by Kakuzo Okakura
In the trembling grey of a spring dawn, when the birds were
whispering in mysterious cadence among the trees, have you
not felt that they were talking to their mates about the flowers?
Surely with mankind the appreciation of flowers must have
been coeval with the poetry of love. Where better than in a
flower, sweet in its unconsciousness, fragrant because of its
silence, can we image the unfolding of a virgin soul? The primeval
man in offering the first garland to his maiden thereby transcended
the brute. He became human in thus rising above the crude
necessities of nature. He entered the realm of art when he
perceived the subtle use of the useless.
In joy or sadness, flowers are our constant friends. We eat, drink,
sing, dance, and flirt with them. We wed and christen with flowers.
We dare not die without them. We have worshipped with the lily,
we have meditated with the lotus, we have charged in battle array
with the rose and the chrysanthemum. We have even attempted to
speak in the language of flowers. How could we live without them?
It frightens on to conceive of a world bereft of their presence.
What solace do they not bring to the bedside of the sick, what a
light of bliss to the darkness of weary spirits? Their serene tenderness
restores to us our waning confidence in the universe even as the
intent gaze of a beautiful child recalls our lost hopes. When we are
laid low in the dust it is they who linger in sorrow over our graves.
Sad as it is, we cannot conceal the fact that in spite of our
companionship with flowers we have not risen very far above
the brute. Scratch the sheepskin and the wolf within us will soon
show his teeth. It has been said that a man at ten is an animal,
at twenty a lunatic, at thirty a failure, at forty a fraud, and at fifty
a criminal. Perhaps he becomes a criminal because he has never
ceased to be an animal. Nothing is real to us but hunger, nothing
sacred except our own desires. Shrine after shrine has crumbled
before our eyes; but one altar is forever preserved, that whereon
we burn incense to the supreme idol, - ourselves. Our god is
great, and money is his Prophet! We devastate nature in order to
make sacrifice to him. We boast that we have conquered Matter
and forget that it is Matter that has enslaved us. What atrocities
do we not perpetrate in the name of culture and refinement!
Tell me, gentle flowers, teardrops of the stars, standing in the
garden, nodding your heads to the bees as they sing of the dews
and the sunbeams, are you aware of the fearful doom that
awaits you? Dream on, sway and frolic while you may in the
gentle breezes of summer. To-morrow a ruthless hand will close
around your throats. You will be wrenched, torn asunder limb
by limb, and borne away from your quiet homes. The wretch,
she may be passing fair. She may say how lovely you are while
her fingers are still moist with your blood. Tell me, will this be
kindness? It may be your fate to be imprisoned in the hair of
one whom you know to be heartless or to be thrust into the
buttonhole of one who would not dare to look you in the face
were you a man. It may even be your lot to be confined in
some narrow vessel with only stagnant water to quench the
maddening thirst that warns of ebbing life.
Flowers, if you were in the land of the Mikado, you might some
time meet a dread personage armed with scissors and a tiny saw.
He would call himself a Master of Flowers. He would claim the
rights of a doctor and you would instinctively hate him, for you
know a doctor always seeks to prolong the troubles of his victims.
He would cut, bend, and twist you into those impossible positions
which he thinks it proper that you should assume. He would
contort your muscles and dislocate your bones like any osteopath.
He would burn you with red-hot coals to stop your bleeding, and
thrust wires into you to assist your circulation. He would diet you
with salt, vinegar, alum, and sometimes, vitriol. Boiling water
would be poured on your feet when you seemed ready to faint.
It would be his boast that he could keep life within you for two
or more weeks longer than would have been possible without his
treatment. Would you not have preferred to have been killed at once
when you were first captured? What were the crimes you must have
committed during your past incarnation to warrant such punishment
The wanton waste of flowers among Western communities is even more
appalling than the way they are treated by Eastern Flower
Masters. The number of flowers cut daily to adorn the
ballrooms and banquet-tables of Europe and America, to be
thrown away on the morrow, must be something enormous;
if strung together they might garland a continent. Beside this
utter carelessness of life, the guilt of the Flower-Master becomes
insignificant. He, at least, respects the economy of nature,
selects his victims with careful foresight, and after death does
honour to their remains. In the West the display of flowers seems
to be a part of the pageantry of wealth, - the fancy of a moment.
Whither do they all go, these flowers, when the revelry is over?
Nothing is more pitiful than to see a faded flower remorselessly
flung upon a dung heap.
Why were the flowers born so beautiful and yet so hapless?
Insects can sting, and even the meekest of beasts will fight when
brought to bay. The birds whose plumage is sought to deck some
bonnet can fly from its pursuer, the furred animal whose coat you
covet for your own may hide at your approach. Alas! The only
flower known to have wings is the butterfly; all others stand
helpless before the destroyer. If they shriek in their death agony
their cry never reaches our hardened ears. We are ever brutal to
those who love and serve us in silence, but the time may come when,
for our cruelty, we shall be deserted by these best friends of ours.
Have you not noticed that the wild flowers are becoming scarcer
every year? It may be that their wise men have told them to
depart till man becomes more human. Perhaps they have migrated
Much may be said in favor of him who cultivates plants. The man
of the pot is far more humane than he of the scissors. We watch
with delight his concern about water and sunshine, his feuds with
parasites, his horror of frosts, his anxiety when the buds come
slowly, his rapture when the leaves attain their lustre. In the East
the art of floriculture is a very ancient one, and the loves of a poet
and his favorite plant have often been recorded in story and song.
With the development of ceramics during the Tang and Sung
dynasties we hear of wonderful receptacles made to hold plants,
not pots, but jewelled palaces. A special attendant was detailed
to wait upon each flower and to wash its leaves with soft brushes
made of rabbit hair. It has been written ("Pingtse", by Yuenchunlang)
that the peony should be bathed by a handsome maiden in full
costume, that a winter-plum should be watered by a pale, slender
monk. In Japan, one of the most popular of the No-dances, the
Hachinoki, composed during the Ashikaga period, is based upon
the story of an impoverished knight, who, on a freezing night,
in lack of fuel for a fire, cuts his cherished plants in order to
entertain a wandering friar. The friar is in reality no other than
Hojo-Tokiyori, the Haroun Al-Raschid of our tales, and the
sacrifice is not without its reward. This opera never fails to
draw tears from a Tokyo audience even to-day.
Great precautions were taken for the preservation of delicate
blossoms. Emperor Huensung, of the Tang Dynasty, hung
tiny golden bells on the branches in his garden to keep off
the birds. He it was who went off in the springtime with his
court musicians to gladden the flowers with soft music.
A quaint tablet, which tradition ascribes to Yoshitsune,
the hero of our Arthurian legends, is still extant in one of
the Japanese monasteries (Sumadera, near Kobe). It
is a notice put up for the protection of a certain wonderful
plum-tree, and appeals to us with the grim humour of
a warlike age. After referring to the beauty of the blossoms,
the inscription says: "Whoever cuts a single branch of
this tree shall forfeit a finger therefor." Would that such
laws could be enforced nowadays against those who
wantonly destroy flowers and mutilate objects of art!
Yet even in the case of pot flowers we are inclined to suspect
the selfishness of man. Why take the plants from their homes
and ask them to bloom mid strange surroundings? Is it not
like asking the birds to sing and mate cooped up in cages?
Who knows but that the orchids feel stifled by the artificial
heat in your conservatories and hopelessly long for a glimpse
of their own Southern skies?
The ideal lover of flowers is he who visits them in their native
haunts, like Tao Yuan Ming*, who sat before a broken bamboo fence in
converse with the wild chrysanthemum, or Lin Ho Ching*, losing
himself amid mysterious fragrance as he wandered in the
twilight among the plum-blossoms of the Western Lake.
'Tis said that Chou Mu Shu* slept in a boat so that his dreams
might mingle with those of the lotus. It was the same spirit
which moved the Empress Komio, one of our most renowned
Nara sovereigns, as she sang: "If I pluck thee, my hand will
defile thee, O flower! Standing in the meadows as thou art,
I offer thee to the Buddhas of the past, of the present, of
*All celebrated Chinese poets and philosophers
However, let us not be too sentimental. Let us be less luxurious
but more magnificent. Said Laotse: "Heaven and earth are
pitiless." Said Kobodaishi: "Flow, flow, flow, flow, the current
of life is ever onward. Die, die, die, die, death comes to all."
Destruction faces us wherever we turn. Destruction below and
above, destruction behind and before. Change is the only
Eternal, - why not as welcome Death as Life? They are but
counterparts one of the other, - The Night and Day of Brahma.
Through the disintegration of the old, re-creation becomes
possible. We have worshipped Death, the relentless goddess
of mercy, under many different names. It was the shadow of
the All-devouring that the Gheburs greeted in the fire. It is the
icy purism of the sword-soul before which Shinto-Japan prostrates
herself even to-day. The mystic fire consumes our weakness, the
sacred sword cleaves the bondage of desire. From our ashes
springs the phoenix of celestial hope, out of the freedom comes a
higher realisation of manhood.
Why not destroy flowers if thereby we can evolve new forms
ennobling the world idea? We only ask them to join in our
sacrifice to the beautiful. We shall atone for the deed by
consecrating ourselves to Purity and Simplicity. Thus reasoned
the tea-masters when they established the Cult of Flowers.
Anyone acquainted with the ways of our tea- and flower-masters
must have noticed the religious veneration with which they
regard flowers. They do not cull at random, but carefully select
each branch or spray with an eye to the artistic composition
they have in mind. They would be ashamed should they chance
to cut more than were absolutely necessary. It may be remarked
in this connection that they always associate the leaves, if there
be any, with the flower, for the object is to present the whole
beauty of plant life. In this respect, as in many others, their
method differs from that pursued in Western countries. Here we
are apt to see only the flower stems, heads as it were, without
body, stuck promiscuously into a vase.
When a tea-master has arranged a flower to his satisfaction he
will place it on the tokonoma, the place of honour in a Japanese
room. Nothing else will be placed near it which might interfere
with its effect, not even a painting, unless there be some special
aesthetic reason for the combination. It rests there like an
enthroned prince, and the guests or disciples on entering the
room will salute it with a profound bow before making their
addresses to the host. Drawings from masterpieces are made
and published for the edification of amateurs. The amount of
literature on the subject is quite voluminous. When the flower
fades, the master tenderly consigns it to the river or carefully
buries it in the ground. Monuments are sometimes erected
to their memory.
The birth of the Art of Flower Arrangement seems to be
simultaneous with that of Teaism in the fifteenth century.
Our legends ascribe the first flower arrangement to those
early Buddhist saints who gathered the flowers strewn by
the storm and, in their infinite solicitude for all living things,
placed them in vessels of water. It is said that Soami, the
great painter and connoisseur of the court of Ashikaga-
Yoshimasa, was one of the earliest adepts at it. Juko, the
tea-master, was one of his pupils, as was also Senno, the
founder of the house of Ikenobo, a family as illustrious in
the annals of flowers as was that of the Kanos in painting.
With the perfecting of the tea-ritual under Rikyu, in the latter
part of the sixteenth century, flower arrangement also attains
its full growth. Rikyu and his successors, the celebrated Ota-
wuraka, Furuka-Oribe, Koyetsu, Kobori-Enshiu, Katagiri-Sekishiu,
vied with each other in forming new combinations.
We must remember, however, that the flower-worship of the
tea-masters formed only a part of their aesthetic ritual, and
was not a distinct religion by itself. A flower arrangement,
like the other works of art in the tea-room, was subordinated
to the total scheme of decoration. Thus Sekishiu ordained
that white plum blossoms should not be made use of when
snow lay in the garden. "Noisy" flowers were relentlessly
banished from the tea-room. A flower arrangement by a
tea-master loses its significance if removed from the place for
which it was originally intended, for its lines and proportions
have been specially worked out with a view to its surroundings.
The adoration of the flower for its own sake begins with the
rise of "Flower-Masters," toward the middle of the seventeenth
century. It now becomes independent of the tea-room and
knows no law save that the vase imposes on it. New conceptions
and methods of execution now become possible, and many were
the principles and schools resulting therefrom. A writer in the
middle of the last century said he could count over one hundred
different schools of flower arrangement. Broadly speaking,
these divide themselves into two main branches, the Formalistic
and the Naturalesque. The Formalistic schools, led by the
Ikenobos, aimed at a classic idealism corresponding to that of the
Kano-academicians. We possess records of arrangements by the
early masters of the school which almost reproduce the flower
paintings of Sansetsu and Tsunenobu. The Naturalesque school,
on the other hand, accepted nature as its model, only imposing
such modifications of form as conduced to the expression of
artistic unity. Thus we recognise in its works the same impulses
which formed the Ukiyoe and Shijo schools of painting.
It would be interesting, had we time, to enter more fully than it
is now possible into the laws of composition and detail formulated
by the various flower-masters of this period, showing, as they would,
the fundamental theories which governed Tokugawa decoration.
We find them referring to the Leading Principle (Heaven), the
Subordinate Principle (Earth), the Reconciling Principle (Man),
and any flower arrangement which did not embody these principles
was considered barren and dead. They also dwelt much on the
importance of treating a flower in its three different aspects,
the Formal, the Semi-Formal, and the Informal. The first might be
said to represent flowers in the stately costume of the ballroom,
the second in the easy elegance of afternoon dress, the third in the
charming deshabille of the boudoir.
Our personal sympathies are with the flower-arrangements of the
tea-master rather than with those of the flower-master. The former
is art in its proper setting and appeals to us on account of its true
intimacy with life. We should like to call this school the Natural
in contradistinction to the Naturalesque and Formalistic schools.
The tea-master deems his duty ended with the selection of the
flowers, and leaves them to tell their own story. Entering a tea-room
in late winter, you may see a slender spray of wild cherries in
combination with a budding camellia; it is an echo of departing
winter coupled with the prophecy of spring. Again, if you go into
a noon-tea on some irritatingly hot summer day, you may discover
in the darkened coolness of the tokonoma a single lily in a hanging
vase; dripping with dew, it seems to smile at the foolishness of life.
A solo of flowers is interesting, but in a concerto with painting and
sculpture the combination becomes entrancing. Sekishiu once
placed some water-plants in a flat receptacle to suggest the
vegetation of lakes and marshes, and on the wall above he hung
a painting by Soami of wild ducks flying in the air. Shoha, another
tea-master, combined a poem on the Beauty of Solitude by the Sea
with a bronze incense burner in the form of a fisherman's hut and
some wild flowers of the beach. One of the guests has recorded that
he felt in the whole composition the breath of waning autumn.
Flower stories are endless. We shall recount but one more.
In the sixteenth century the morning-glory was as yet a rare
plant with us. Rikyu had an entire garden planted with it, which
he cultivated with assiduous care. The fame of his convulvuli
reached the ear of the Taiko, and he expressed a desire to see
them, in consequence of which Rikyu invited him to a morning
tea at his house. On the appointed day Taiko walked through the
garden, but nowhere could he see any vestige of the convulvus.
The ground had been leveled and strewn with fine pebbles and sand.
With sullen anger the despot entered the tea-room, but a sight
waited him there which completely restored his humour. On the
tokonoma, in a rare bronze of Sung workmanship, lay a single
morning-glory - the queen of the whole garden!
In such instances we see the full significance of the Flower Sacrifice.
Perhaps the flowers appreciate the full significance of it. They are
not cowards, like men. Some flowers glory in death - certainly the
Japanese cherry blossoms do, as they freely surrender themselves
to the winds. Anyone who has stood before the fragrant avalanche
at Yoshino or Arashiyama must have realized this. For a moment
they hover like bejewelled clouds and dance above the crystal streams;
then, as they sail away on the laughing waters, they seem to say:
"Farewell, O Spring! We are on to eternity."
by Kakuzo Okakura
The Book of Tea was published in 1906 and is now in the public domain.
- The Cup of Humanity
- The Schools of Tea
- Taoism and Zennism
- The Tea-Room
- Art Appreciation
The text as it appears here was originally taken from http://www.teatime.com/tea/TheBookOfTea/, but this has since disappeared.
The book can also be found at http://hjem.get2net.dk/bnielsen/teatbot.html among other places.
Hardlinks are Oolong's.