What tea can teach us

Posted on May 12, 2015


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“(Tea) 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 Book of Tea, Tenshin Okakura

I’ve just returned from Japan, a place I’ve always dreamed of travelling to. And what delighted me most was the way it took my expectations and contradicted them all: in the explosions of greenery amidst urban sprawl; mismatched (but oh-so-beautiful) ceramics serving impeccably presented food; fast fashion selling at slow prices; and a mysterious absence of green tea from most cafe menus.

None of this seemed accidental. Instead, it felt like a measured social reminder of the importance of small, surprising details; an appreciation for the perfection of the imperfect.

A little like drinking a cup of tea, perhaps.

But what might a puddle a leaves have to do with Japan?

It was in Japan that Tenshin Okakura first published The Book of Tea. Written around the turn of the last century, it is both a philosophical essay and a love letter to the act of drinking tea.

Of course, the story doesn’t start in Japan – it begins in China. Legend has it that the Emperor Shennong decided to take a rest under a tree one afternoon. While there, he boiled some water to drink and dried leaves floated down into the pot. Intrigued, Shennong took a sip and the rest is history.

Tea usage was traditionally medicinal, or it was used in ritual offerings to ancestors. It wasn’t until around the year 710 that tea made it to Japan, where it was grown around the temples and enjoyed by those in power.

“Strangely enough humanity has so far met in the tea-cup… The white man has scoffed at our religion and our morals, but has accepted the brown beverage without hesitation.” – The Book of Tea, Tenshin Okakura

The earliest record of tea in European writing doesn’t appear until 879, when an Arabian traveller was quoted as saying that the main sources of revenue in Canton were salt and tea. Many years later, the drink became popularised – in 1650 in England, it was described as “that excellent and by all physicians approved China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, and by other nations Tay, alias Tee.”

Over time, tea evolved from being a muddy brew of mashed leaves (often mixed with spices and onion peels) to something enjoyed largely by Buddhist monks, who relied on the caffeine to stay awake during long periods of meditation.

“It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.” – The Book of Tea, Tenshin Okakura

The Japanese Tea Ceremony was developed as an elaborate ritual embodying the core values of Japanese society – harmony, respect, simplicity and tranquility. These values are based heavily on Zen Buddhism, particularly the notion of wabi-sabi, or aesthetic appreciation of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

Much of the ceremony as it is practiced today was introduced by Sen no Rikyu, born in 1522 in Osaka prefecture.

The Way of Tea is naught but this:
first you boil water,
then you make the tea and drink it. – Sen no Rikyu

For Rikyu, drinking tea was a spiritual practice that celebrated simplicity. And so the tea ceremony became a mindful celebration of patience, stillness, nature and careful social etiquette.

“Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.” – The Book of Tea, Tenshin Okakura

The uptake of tea in Japan and around the world happened slowly – partly because it is such a labour-intensive plant to grow. Tea plantations need a lot of space, and for most of history (and still in many places today) each tea leaf is picked by hand.

But by the Edo period (1600-1868), tea had become a part of daily life for the average Japanese person. Today, it is the second most popular beverage in the world after water.

“It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.” – The Book of Tea, Tenshin Okakura

I begin and end most days with a cup of tea. Not for any particular reason, just that for a long time it has felt like the most natural way to greet sunshine or sleep.

Locating this simple daily ritual of mine within years of historical thought somehow makes tea even more magical to my mind: as if the act of steeping leaves or herbs and flowers in a pot of hot water is actually creating a sort of universal harmony. Between breaths. Between memory and forgetting. Between humans and nature. Between people.

Of all the things I loved about Japan, it was this dedication to harmony amidst chaos that I appreciated most.

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.” – The Book of Tea, Tenshin Okakura

Posted in: Travel, Writing