In China, during the eighth century, drinking tea was considered one of the “polite amusements”, a pursuit akin to poetry. In Japan, during the 15th century it was practiced as a ceremonial form of aestheticism, known as Teaism. In Tibet, there is actually a unit of measurement called a ‘cup of tea’ designed to describe the distance one can walk with a cup of hot tea in one’s hand before it cools sufficiently to drink.
As a practical philosophy, the Art of tea is seen a means to providing both virtue 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.” But while imbued with aesthetic principles, the Art of Tea leans also towards ontology and ritual, focusing as much on the preparation as the appreciation of tea. There is also its meditative imension with tea-mavens urging teophytes to focus less on learning to discern a particular taste, than on learning to taste more discerningly.
Over time, say the Tea Mavens, the savvy tea-taster may learn to discern that elusive “return flavor” in a cup of tea that only becomes fully perceptible a few moments after each sip, as the more rarefied elements in the tea become apparent and appreciable.
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.”