Lessons on Quality, Tea and the Brocade of Autumn

By Peters, Tom | THE JOURNAL RECORD, February 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Lessons on Quality, Tea and the Brocade of Autumn


Peters, Tom, THE JOURNAL RECORD


I lost a recent Sunday, professionally speaking. Friday and Saturday had brought a foot and a half of snow to my southern Vermont farm. Then Sunday dawned cloudless, with the temperature well below zero.

The day had been planned to a T. To prepare for a speech the next week, I'd pore over hundreds of pages of material on telecommunications. But when I went to get the newspaper (a 15-mile drive), I realized it was one of the most beautiful days I'd ever seen. Maybe, I mused, never to be matched again.

What a spectacle! Each window in the house offered a magical crystalline pattern of frost. A stiff breeze generated kaleidoscopic whorls on the white-blanketed fields.

So I seized the day, and enjoyed it for all it was worth. I stared. I sniffed. I listened. I absorbed.

But it turns out I did some work anyway. The experience of fully inhaling a day got me thinking about quality. It also led me to pull out my dogeared copy of Kakuzo Okakura's "The Book of Tea." Thumbing through it, I came upon a satisfactory answer to a question I've long pondered:

Just what is quality?

The serious study of tea service, or chado, is a lifetime occupation in Japan, calling for great discipline and total concentration. A million details must be mastered. But there is much more.

Consider the cleanliness of the tea room and its surroundings. "One of the first requisites of a tea master," wrote Okakura, "is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean and wash." He offers the example of the ancient tea master, Rikyu, teaching his son how to prepare the garden path at the entranceway to the tearoom:

" `Not clean enough,' said Rikyu, when Sho-an had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikyu: `Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time ... not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground.' `Young fool,' chided the tea master, `that is not the way a garden path should be swept.' Saying this, Rikyu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn!"

What Rikyu demanded, Okakura concluded, "was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also."

That makes sense to me, if you're Siemens AG providing telephone equipment or Rosenbluth International offering travel services.

In fact, Rosenbluth CEO Hal Rosenbluth would be the first to agree with Okakura. …

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