For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Greatness Of Little Things


Those who cannot find the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of the little things in others. KAKUZO OKAKURA The Book of Tea

Kakuzo Okakura's elegantly written Book of Tea has been a delightful discovery: it's short, beautifully formed and full of Taoist wisdom. For me it at once became one of those texts we like to think of as 'minor classics'. The mundane yet strangely spiritual act of drinking a bowl of tea is hardly mentioned — indeed, what can one say about such an everyday occurrence? But the history and ritual of the tea ceremony itself, the seer-like qualities of the tea-masters, the uncluttered aesthetic of the tearooms with their sparse and original arrangements of art and flowers, the underlying and unifying principles of Tao and Zen — all these are succinctly and beautifully described.

Okakura echoes Chinese historians in speaking of Taoism as the art of being in the world. He writes: The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings. Taoism accepts the mundane as it is and, unlike the Confucians and the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in a world of woe and worry.

He reminds us that the Tao literally means a Path. It has been severally translated as the Way, the Absolute, the Law, Nature, Supreme Reason, the Mode . . . However, the Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path. It is the spirit of Cosmic Change — the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds like clouds. What is vital and interesting is the completing not the completion, the imperfect rather than the perfect, the process not the deed.

Zen follows on from and is hugely influenced by Taoist ideas — one idea being the essential importance of the vacuum, of empty space, of the possibility of limitlessness. Japanese art bears out this concept: the suggestive, half-finished nature of many Japanese pen-and-ink drawings invites us to fill in the emptiness with our own emotions and imaginings, to complete mentally the incomplete. And, pursuing the idea of the benefit and necessity of change, Okakura writes that the virility of life and art lay in its possibilities for growth.

For the Taoist the three jewels of life were Pity, Economy and Modesty, which appeals to me immensely. I also like the humility of this: Temper your own brightness to merge into the obscurity of others, though it's very much at odds with the prevailing me-me-me-ness and self-promotion of today's society.

Finally, like Rilke, Okakura recognises the intimate and ever-present connection between dream and reality, between death-in-life and life-in-death: At birth you enter the realm of dreams only to awaken to reality at death. 

7 comments:

donna baker said...

Okay Walker, I am going to be a Taoist. Have to read more. I recently posted a picture of a turn of the century tea basket sold in a mercantile in Kansas. About an 8 ounce size. it once held green tea grown in Japan, traveled over the ocean and up the mighty Mississippi River to Kansas. It had a pencil mark of 35 cents, which would have been expensive back then.

Ruth said...

Intrigued ...

George said...

An enlightening post, Robert. Also a bit of serendipity for me, as I am currently reading two books that are closely connected with these themes — THE PATH: WHAT CHINESE PHILOSOPHERS CAN TEACH US ABOUT THE GOOD LIFE, by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, and THE WAY OF THE SMALL, by Michael Gellert.

Amanda Summer said...

Pity, economy and modesty - I can understand the latter two but the former? Need to investigate how Taoism defines pity.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all these comments. I'm taking 'pity' to mean empathy with human suffering, Amanda.

Nick said...

So which is the dream and which reality? Are you Robert dreaming of being the butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming of being Robert?

The Solitary Walker said...

I have been pondering on and delighting in your koan for several days now, Nick.