It was after I moved to the USA that I learned the concept of “Orientalism” and “Anti-Orientalism.”  In the case of tea art, Dr. D.T Suzuki’s classic work of Zen and The Art of Tea is criticized for its “orientalism.” The first critique is that the relation of Zen and Japanese culture is, in large part, a product of the invention of tradition: it is the imposition of Western values which prompted Asian intellectuals to turn, anew, to their own cultural heritages,  and to reconstitute their indigenous spiritual traditions.

Japanese Tea CeremonyIn other words, the relationship between Zen and The Art of Tea might not be as we know it.  In the modern tea books, such as Dr. D.T Suzuki’s work, it is a reconstitution based on what Westerners want.

The second critique refers to the nationalism of “Orientalism.” For example, Burnard Faure examined Suzuki’s works,  Japanese Spirituality, and Zen and Japanese Culture. He found that his Japanese spirituality was based on an ontological privilege. He contrasted the purely intuitive nature of Zen with the cumbersome rationality of the West, establishing the superiority of sophisticated Japanese culture over the philistine culture of the West. As the sinologist Paul Demieville says, “Virtually all of this country’s (Japan’s) culture is interpreted in relation to Zen which has become a master key providing access to both the aesthetic and Japanese militarism.”

The final critique is in the depiction of tea art (similar to the art of archery, flower arrangement, etc) as unabashed romanticism, replete with notions of the “mysterious East” that infect such narratives .  .  .

These theories are quite new to me. I do not know how to respond to them. What do you think of Zen art, and what’s your response to “Orientalism” and “Anti-Orientalism”?

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