Searching for The Sublime in Mundane - Notes from The Book of Tea

"LET US DREAM OF EVANESCENCE, AND LINGER IN THE BEAUTIFUL FOOLISHNESS OF THINGS."

One of the most important books that I read last year was The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. It talks about much more than just the art of making tea - aesthetics, simplicity and the transcendence found in the seemingly simple rituals of a craft (in this case, tea-making). It is a manual on living a deliberate life, in the depths where the sublime reveals itself to us.

The wisdom in these pages dwarfs the other important aspect of this book - the efficiency of words. At only 160 pages, this short read punches well above its weight. There are no wasted sentences, no time expended in citing shallow stories. It is a study in depth, and living immersed in your craft. I also featured this in my Best books I read in 2016 list.

Here are my notes and highlights from it. Lines from the book are in italics.

 

On the greatness of little things:

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.

This here seems like the crux of Teaism. Most of our life is spent in doing the mundane- sleeping, eating, cooking, washing clothes, etc. The moments of extreme pleasure - sex, travel, sports, dancing - form a minority of our time every day. So, in order to maximise the happiness from our lives, it makes sense to enjoy the mundane as much as we cherish the bursts of extreme pleasure.

The mundane holds equal importance with the spiritual. In the great relation of things, there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. 

The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.

 

On What makes gooD tea:

The best quality of the leaves must have "creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain."

By using such vivid images to describe good leaves, the author has attached a romance to a seemingly simple morning ritual of making tea. This is a constant theme in the book. In fact, I wrote about this in my post A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus.

Lotung, a Tang poet, wrote: "The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,--all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup--ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither."
Wangyucheng eulogised tea as "flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the aftertaste of a good counsel."

If we replace drinking tea with any of our daily tasks, say cleaning, and imagine it being described by a great writer, it will transform from a mere chore to a event to experience in all its glory. While we are at cleaning, let's see what the book says about it.

 

On What Cleanliness Means:

One of the first requisites of a tea-master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting. A piece of antique metal work must not be attacked with the unscrupulous zeal of the Dutch housewife. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness. 

I have no idea why the reference of the Dutch housewife is here. But what attracted my interest was the the attention to small details.

The next quote is about the garden path. It is one of the parts that makes a Tea House.

There is a story of Rikiu which well illustrates 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 his task, and 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 with 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.

 

ON GREAT ART:

The book explains what great art means by explaining  the metaphor of Vacuum. It claims that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. For example, the reality of a room was in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. Likewise, the usefulness of a water pitcher was the emptiness that it contained, and not in the shape or material of the pitcher. 

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 there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

There is a wonderful story about a harp made from exquisite wood. All the harpists in Japan tried to play their songs on it but no one succeeded. It would not produce good music as everyone had hoped. Finally, the hero of the story Peiwoh, a celebrated harpist comes along and plays songs of the trees, the forests, the river - basically everything that the harp might have seen when it was a tree. 

"Sire," he replied, "others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp."

It connects with the concept of vacuum: 

One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. The whole can always dominate the part.

In the olden times, the Samurais of Japan, much like most of Japan at that time held art in high regard. So, often if the samurais were given a job to do, they often sought art instead of money as a form payment for their efforts.

A single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school.

 

SOME APHORISMS:

We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious. We nurse a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others; we take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves. How can one be serious with the world when the world itself is so ridiculous!
Why do men and women like to advertise themselves so much? Is it not but an instinct derived from the days of slavery?
The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar--the emblem of life--and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

Taoism accepts the mundane as it is. And unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry.


The beauty of words in this book is baffling. I sincerely wish that you get a chance to read it. Teaism had taught many things to the Japanese at that time - about culture, art, and living a meaningful life, most of which is still relevant to us. I hope you find it useful. And if you've read it already, leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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