The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, 1906
This is the third part of this story and comprises the final section. Let us continue with Kakuzō’s writing on the tea ceremony.
“The tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us these memorable words: “Approach a great painting as thou wouldst approach a great prince.” In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgment matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.”
“It is to be deplored that so few of us really take pains to study the moods of masters. In our stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.”
This so reminds me of a story that my good friend Mas Nakajima relayed to me in one of our study sessions. Mas’ teacher, Mr. Hirotsu, spent many afternoons discussing suiseki with him. On one occasion he gifted him with a stone.
Mas was in his mid-30s and had admired a number of Mr. Hirotsu’s suiseki. When he was gifted with the stone above, Mas was quite unhappy. He had hoped to be gifted with a more traditional stone which would show the beauty of a landscape.
As he told this story a large smile came across Mas’ face as he continued to describe to me that his appreciation for this stone has grown over the years as he realized that Mr. Hirotsu was teaching him that the spirit of Zen in the stone can far outweigh the style of the stone. Mas continued to describe the stone in attributes of it being quiet, humble and very modest.
If you would like to acquire this interview of Mas and his wife Janet, it can be found in the magazine Works and Conversations, Number 32, entitled Living on Earth. You can obtain a copy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to read this article online – please click here.
As Mas was my mentor, I took this story to heart as I vividly recall times he would look at a stone that I had found and remark that is was good suiseki. I struggled to see it frankly, and that was quite exasperating. The best example of this occurred on a collecting trip with him and his wife Janet to a lake in Northern CA known for its beautiful Jasper stones. It was coincidentally my birthday and I very much looked forward to this trip as it was just the three of us that day; to have time alone with your mentor is to be treasured.
After an early morning of collecting, I decided to take a long walk to an area where we rarely found anything approaching a stone to take home. During my walk westward along the lake, I happened to notice a stone that appeared to have a pool in it. I picked up the stone to note that it has no evidence of Jasper whatsoever, what I was focusing on collecting, but the pool was interesting. The issue was that the stone was very dark gray, it has bumps or nodules on both the front and back and the pool was not very wide but very deep in the stone. I must admit that I more than once thought about putting it back down on the ground as it wasn’t full of color nor was the pool what I thought it should be for a pool stone. However, if I had learned anything it was when in doubt put the stone in my backpack and show it to Mas during lunch. After our lunch at the top of the largest hill overlooking the lake, I summoned sufficient courage to take the stone out and show it to Mas. He became very quiet…
I have to admit that quietness was unsettling. I had experienced enough times bringing stones to Mas in my early days of collecting for him to politely, but firmly, inform me that the stone wasn’t good suiseki, thus my fear was am I wasting his time once again? I’m sure all students standing before their mentors have had similar encounters.
Mas continued to study the stone and he finally simply said “I will trade all the stones I have found today for this stone.” Now mind you, he had collected more than 20 stones that morning. I’m not sure what emotion swept through me more – one of I must have found a spectacular stone or two what am I not seeing! I thanked Mas and asked for him to describe what he saw. He then took me through an observation of the stone and how he saw in it an ancient mid-1700s tea cup. He smiled at me and said that I had found my meiseki; the designation for a very rare stone due to their outstanding qualities and beauty. My heart soared with joy!
So at the Sung critic stated “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgment matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” I would like to think I’m on that same journey of liking what my master (Mas) had chosen for me to like.
“We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment…It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamor for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful. A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.”
One hundred and ten years later nothing has changed in this regard. I still observe, and have participated myself, in indiscriminate collecting. We seem to enjoy the “hunt” of finding art but yet then spend almost no time being taught by it. In retrospect, I think of the number of inferior stones that I have purchased when I could have aggregated my funds to obtain a specimen where much could be learned. In many ways this is a human normality. When we begin to collect we are unsure of ourselves so we tend to restrict our purchases to smaller transactions. Then as we begin to better understand the art form we expand our collection to include better specimens. Yet, we must be cautious that our collecting isn’t just for collecting sake!
Our displays might also reflect this sentiment as well. Are we better to have fewer displays rather than more? Might this allow more contemplation rather than just seeing?
Again I wish to make clear; I’m not referring to today’s suiseki shows in the US in a denigrating way, not at all. I clearly understand the needs of most clubs to share their member’s stones. I do though think we need to think of suiseki in terms of a real art form worthy of being shown amongst some of the finest paintings and sculptures in our best museums. In this setting, those that are so inclined will have only an opportunity of introduction as well as a few moments to reflect and contemplate these natural forms.
As we close our study of The Book of Tea, perhaps the following this text will resonate with you. It is from the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp. The story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation.
“At the magic touch of the beautiful, the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognize, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their color; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.”
This last paragraph is eloquent and holds great truth. As we think of encountering beauty, be it a painting, a sculpture or a stone, memories are brought back to us – good or bad – and often as stated with a new significance. The work of art, its beauty, and those memories somehow become intertwined and become a part of us and thus we become a part of the masterpiece itself.
My mentor and friend Mas Nakajima passed away on September 10, 2018. For many of us and especially for me this is a tremendous and very personal loss. As I struggle today to comprehend the loss of my friend, I can truly say that Mas will never leave my heart. He taught me so much. Many of the things that he taught me I’m only now beginning to understand. I truly miss him. There is a passage in this Book of Tea that I wish to dedicate to my friend Mas.
“To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality towards which we feel drawn in bonds to comradeship. The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us—the more human the call the deeper is our response.”