Feb 15th, 2011 by Lisa
The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo
Working on my book post for The Elegance of the Hedgehog motivated me to do more research about some of the books mentioned. The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo was one of them. This book, which was originally a 1906 essay, gives a poetic history of tea and describes the art of the tea ceremony.
If you have any tea lovers in your book club, this would be an interesting, and perhaps controversial, book to discuss. It is a very quick read but it is full of philosophical musings that would be fun for a book club to discuss. Read through the discussion questions towards the bottom of the post to learn about some of the issues introduced in The Book of Tea.
Book Club Ideas
Remove all clutter! Simplify! These are two of the themes of the book and essential to truly appreciating the art of drinking tea. Here are some descriptions of a tea room that can help you create a peaceful atmosphere for your guests:
- The experience of the tea room begins with a walk down a garden path, which signifies the first stage of meditation, the passage into self-illumination.
- If a samurai is among your guests, be sure she leaves her sword on the rack beneath the eaves.
- The entrance to the tea room is no more than 3 feet tall, intended to instill humility.
- The orthodox tea room is four mats and a half, or 10 square feet.
- There is silence in the tea room, except for the melodic singing of the iron tea kettle.
- The bamboo dipper and linen napkin should both be immaculately white and new.
- The room itself is immaculate, not one speck of dust in even the darkest corner.
- The objects used for decoration should be selected so that there is no repetition in color or design. The examples Okakura gives are if you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowed; if you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular.
Kakuzo references another great work on tea – “Chaking” by the poet Luwuh. Luwuh considered blue as the ideal color for the teacup as it lends additional greenness to the beverage.
According to Luwuh, it is best to use mountain spring water to make the tea. As you boil your water, look for the three stages of boiling: the first boil is when you see little bubbles like the eyes of fishes; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle.
“The Cake-tea is roasted before the fire until it becomes soft like a baby’s arm and is shredded into powder between pieces of fine paper. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea…then the beverage is poured into cups and drunk. O nectar!”
When making the tea, you need to keep in mind that “each preparation of the leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story.”
Japanese Tea Sets: Click on the picture for more information.
Book Club Resources
Ratings at the time this post was published
Goodreads: 3.88 (494 ratings)
Amazon: 4.5 stars (32 reviews)
Barnes and Noble: 3.5 stars (13 ratings)
My rating: 4 stars. This book is a quick read and does not go into specific detail about tea, but Okakura’s philosophical views were interesting to read.
“A seminal guide to Asian life and thought. . . . Very highly recommended.”—Midwest Book Review
“The book lays bare the centuries of tradition that underpin the seemingly mundane activity of drinking tea.” -Readear blog
Book Club Discussion
1. How does Okakura view the West? Do you agree or disagree with his observations?
2. What parallels does Okakura draw between drinking tea and appreciating art?
3. How does Okakura compare Teaism to Taoism? “Zennism”? Buddhism?
4. Okakura discusses the health benefits of tea including relieving fatigue, delighting the soul, strengthening the will and repairing the eyesight. What other health benefits does tea have?
5. “Great as has been the influence of the tea-masters in the field of art, it is as nothing compared to that which they have exerted on the conduct of life.” What have the Japanese, and what can you, learn from Teaism?
6. Will you look at the act of drinking tea differently after reading this book? (I guarantee you will look at a pot of boiling water differently!)
Purchase The Book of Tea at your favorite bookseller
About the Author
Okakura (1863-1913) was an administrator and scholar who had a profound effect on art and aesthetics both in Japan and the West. He helped found an arts college and in 1904 became an assistant curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Through his writings, Okakura was able to permanently affect the way the West viewed Japan and Asia.
I loved the introduction by Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist and novelist specializing in Japanese culture. One of my favorite quotes in her introduction is: “American culture has traditionally stressed the Romantic notion that form and structure are things to be thrown off to discover the pure artistic soul beneath. In contrast, the idea that deep artistic freedom can lie within rigidly structured form is one of the most important lessons I have learned in my life, and I am grateful that I found it at an early age, in tea.”
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