Sunday, September 26, 2004

Summer Reading 7

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

At first glance this book looks like ancient Chinese or Japanese wisdom literature. It's not. It was written in the mid-nineteenth century in English by Okakura, a Japanese man, who was curator of Chinese and Japanese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This is not to denigrate Okakura, but the book cannot really hold a candle to, say, Confucius. Of course, Okakura gladly admitted this. His goal in writing the book was to preserve and defend the Japanese heritage of art. He does this by presenting the Japanese aesthetic as ornamently and plainly as possible. The proper path between ornament and plainness is where one finds the Japanese aesthetic, at least the Japanese aesthetic of which Okakura speaks.

The Japanese aesthetic is essentially one of refined taste. The tea ceremony, with its understated elegance, is the central symbol of the text, but, as Okakura admits, the tea ceremony exists for the tea master. It is the tea master who has the proper aesthetic knowledge of art and other beautiful things. The many, who have unrefined tastes, are completely ignorant of the serenity and beauty with which the tea master is in daily communion.

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