Tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact center, lest it divide the space into equal halves.  Here again the Japanese method of interior decoration differs from that of the Occident, where we see objects arrayed symmetrically on mantelpieces and elsewhere.”

“The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world. There and there alone one can consecrate himself to undisturbed adoration of the beautiful. In the seventeenth century, after the strict formalism of the Tokugawa rule had been developed, it offered the only opportunity possible for the free communion of artistic spirits. Before a great work of art there was no distinction between daimyo, samurai, and commoner.”

As we now close this post, how appropriate that the author illuminates this ideal.  A great piece of art stirs within all of us an emotion regardless of our station in life or even the troubles we might have that day. For a moment, in its presence our imagination can take over – we can remove ourselves from the outside world to enjoy a brief respite.  Nothing in our imagination can be blocked by an outside force from seeing and experiencing beauty, even if only for just a few moments.

Our next post will continue with Okakura Kakuzō writing on art appreciation.