Tea began as a medicine, grew as a beverage, and matured into art. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the “polite amusements”, and in the 15th century Japan rarefied it into a religion of aestheticism, or Teaism.
Tea is of unparalleled importance to most eastern cultures. In Tibet there is actually a measurement called a ‘cup of tea’ that is used to describe the distance that one can walk with a cup of hot tea in one’s hand before it cools down enough to drink comfortably.
Drinking tea provides both virtues and delights. The Book of Tea reminds us that Tea is more than a means of subsistence or expression of sensuality, it is also “a religion of the art of life…an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function.”
All great tea-cultures focus on the art of preparation and appreciation as much as consumption.Tea masters remind us that the art of tasting tea is not so much about discerning the taste, as about learning to taste discerningly.
Over time, the tea-taster will learn to discern tea’s subtle “return flavor” which only becomes apparent about a half minute or so after each sip as the more refined elements in tea become perceptible to one’s palate.
Kakuzo Okakura, in his “The Book of Tea” writes: “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It 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 Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, in as much as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.
The heaven of modern humanity is shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practiced for the sake of utility. The East and West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let’s have a sip of tea.”