Tea began as a medicine, grew into a beverage, and eventually matured as an art. In China, during the eighth century, drinking tea was considered one of the “polite amusements”, a pursuit akin to poetry, and in Japan during the 15th century it was practiced as a ceremonial form of aestheticism, known as Teaism.
Tea is an herb of unparalleled importance to eastern cultures. In Tibet, there is actually a unit of measurement called a ‘cup of tea’ which Tibetans use to describe the distance they can walk with a cup of hot tea in their hand before it cools down sufficiently to drink.
According the philosophy of Tea, preparing tea attentively provides both both virtue and delight. The Book of Tea commends its subject as far more than a means of subsistence or even an expression of sensuality; but rather as a “religion of the art of life…an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function.”
Tea culture focuses equally on tea’s preparation and appreciation with masters reminding teophytes that the art of tea is much less about discerning the taste, as it is about learning to taste discerningly. Over time, the attentive tea-taster will learn to descry a tea’s subtle “return flavor”, that rarefied essence which only becomes fully apparent a few moments after each sip as the more refined elements in the brew become perceptible to the 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.”