In China, during the eighth century, drinking tea was considered one of the “polite amusements”, a pursuit akin to poetry. In 15th century Japan it was practiced as a ceremonial form of aestheticism, or Teaism. In Tibet, they’ll tell you to walk ‘a cup of tea’ referring to how long it takes for a hot cup of tea to cool sufficiently to drink.
As a practical philosophy, the Art of tea has been seen as both a means to irtue and delight. The Book of Tea urges one to experience tea as a “religion of the art of life…an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function.”
Though steeped in aesthetic principles, the Art of Tea is also ritualistic, focusing as much on teas preparation as appreciation. There’s also its meditative dimension, with tea-mavens urging teophytes to focus less on discerning a particular taste, than on learning to taste more discerningly.
Tea’s hint of extractive materialism appears too, with Tea Masters urging teophytes who yearn to discern tan elusive “return flavor” that only becomes apparent in tea a few moments after each sip, as the more rarefied elements slowly become perceptible on the palat.
Kakuzo Okakura, in his timeless “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.”