“Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”
Okakura Kakuzo The Book of Tea
Read that quote a few times slowly. Sip tea. Read it again. I’ll wait.
In 1906, Kakuzo was writing about how the Western world dismissed the subtle peace and beauty of Japanese cultural practices like the tea ceremony, favoring any military or warrior history. Kakuzo was a Japanese man of great respect in the artistic world of home country, until he clashed with the leaders on how to respond to the great divide between Eastern and Western philosophies. He eventually left Japan to travel, settling in Massachusetts, US. He was employed by the Boston Museum of Fine Art, and I highly recommend touring their Asian art exhibit- much of it acquired during his tenure. He wrote quite a bit, but is today mostly remembered for The Book of Tea. He wrote as a man coming from one culture into a very different one.
The culture of men is very interesting to me. I had a father who wanted a boy, and since my older sister was incredibly sensitive and dainty, I was the de facto “son.” I’ve always had guys in my friend circle, I married and have lived with man for twenty years, and I’ve raised a son who is now a teenager. So, although I am not a man myself, I do know something of them, especially since I live in the Western patriarchal society which glorifies domination over harmony, force over grace, production over beauty, and big over little. The culture of tea does not fit neatly into the American ideals of masculinity.
Last year there was an animated short film from Japan called “Possessions“, about a burly man traveling in the woods who seeks shelter from a storm in a forgotten shrine. It is haunted, and he is trapped in a strange house with demons. If it was an American movie, the main character would have to defeat the demons, either by physical force or outwitting them. But in this Japanese film he listens to the neglected spirits, and he takes out a sewing kit and fixes them up, complimenting them the whole time. He wakes the next morning, dry from the storm, and with gifts to take on his way. My son liked the film a lot. “It’s like, ‘oh-no demons!’, but the guy helps them. And he even helps by sewing.”
Tea was first cultivated in China, spreading around parts of Asia, with different cultures creating their own traditions around the drink. Europeans adopted the leaf into their own way of life later on, most notably the British. During the 20th century wars, there are stories of British officers drinking tea out of fine porcelain. Bringing a delicate tea service into battle does not seem useful or strategic. Could the officers only remember the littleness of great things in themselves by taking time to sip tea in fragility? By appreciating small beauty in their own tent, could they remain aware of the greatness of little things outside it?
I can see the different cultures of tea finding harmony in my country. There may be no need to defeat our demons, but instead to listen, help, and then sleep a night in peace, waking to gratitude and hopefully, a steaming cup of tea.
Move with intention.