The Book of Tea- Kakazuo Okakura

The Book of Tea- Kakazuo Okakura


To European architects brought up on the traditions of stone and brick
construction, our Japanese method of building with wood and bamboo
seems scarcely worthy to be ranked as architecture. It is but quite
recently that a competent student of Western architecture has
recognised and paid tribute to the remarkable perfection of our great
temples. Such being the case as regards our classic architecture, we could
hardly expect the outsider to appreciate the subtle beauty of the tearoom,
its principles of construction and decoration being entirely different
from those of the West.
The tea-room (the Sukiya) does not pretend to be other than a mere
cottage–a straw hut, as we call it. The original ideographs for Sukiya mean
the Abode of Fancy. Latterly the various tea-masters substituted various
Chinese characters according to their conception of the tea-room, and the
term Sukiya may signify the Abode of Vacancy or the Abode of the
Unsymmetrical. It is an Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is an ephemeral
structure built to house a poetic impulse. It is an Abode of Vacancy
inasmuch as it is devoid of ornamentation except for what may be placed
in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment. It is an Abode of the
Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the
Imperfect, purposely leaving some thing unfinished for the play of the
imagination to complete. The ideals of Teaism have since the sixteenth
century influenced our architecture to such degree that the ordinary
Japanese interior of the present day, on account of the extreme simplicity
and chasteness of its scheme of decoration, appears to foreigners almost
The first independent tea-room was the creation of Senno-Soyeki,
commonly known by his later name of Rikiu, the greatest of all teamasters,
who, in the sixteenth century, under the patronage of TaikoHideyoshi,
instituted and brought to a high state of perfection the
formalities of the Tea-ceremony. The proportions of the tea-room had
been previously determined by Jowo–a famous tea-master of the
fifteenth century. The early tea-room consisted merely of a portion of the
ordinary drawing-room partitioned off by screens for the purpose of the
tea-gathering. The portion partitioned off was called the Kakoi
(enclosure), a name still applied to those tea-rooms which are built into a
house and are not independent constructions. The Sukiya consists of the
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tea-room proper, designed to accomodate not more than five persons, a
number suggestive of the saying “more than the Graces and less than the
Muses,” an anteroom (midsuya) where the tea utensils are washed and
arranged before being brought in, a portico (machiai) in which the guests
wait until they receive the summons to enter the tea-room, and a garden
path (the roji) which connects the machiai with the tea-room. The tearoom
is unimpressive in appearance. It is smaller than the smallest of
Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction are intended
to give the suggestion of refined poverty. Yet we must remember that all
this is the result of profound artistic forethought, and that the details
have been worked out with care perhaps even greater than that
expended on the building of the richest palaces and temples. A good tearoom
is more costly than an ordinary mansion, for the selection of its
materials, as well as its workmanship, requires immense care and
precision. Indeed, the carpenters employed by the tea-masters form a
distinct and highly honoured class among artisans, their work being no
less delicate than that of the makers of lacquer cabinets.
The tea-room is not only different from any production of Western
architecture, but also contrasts strongly with the classical architecture of
Japan itself. Our ancient noble edifices, whether secular or ecclesiastical,
were not to be despised even as regards their mere size. The few that
have been spared in the disastrous conflagrations of centuries are still
capable of aweing us by the grandeur and richness of their decoration.
Huge pillars of wood from two to three feet in diameter and from thirty to
forty feet high, supported, by a complicated network of brackets, the
enormous beams which groaned under the weight of the tile-covered
roofs. The material and mode of construction, though weak against fire,
proved itself strong against earthquakes, and was well suited to the
climatic conditions of the country. In the Golden Hall of Horiuji and the
Pagoda of Yakushiji, we have noteworthy examples of the durability of
our wooden architecture. These buildings have practically stood intact for
nearly twelve centuries. The interior of the old temples and palaces was
profusely decorated. In the Hoodo temple at Uji, dating from the tenth
century, we can still see the elaborate canopy and gilded baldachinos,
many-coloured and inlaid with mirrors and mother-of-pearl, as well as
remains of the paintings and sculpture which formerly covered the walls.
Later, at Nikko and in the Nijo castle in Kyoto, we see structural beauty
sacrificed to a wealth of ornamentation which in colour and exquisite
detail equals the utmost gorgeousness of Arabian or Moorish effort.
21 The Book Of Tea By Kakuzo Okakura
The simplicity and purism of the tea-room resulted from emulation of the
Zen monastery. A Zen monastery differs from those of other Buddhist
sects inasmuch as it is meant only to be a dwelling place for the monks. Its
chapel is not a place of worship or pilgrimage, but a college room where
the students congregate for discussion and the practice of meditation.
The room is bare except for a central alcove in which, behind the altar, is
a statue of Bodhi Dharma, the founder of the sect, or of Sakyamuni
attended by Kaphiapa and Ananda, the two earliest Zen patriarchs. On the
altar, flowers and incense are offered up in the memory of the great
contributions which these sages made to Zen. We have already said that it
was the ritual instituted by the Zen monks of successively drinking tea out
of a bowl before the image of Bodhi Dharma, which laid the foundations
of the tea-ceremony. We might add here that the altar of the Zen chapel
was the prototype of the Tokonoma,–the place of honour in a Japanese
room where paintings and flowers are placed for the edification of the
All our great tea-masters were students of Zen and attempted to
introduce the spirit of Zennism into the actualities of life. Thus the room,
like the other equipments of the tea-ceremony, reflects many of the Zen
doctrines. The size of the orthodox tea-room, which is four mats and a
half, or ten feet square, is determined by a passage in the Sutra of
Vikramadytia. In that interesting work, Vikramadytia welcomes the Saint
Manjushiri and eighty-four thousand disciples of Buddha in a room of this
size,–an allegory based on the theory of the non-existence of space to the
truly enlightened. Again the roji, the garden path which leads from the
machiai to the tea-room, signified the first stage of meditation,–the
passage into self-illumination. The roji was intended to break connection
with the outside world, and produce a fresh sensation conducive to the
full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself. One who has
trodden this garden path cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he
walked in the twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the
stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed beside
the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above ordinary
thoughts. One may be in the midst of a city, and yet feel as if he were in
the forest far away from the dust and din of civilisation. Great was the
ingenuity displayed by the tea-masters in producing these effects of
serenity and purity. The nature of the sensations to be aroused in passing
through the roji differed with different tea-masters. Some, like Rikiu,
aimed at utter loneliness, and claimed the secret of making a roji was
22 The Book Of Tea By Kakuzo Okakura
contained in the ancient ditty: “I look beyond;/Flowers are not,/Nor tinted
leaves./On the sea beach/ A solitary cottage stands/In the waning light/Of
an autumn eve.”
Others, like Kobori-Enshiu, sought for a different effect. Enshiu said the
idea of the garden path was to be found in the following verses: “A cluster
of summer trees,/A bit of the sea,/A pale evening moon.” It is not difficult
to gather his meaning. He wished to create the attitude of a newly
awakened soul still lingering amid shadowy dreams of the past, yet
bathing in the sweet unconsciousness of a mellow spiritual light, and
yearning for the freedom that lay in the expanse beyond.
Thus prepared the guest will silently approach the sanctuary, and, if a
samurai, will leave his sword on the rack beneath the eaves, the tea-room
being preeminently the house of peace. Then he will bend low and creep
into the room through a small door not more than three feet in height.
This proceeding was incumbent on all guests,–high and low alike,–and
was intended to inculcate humility. The order of precedence having been
mutually agreed upon while resting in the machiai, the guests one by one
will enter noiselessly and take their seats, first making obeisance to the
picture or flower arrangement on the tokonoma. The host will not enter
the room until all the guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns
with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the
iron kettle. The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the
bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the
echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among
the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the
soughing of pines on some faraway hill.
Even in the daytime the light in the room is subdued, for the low eaves of
the slanting roof admit but few of the sun’s rays. Everything is sober in
tint from the ceiling to the floor; the guests themselves have carefully
chosen garments of unobtrusive colors. The mellowness of age is over all,
everything suggestive of recent acquirement being tabooed save only the
one note of contrast furnished by the bamboo dipper and the linen
napkin, both immaculately white and new. However faded the tea-room
and the tea-equipage may seem, everything is absolutely clean. Not a
particle of dust will be found in the darkest corner, for if any exists the
host is not a tea-master. 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
23 The Book Of Tea By Kakuzo Okakura
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
In this connection 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.
The name, Abode of Fancy, implies a structure created to meet some
individual artistic requirement. The tea-room is made for the tea master,
not the tea-master for the tea-room. It is not intended for posterity and is
therefore ephemeral. The idea that everyone should have a house of his
own is based on an ancient custom of the Japanese race, Shinto
superstition ordaining that every dwelling should be evacuated on the
death of its chief occupant. Perhaps there may have been some
unrealized sanitary reason for this practice. Another early custom was
that a newly built house should be provided for each couple that married.
It is on account of such customs that we find the Imperial capitals so
frequently removed from one site to another in ancient days. The
rebuilding, every twenty years, of Ise Temple, the supreme shrine of the
Sun-Goddess, is an example of one of these ancient rites which still obtain
at the present day. The observance of these customs was only possible
with some form of construction as that furnished by our system of
wooden architecture, easily pulled down, easily built up. A more lasting
style, employing brick and stone, would have rendered migrations
impracticable, as indeed they became when the more stable and massive
wooden construction of China was adopted by us after the Nara period.
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With the predominance of Zen individualism in the fifteenth century,
however, the old idea became imbued with a deeper significance as
conceived in connection with the tea-room. Zennism, with the Buddhist
theory of evanescence and its demands for the mastery of spirit over
matter, recognized the house only as a temporary refuge for the body.
The body itself was but as a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy shelter made
by tying together the grasses that grew around,–when these ceased to be
bound together they again became resolved into the original waste. In the
tea-room fugitiveness is suggested in the thatched roof, frailty in the
slender pillars, lightness in the bamboo support, apparent carelessness in
the use of commonplace materials. The eternal is to be found only in the
spirit which, embodied in these simple surroundings, beautifies them with
the subtle light of its refinement.
That the tea-room should be built to suit some individual taste is an
enforcement of the principle of vitality in art. Art, to be fully appreciated,
must be true to contemporaneous life. It is not that we should ignore the
claims of posterity, but that we should seek to enjoy the present more. It
is not that we should disregard the creations of the past, but that we
should try to assimilate them into our consciousness. Slavish conformity
to traditions and formulas fetters the expression of individuality in
architecture. We can but weep over the senseless imitations of European
buildings which one beholds in modern Japan. We marvel why, among the
most progressive Western nations, architecture should be so devoid of
originality, so replete with repetitions of obsolete styles. Perhaps we are
passing through an age of democritisation in art, while awaiting the rise of
some princely master who shall establish a new dynasty. Would that we
loved the ancients more and copied them less! It has been said that the
Greeks were great because they never drew from the antique.
The term, Abode of Vacancy, besides conveying the Taoist theory of the
all-containing, involves the conception of a continued need of change in
decorative motives. The tea-room is absolutely empty, except for what
may be placed there temporarily to satisfy some aesthetic mood. Some
special art object is brought in for the occasion, and everything else is
selected and arranged to enhance the beauty of the principal theme. One
cannot listen to different pieces of music at the same time, a real
comprehension of the beautiful being possible only through
concentration upon some central motive. Thus it will be seen that the
system of decoration in our tea-rooms is opposed to that which obtains in
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the West, where the interior of a house is often converted into a
museum. To a Japanese, accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and
frequent change of decorative method, a Western interior permanently
filled with a vast array of pictures, statuary, and bric-a-brac gives the
impression of mere vulgar display of riches. It calls for a mighty wealth of
appreciation to enjoy the constant sight of even a masterpiece, and
limitless indeed must be the capacity for artistic feeling in those who can
exist day after day in the midst of such confusion of color and form as is to
be often seen in the homes of Europe and America.
The “Abode of the Unsymmetrical” suggests another phase of our
decorative scheme. The absence of symmetry in Japanese art objects has
been often commented on by Western critics. This, also, is a result of a
working out through Zennism of Taoist ideals. Confucianism, with its
deep-seated idea of dualism, and Northern Buddhism with its worship of
a trinity, were in no way opposed to the expression of symmetry. As a
matter of fact, if we study the ancient bronzes of China or the religious
arts of the Tang dynasty and the Nara period, we shall recognize a
constant striving after symmetry. The decoration of our classical interiors
was decidedly regular in its arrangement. The Taoist and Zen conception
of perfection, however, was different. The dynamic nature of their
philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection
was sought than upon perfection itself. True beauty could be discovered
only by one who mentally completed the incomplete. The virility of life
and art lay in its possibilities for growth. In the tea-room it is left for each
guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself.
Since Zennism has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the
extreme Orient has purposefully avoided the symmetrical as expressing
not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered
fatal to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and flowers
became the favorite subjects for depiction rather than the human figure,
the latter being present in the person of the beholder himself. We are
often too much in evidence as it is, and in spite of our vanity even selfregard
is apt to become monotonous.
In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence. The various
objects for the decoration of a room should be so selected that no colour
or design shall be repeated. If you have a living flower, a painting of
flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher
should be angular. A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with
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a tea-caddy of black laquer. In placing a vase of an incense burner on the
tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact centre, lest it
divide the space into equal halves. The pillar of the tokonoma should be
of a different kind of wood from the other pillars, in order to break any
suggestion of monotony in the room.
Here again the Japanese method of interior decoration differs from that
of the Occident, where we see objects arrayed symmetrically on
mantelpieces and elsewhere. In Western houses we are often confronted
with what appears to us useless reiteration. We find it trying to talk to a
man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back. We
wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious
conviction that one of them must be fraud. Many a time have we sat at a
festive board contemplating, with a secret shock to our digestion, the
representation of abundance on the dining-room walls. Why these
pictured victims of chase and sport, the elaborate carvings of fishes and
fruit? Why the display of family plates, reminding us of those who have
dined and are dead?
The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it
truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world. There and there
alone one can consecrate himself to undisturbed adoration of the
beautiful. In the sixteenth century the tea-room afforded a welcome
respite from labour to the fierce warriors and statesmen engaged in the
unification and reconstruction of Japan. In the seventeenth century, after
the strict formalism of the Tokugawa rule had been developed, it offered
the only opportunity possible for the free communion of artistic spirits.
Before a great work of art there was no distinction between daimyo,
samurai, and commoner. Nowadays industrialism is making true
refinement more and more difficult all the world over. Do we not need
the tea-room more than ever?


In the Public Domain because a) was published before 1923, and b), author died in 1913,
making it applicable to Life+70 countries.