“Cold, withered, shrunken.”

What manner of reptile are we preparing to introduce? No reptile at all. An art, rather; the art — or religion, perhaps — of tea, hopefully to surprise the reader with the depths this humble beverage contains within itself, and releases in us, if we approach it in a manner worthy of it.

A story: The 16th-century tea master Kobori Enshu was complimented by a disciple on the art objects with which he adorned his tea ceremonies. “Each object,” enthused the disciple, “is such that no one can help admiring it. This shows you have better taste than Sen no Rikyu, whose collection can only be appreciated by one beholder in a thousand.”

Sen no Rikyu — tea master of tea masters. To Rikyu (1521-91), the tea ceremony (cha no yu) as it survives today owes more than to anyone. Kobori Enshu sighed. The disciple’s compliment, though well meant, was no compliment in fact. “What you say,” said Enshu, “only proves how commonplace I am, catering to the tastes of the majority, whereas Rikyu …” — Rikyu was on a higher level altogether.

The story is told by Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913), whose “Book of Tea” (1906), written in beautiful English, has among its aims that of bringing the arrogant, triumphant West down a peg or two. Art critic, intellectual and iconoclast, as much at home in English and Western culture as in Japanese, Okakura represents in his person — and did much to spark — an Asia-wide conservative backlash against the headlong plunge into the brave new world of Western culture, Western technology, Western wealth, power, progress, the ceaseless insatiable striving for more, better, newer, faster, farther.

To this “Cyclopean struggle” Okakura opposes “teaism”: “Let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos … the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

“Teaism,” says Okakura, “(is) Taoism in disguise.” And what is Taoism? There is no better answer than a poem attributed to Lao Tzu, a Chinese sage of the sixth century B.C.: “People are so happy, as if enjoying a feast. … I alone am tranquil … like a baby who is yet unable to smile. … Possibly mine is the mind of a fool, which is so ignorant!”

We are at the remote beginnings here not only of teaism but of Zen, whose spirit infuses the tearoom or tea hut, alternatively known as the Abode of Fancy, Abode of Vacancy, Abode of the Unsymmetrical — “an ephemeral structure,” says Okakura, “to house a poetic impulse.”

Teaism is one thing, tea another. The tea plant, native to southern China, was cultivated there from earliest times, its leaves prepared in various ways (boiled, whipped or steeped, in roughly that chronological order as appreciation evolved). Tea was a delicacy and a medicine, balm for the body and balm for the soul. Buddhists drank it to stay awake during prolonged meditation. Taoists saw in it an elixir of immortality. The T’ang Chinese poet Lu T’ung (775-835) sang his “Song of Tea”: “At the fifth cup I am purified; the six cup calls me to the realm of the immortals.”

The first mention of tea in Japanese annals describes Emperor Shomu in 729 serving tea at his palace to 100 monks. Then for 400 years it fades out of use. A revival is attributed to the monk Eisai, who in 1191, in Uji near Kyoto, planted tea seeds he’d brought back from China. Uji tea ranks to this day among the world’s best.

We are still a long way from cha no yu. In the mid-15th century, Japan was slipping helplessly into chaos. Desperate uprisings of starving peasants foreshadowed worse to come; the Onin War (1467-77) pitted noble families against one another in a struggle that ravaged Kyoto, the capital. “Two-thirds of the people died of starvation,” wrote a contemporary chronicler. “Skeletons filled the streets.”

Shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who confessed his helplessness in a letter to his son: “The nobles do as they please and do not follow orders. That means there can be no government.”

There was no government; there was anarchy. Yoshimasa abdicated in 1473. Free at last! Let war and suffering rage; he would retreat into a world of beauty, art, refinement. As feckless a ruler as ever had power thrust upon him, Yoshimasa was a superb aesthete. Tea ceremony as we know it begins with him. Notable among his cultural advisers was the monk and tea master Shuko (1422-1502), whose dictum it was that beauty — true beauty — is “cold, withered and shrunken.”

To which Rikyu added a corollary: humility. Without humility, he taught, there is no art — which is to say, no tea. Merely to enter a Rikyu tearoom was to humble yourself — by stooping, for the entrance was low. Rikyu’s tea guests tasted humility first, tea second. The ceremony began with a symbolic shedding of social rank. In old Japan, when you shed your rank you shed a great deal of yourself.

Like Shuko two generations before him, Rikyu was teamaster to the very great — to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, for example, supreme warlord of his day and remembered in ours as one of the great unifiers of Japan. He was a bully and a blusterer but also a man of tea, who expressed its spirit in a poem: “When tea is made with water drawn from the depths of Mind … we really have what is called cha-no-yu.”

In the end, Rikyu-esque humility proved too bitter for him. Scholars dispute precisely what enraged him, but in 1591 Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit suicide. “The last tea of Rikyu,” writes Okakura, “will stand forth forever as the acme of tragic grandeur.”

The master gathered his chief disciples around him. He prepared and served tea. The ceremony over, Rikyu drew from beneath his robes a dagger. He recited a poem: “Welcome to thee, O sword of eternity!” And, in Okakura’s words, “with a smile upon his face, Rikyu passed forth into the unknown.”

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

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