Tea & The Beautiful Foolishness of Things | Inspirational Podcast

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, published in 1906.

Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism called Teaism.

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about humanity and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.

The long isolation of Japan from the rest of the world, so conducive to introspection, was highly favorable to the development of Teaism. The country’s habits, costume, cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting—its very literature—all have been subject to Teaism’s influence. No student of Japanese culture could ever ignore its presence. It has permeated the elegance of noble boudoirs, and entered the abode of the humble.

In common Japanese parlance, we speak of the man “with no tea” in him, when he is unsusceptible to the tragi-comic interests of personal drama. In similar fashion, we stigmatize the untamed aesthete who, regardless of the mundane tragedy, runs riot with emancipated emotions, as one “with too much tea” in him.

The outsider may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a tea-cup! they 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.

Mankind has done worse. In the worship of Bacchus, we have sacrificed too freely; and we have even transfigured the gory image of Mars. Why not consecrate ourselves to the queen of the Camelias, and revel in the warm stream of sympathy that flows from her altar? In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Lao Tzu, and the ethereal aroma of Buddha himself.

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. Most Westerners, in their sleek complacency, will see in the tea ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East.

When will the West understand, or try to understand, the East? We Asians are often appalled by the curious web of facts and fancies which has been woven concerning us. We are pictured as living on the perfume of the lotus, if not on mice and cockroaches. It is either impotent fanaticism or else abject voluptuousness. Indian spirituality has been derided as ignorance, Chinese sobriety as stupidity, Japanese patriotism as the result of fatalism. It has been said that we are less sensible to pain and wounds on account of the callousness of our nervous organization.

Why not amuse yourselves at our expense? Asia returns the compliment. There would be further food for merriment if you were to know all that we have imagined and written about you. All the glamour of the perspective is there, all the unconscious homage of wonder, all the silent resentment of the new and undefined. You have been loaded with virtues too refined to be envied, and accused of crimes too picturesque to be condemned.

Our writers in the past—the wise men who knew—informed us that you had bushy tails somewhere hidden in your garments, and often dined off a fricassee of newborn babies! Nay, we had something worse against you: we used to think you the most impracticable people on the earth, for you were said to preach what you never practiced.

Such misconception, however, are fast vanishing amongst us. Commerce has forced the European tongues on many an Eastern port. Asian youths are flocking to Western colleges for the equipment of modern education. Our insight does not penetrate your culture deeply, but at least we are willing to learn. Some of my compatriots have adopted too much of your customs and too much of your etiquette, in the delusion that the acquisition of stiff collars and silly ties comprised the attainment of your civilization.

Pathetic and deplorable as such affectations are, they evince our willingness to approach the West on our knees. Unfortunately the Western attitude is unfavorable to the understanding of the East. The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive. Your information is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if not on the unreliable anecdotes of passing travelers.

Perhaps I betray my own ignorance of the Tea Cult by being so outspoken. Its very spirit of politeness exacts that you say what you are expected to say, and no more. But I do not wish to be a polite Teaist. So much harm has been done already by the mutual misunderstanding of the New World and the Old that one need not apologize for contributing their donation to the furtherance of a better understanding. You may laugh at us for having “too much tea,” but may we not suspect that you of the West have “no tea” in your constitution?

Let us stop the continents from hurling epigrams at each other, and be sadder if not wiser by the mutual gain of half a hemisphere. We have developed along different lines, but there is no reason why one should not supplement the other. You have gained expansion at the cost of restlessness; we have created a harmony which is weak against aggression. The classic East is indeed better off in some respects than the West

Strangely enough our shared humanity met in the tea-cup. It is the only Asiatic ceremonial which commands universal esteem. The West has scoffed at our religion and our morals, but has accepted the brown beverage without hesitation. The afternoon tea has become an important function in many Western countries.

In the delicate clatter of trays and saucers, in the soft rustle of feminine hospitality, in the common catechism about cream and sugar, we know that the Worship of Tea is established beyond question. The philosophic resignation of the guest to the fate awaiting him in the cup pf tea proclaims that in this single instance the Oriental spirit reigns supreme.

Like all good things of the world, the practice of tea-drinking met with opposition. Heretics like Henry Saville denounced drinking it as a filthy custom. Jonas Hanway said that men seemed to lose their stature and comeliness, women their beauty, through the use of tea. Its cost at the start forbade popular consumption, and made it drink of the aristocracy.

Yet in spite of such drawbacks tea-drinking spread with marvelous rapidity. The coffee-houses of London in the early half of the eighteenth century became, in fact, tea-houses, the resort of wits like Addison and Steele, who beguiled themselves over their “dish of tea.” The beverage soon became a necessity of life—a taxable matter. We are reminded in this connection what an important part it plays in modern history. Colonial America resigned herself to oppression until human endurance gave way before the heavy duties laid on Tea, which ultimately led to the throwing of tea-chests into Boston harbor and then America’s independence.

There is a subtle charm in the taste of tea which makes it irresistible and capable of idealization. Western humorists were not slow to mingle the fragrance of their thought with its aroma. It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa. Samuel Johnson draws his own portrait as “a hardened and shameless tea drinker, who for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of the fascinating plant; who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning.”

Charles Lamb, a professed devotee, sounded the true note of Teaism when he wrote that the greatest pleasure he knew was to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident. 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.

All genuine humorists may in this sense be called tea-philosophers—Thackeray, for instance, and of course, Shakespeare. In this imperfect world of ours, it is perhaps in our demure contemplation of the Imperfect that the West and the East can meet in mutual consolation.

The Taoists say that at the great beginning of the No-Beginning, Spirit and Matter met in mortal combat. At last the Yellow Emperor, the Sun of Heaven, triumphed over the demon of darkness and earth. The Titan, in his death agony, struck his head against the solar vault and shivered the blue dome of jade into fragments. The stars lost their nests, the moon wandered aimlessly among the wild chasms of the night.

In despair, the Yellow Emperor sought far and wide for the repairer of the Heavens. He had not to search in vain. Out of the Eastern sea rose a queen, Niuka, horn-crowned and dragon-tailed, resplendent in an armor of fire. She welded the five-colored rainbow in her magic cauldron and rebuilt the Chinese sky. But it is told that Niuka forgot to fill two tiny crevices in the blue firmament. Thus began the dualism of love—two souls rolling through space and never at rest until they join together to complete the universe. Everyone has to build anew their sky of hope and peace.

The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the monstrous struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practiced for the sake of utility. The East and the West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar.

Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboo; the fountains are bubbling with delight; the sighing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.

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