Tea for perfect peace

An ancient Japanese tea ceremony requires years to master and is in no way like downing a quick cup of Lipton.

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Teacher Morgan Beard (right) instructs Terry Sturmer in the nuances of the tea ceremony. In Japanese culture, tea ceremony is an art in which both students and teachers must be licensed, says Beard, a book editor in West Chester. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

There is tea and then there is Tea.

There is bagged Lipton made in a coffee mug using the "hot" knob on the office water cooler; English-style afternoon tea served at the Four Seasons in delicate porcelain cups with a side of scones; hot tea with lemon to soothe a sore throat; iced tea for relief from the heat; and fine fresh-brewed tea from hand-picked leaves, savored by connoisseurs.

And then there is Chanoyu, an ancient ceremony in which matcha green tea powder is brewed one cup at a time in a mindful manner practiced by early Shoguns and perfected by the 16th-century Zen Buddhist master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591).

If 43-year-old Mary Lynn Howard, a bookkeeper from Fishtown, had had lower-case tea in mind when she set out to make a cup four years ago, she'd be sated by now.

But Howard has been studying tea all this time and has at least another decade of practice ahead of her. This Tea has more in common with meditation than drinking.

The central concept is Ichi-go, ichi-e, which means "one moment, one meeting," or "accept the moment."

In Japanese culture, tea ceremony is an art in which both students and teachers must be licensed, says Morgan Beard, a book editor in West Chester who is Howard's teacher.

Many Westerners are drawn to the ceremony for the inner peace it promises. Like meditation, it requires focus and deep concentration. And like meditation, performing tea ceremony brings calm and relaxation. It reinvigorates the mind and spirit, and it could even lower the blood pressure.

The green tea itself, matcha, is a natural mood enhancer. It's rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants; chlorophyll, which cleanses and detoxifies the system; and fiber, but matcha has a zero gylcemic index, so it does not raise insulin levels.

Still, the experience is a far cry from the Western idea of sitting on a couch with a cup of green tea.

Tea students strive for absolute mastery of intricate movements at four levels of study. At level one, for example, students learn to make two kinds of tea (thin and thick), and that takes five to seven years. At level two, there are 16 additional types of tea ceremonies to master, and each has winter and summer variations.

Sounds intriguing, so we asked Beard and Howard, who are with Phillytea.org, a group that meets just about every Saturday at Shofuso, the Japanese house in Fairmount Park, if we could sit in on a lesson.

A tea student for 15 years, Beard is at level four, and is finally approaching the pinnacle: getting a chamei, or tea name.

"That's when you become a tea person, an independent teacher who can apply for tea names for students and create new tea people," she says.

The participants gather in the tea room at Shofuso like actors for a play. One plays the host, another the guest and a third the teacher. Each sits and bows according to tradition, lifts and moves ceremonial objects just so, and speaks scripted lines in Japanese. Wearing kimono is optional for beginners.

Terry Sturmer, a manager for the Boeing Co. who is completing her first year of tea study, is the host on the day we visit, which means she's making the tea and getting the lesson.

Howard, the guest, will drink one cup of the frothy chlorophyll-colored brew in three sips - the last accompanied by a slurp loud enough to demonstrate her appreciation.

As the teacher, Beard will intervene as needed in the pursuit of perfection.

The three sit on their knees (or a small stool in Beard's case because she's recovering from a knee injury) in the tea room at Shofuso - a tiny tatami-matted space that looks out onto a garden of bonsai.

Sturmer gathers the requisite utensils (elegant bowl, bamboo scoop, whisk and stirrer, kettle of hot water, lacquered container of matcha) in an anteroom and in practiced movements akin to ballet, carries them into the room where her guest is waiting.

Moving elegantly in this small space has to be a challenge for non-Asians, and Sturmer says she never feels "as tall and American" as when she is here.

The host presents a plate with three artfully arranged strips of sugared pomelo skins, which the guest will nibble immediately before sipping the unsweetened tea to offset its bitter taste.

Matcha is the same green powder used in green tea ice cream, which is delicious; same as in the matcha lattes Starbucks used to serve. But served unsweetened and whisked to a froth, matcha is an acquired taste.

Howard says the unusual taste of the tea is among the elements - along with wearing a kimono and carrying a fan inscribed with the traditional 100 Tea Poems - that draw her again and again to practice the ceremony.

Four or five hundred years ago, all tea masters were men. But after about 1850, tea ceremony became something women could do. Today, most practitioners are women.

"It's another way of reaching that meditative state," says yoga instructor Pamela Zimmerman, 29. She completed Phillytea.org's 12-week beginner's course last year and has incorporated Zen principles into the classes she teaches at yogaschelter.com.

"It's hard to explain how it affects you as a person," says Beard. "For me it became kind of a sanctuary. No matter how busy the rest of my life went, I had this I could escape to." 


If You Go

Japanese Tea Ceremony is among the arts featured at the area's annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

See a tea ceremony demonstration at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Morris Arboretum (www.morrisarborateum.com); and another on April 4 at Shofuso, the Japanese house in Fairmount Park.

April 5 is Sakura Sunday at the Horticultural Center in Fairmount Park, featuring vendors, music, dance, calligraphy, kimonos, Japanese art and more tea ceremony. The event, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., is free of charge. Information and a complete schedule of cherry blossom events is at www.jasgp.org.

Information on the next 12-week, $390, tea-ceremony course for beginners, starting April 18, is at Phillytea.org.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.