During this past winter, I rediscovered several novels and books long forgotten on shelves or packed away in the basement. One such volume was The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. When I dusted off its cover and read its jacket description, I couldn’t remember anything about the book beyond my purchasing it at a Philadelphia bookstore in the early 2000s. It proved to be a perfect read for a chilly weekend.
The Book of Tea was first published in 1906, and Okakura was a Japanese cultural historian and the first Asian art curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Interestingly, Okakura wrote this tiny volume in English and for a Western reading public.
The Book of Tea reflects on the history of tea in Asian cultures and the Japanese tea ceremony (or the Way of Tea). Both a spiritual and an aesthetic practice, the tea ceremony is deeply rooted in Taoist and Zen Buddhist traditions and beliefs. Every detail and item in the tea ceremony — from the floral arrangement on the table to the utensil used to serve the tea itself — carries deep meaning. According to Okakura, the great tea masters believed that their art — and all art — only could be truly understood as a living influence. That is, art informed daily activities — dress, speech, food — with the goal of life becoming art itself.
In a conversation recently hosted by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture, Pixar’s Pete Docter and America Magazine’s Fr. James Martin, S.J., discussed the new Pixar film Soul, story-telling, and faith. Docter and Martin particularly explored the Ignaitian concept of “God in all things,” which inspired Docter to write Soul. This spiritual direction urges individuals to search for God in the seemingly mundane, such as a bird spotted from a window, a laugh shared with a stranger, or, in this case, a satisfying cup of tea.
This element of Ignatian teaching reminded me of Okakura’s own interpretation of the Japanese tea ceremony and the larger artistic philosophy engendered by it. Small objects, acts, and experiences communicate profound, even transcendental meaning.
Many of us expect to find meaning and to encounter the divine in the grand and transformative moments of life and the world — falling in love, going to war, burying a loved one, surviving a natural disaster — and we often do experience clarity and God amid such events. However, those moments occur only a few times, if one is fortunate, over the course of a single life. The deceptively everyday holds just as much possibility.
Amid the pandemic, we are not — or we shouldn’t be — celebrating marriages, graduations, birthdays, or holidays in the traditional ways. Many of us find our careers and lives caught in a frustrating stasis. All we have right now is the day-to-day. The Book of Tea and Ignatian teaching present us with similar guides to reconfigure our relationship with it. They both challenge us to craft a daily life imbued with intention and to view the world with enchantment.