Tea Teachings on Character Refinement in the Book of Tea

In The Book of Tea there are wonderful teachings about character refinement as it was (and is) practiced in the teachings of Taoism and the teachings of Zen. I have selected some excerpts of these teachings from Chapter III Taoism and Zennism of The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo. Each of these passages is very enlightening in itself. Each passage may also provide you with a taste of this modern classic that has inspired generations to reconsider their values, since its writing in 1906. Over the years I have spent many hours of contemplation on how to master the art of living as it is transmitted by the spirit of Taoism and Zen. I have found it valuable and nourishing to contemplate these teachings.

There is a short introduction into this small (77 pages) book at the end of this post.

“III. Taoism and Zennism

The connection of Zennism with tea is proverbial. We have already remarked that the tea-ceremony was a development of the Zen ritual. The name of Laotse, the founder of Taoism, is also intimately associated with the history of tea. It is written in the Chinese school manual concerning the origin of habits and customs that the ceremony of offering tea to a guest began with Kwan Yin, a well-known disciple of Laotse, who first at the gate of the Han Pass presented to the “Old Philosopher” a cup of the golden elixir. We shall not stop to discuss the authenticity of such tales, which are valuable, however, as confirming the early use of the beverage by the Taoists. Our interest in Taoism and Zennism here lies mainly in those ideas regarding life and art which are so embodied in what we call Teaism.

It is to be regretted that as yet there appears to be no adequate presentation of the Taoists and Zen doctrines in any foreign language, though we have had several laudable attempts.

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade,–all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound? The ancient sages never put their teachings in systematic form. They spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools and ended by making their hearers wise. Laotse himself, with his quaint humour, says, “If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely. It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it.”

The Tao literally means a Path. It has been severally translated as the Way, the Absolute, the Law, Nature, Supreme Reason, the Mode. These renderings are not incorrect, for the use of the term by the Taoists differs according to the subject-matter of the inquiry. Laotse himself spoke of it thus: “There is a thing which is all-containing, which was born before the existence of Heaven and Earth. How silent! How solitary! It stands alone and changes not. It revolves without danger to itself and is the mother of the universe. I do not know its name and so call it the Path. With reluctance I call it the Infinite. Infinity is the Fleeting, the Fleeting is the Vanishing, the Vanishing is the Reverting.” The Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path. It is the spirit of Cosmic Change,–the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds as do the clouds. The Tao might be spoken of as the Great Transition. Subjectively it is the Mood of the Universe. Its Absolute is the Relative.”


“We have said that the Taoist Absolute was the Relative. In ethics the Taoist railed at the laws and the moral codes of society, for to them right and wrong were but relative terms. Definition is always limitation–the “fixed” and “unchangeless” are but terms expressive of a stoppage of growth. Said Kuzugen,–“The Sages move the world.” Our standards of morality are begotten of the past needs of society, but is society to remain always the same? The observance of communal traditions involves a constant sacrifice of the individual to the state. Education, in order to keep up the mighty delusion, encourages a species of ignorance. People are not taught to be really virtuous, but to behave properly. 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! The spirit of barter is everywhere. Honour and Chastity! Behold the complacent salesman retailing the Good and True. One can even buy a so-called Religion, which is really but common morality sanctified with flowers and music. Rob the Church of her accessories and what remains behind? Yet the trusts thrive marvelously, for the prices are absurdly cheap, –a prayer for a ticket to heaven, a diploma for an honourable citizenship. Hide yourself under a bushel quickly, for if your real usefulness were known to the world you would soon be knocked down to the highest bidder by the public auctioneer. Why do men and women like to advertise themselves so much? Is it not but an instinct derived from the days of slavery?”

“Above all we should pay homage to Taoism for what it has done toward the formation of the Celestial character, giving to it a certain capacity for reserve and refinement as “warm as jade.” Chinese history is full of instances in which the votaries of Taoism, princes and hermits alike, followed with varied and interesting results the teachings of their creed. The tale will not be without its quota of instruction and amusement. It will be rich in anecdotes, allegories, and aphorisms. We would fain be on speaking terms with the delightful emperor who never died because he had never lived. We may ride the wind with Liehtse and find it absolutely quiet because we ourselves are the wind, or dwell in mid-air with the Aged one of the Hoang-Ho, who lived betwixt Heaven and Earth because he was subject to neither the one nor the other.”

“But the chief contribution of Taoism to Asiatic life has been in the realm of aesthetics. Chinese historians have always spoken of Taoism as the “art of being in the world,” for it deals with the present–ourselves. It is in us that God meets with Nature, and yesterday parts from to-morrow. The Present is the moving Infinity, the legitimate sphere of the Relative. Relativity seeks Adjustment; Adjustment is Art. The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings. 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 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.

The Taoists claimed that the comedy of life could be made more interesting if everyone would preserve the unities. To keep the proportion of things and give place to others without losing one’s own position was the secret of success in the mundane drama. We must know the whole play in order to properly act our parts; the conception of totality must never be lost in that of the individual. This Laotse illustrates by his favourite metaphor of the Vacuum. He claimed that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible. 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.

These Taoists’ ideas have greatly influenced all our theories of action, even to those of fencing and wrestling. Jiu-jitsu, the Japanese art of self-defence, owes its name to a passage in the Tao-Te King. In jiu-jitsu one seeks to draw out and exhaust the enemy’s strength by non-resistance, vacuum, while conserving one’s own strength for victory in the final struggle. 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 irresistably 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.

He who had made himself master of the art of living was the Real man of the Taoist. At birth he enters the realm of dreams only to awaken to reality at death. He tempers his own brightness in order to merge himself into the obscurity of others. He is “reluctant, as one who crosses a stream in winter; hesitating as one who fears the neighbourhood; respectful, like a guest; trembling, like ice that is about to melt; unassuming, like a piece of wood not yet carved; vacant, like a valley; formless, like troubled waters.” To him the three jewels of life were Pity, Economy, and Modesty.”

Introduction: The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo shows how Tea has affected nearly every aspect of Japanese culture, thought, and life. The book is accessible to Western audiences because, though Kakuzo was born and raised Japanese, he was trained from a young age to speak English. In this book he explains tea in the context of Zen and Taoism as well as the secular aspects of Tea and Japanese life. This book emphasizes how Teaism taught the Japanese many things; most importantly, simplicity. Kakuzo argues that this tea-induced simplicity affected Japanese art and architecture. A clear guide to living a simple and fulfilling life.”

Link to Amazon




11 thoughts on “Tea Teachings on Character Refinement in the Book of Tea

  1. That’s it, tea is a break from being a slave,something unrecognised in it’s routine but much understood by the population who take refuge in it fleetingly that the said tea or coffee break has the eloquent consciousness of the tea ceremony yet both are a reading, one is poetic and the other tabloid.
    Great blog and I love the photo.

    • Very true! And looking at the “unsaid” or “unexpressed” in artwork of the Orient that gives the perceiver the space to be a part of the artwork and “complete” it internally – Starbuck’s is very poetic, I find! Believe it and you will see it…

  2. I love this. I received Tao earlier this year in June, was a blessed experience for me, and whenever I vist my Tao friends we always have green tea, it is a ritual I love!

    P.S. you were following my last blog which I thought I had deleted 🙂 I’m a newbie here so still finding my way around. http://www.tarotalchemist.wordpress.com

    Much love

  3. Reblogged this on 1earthnow and commented:
    Let us sit, prepare, share tea… that is the Tao. Zen-full post describes the source of it all. Enjoy your tea! 謝謝 ‘sheh sheh’.

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