Urasenke Foundation teaches tea ceremony — and appreciation of each moment


STEEPED IN TRADITION — Students (above, right) bow to head teacher Christy Bartlett at the beginning of a tea ceremony class. photo by Noriko Shiota Slusser/Nichi Bei Weekly

Matcha (green tea). photo by Noriko Shiota Slusser/Nichi Bei Weekly

A woman enters a tatami room with slow, measured steps and approaches an iron pot of water in a hearth sunken into the floor, set to boil on pieces of charcoal. She slowly sets out supplies, unwraps the tea powder and meticulously wipes the teacup and bamboo scoop, all in a steady silence, pausing meaningfully between tasks.

It’s a Tuesday evening at the Urasenke Foundation, and students are learning the art of chanoyu (tea ceremony). “Everything is a script. Every gesture has already been scored,” explains the teacher, Mary Ann Goodman. “She has her own way of expressing herself. It’s the same score, but each person makes his own music.”

Goodman said her relationship with tea ceremony began when her mother, a teacher, needed to be driven to her classes.

Eventually, Goodman started learning herself. “Before I knew it, I was teaching,” Goodman said. “It’s wonderful. As I get older, it builds.”

The advanced student preparing the tea, Jessica Rosenberg, who also teaches classes at the Foundation, agrees. “I’ve always thought of tea as the epitome of lifelong learning. For your whole life, there is always going to be more to learn. It has immense richness,” Rosenberg says. “You can continually refine your movement. There’s something different every time you do this; it’s a different interaction.”

The Urasenke Foundation San Francisco, founded in 1981, aims to make tea ceremony accessible by offering classes and performing outreach at museums, schools and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, where visitors flock to the yearly demonstrations.

“The goal was to support those who were already studying the tradition of tea and also to kind of open new doors and take tea places it might not have been before,” said Christy Bartlett, one of the founders of the Foundation. She was sent from the main center in Kyoto, with the idea that a non-Japanese person would be able to effectively convey the allure of tea to an American audience.

Over the past 30 years, Bartlett said, enrollment has grown steadily and there has been “a constant increase in interest.” With the addition of a Website, the number of young people increased dramatically, Bartlett said. “In our early days, the people who came to study were older … For a number of years, we were kind of low profile, but when we decided to host a Website — wow! It was amazing. The people who came to study got younger and younger.”

The current student body is between 70 and 80 students, with four or five students per class, and there is a waiting list for enrollment, Bartlett said, in order to maintain the small class size and devote suitable attention to each person.

Bartlett said that the growing interest in the study of tea is very encouraging. “I get this sense that people are really hungry for what it is that happens in the tea room. For some people it’s the sense of participating in an artistic endeavor. For others it’s the poetry, or the sense of community, or learning something about themselves,” Bartlett said. “There’s so many things to find in it.

STEEPED IN TRADITION — Students (above, right) bow to head teacher Christy Bartlett at the beginning of a tea ceremony class. photo by Noriko Shiota Slusser/Nichi Bei Weekly

The way of tea is about not only learning how to sustain and appreciate positive relations with other people, but it’s also about meeting yourself.”

Jessica Rosenberg, the advanced student, said the richness of the art, for her, comes from the interactions with other people, which are unique to each experience. She started studying tea her freshman year in college, which led to an interest in Japanese language and two years studying the tradition in Kyoto.

“I think what appeals to people is that they aren’t sitting and watching TV. The guest is the focus. To able to focus like that and cultivate that focus is appealing,” Rosenberg said. “The translation of chanoyu is kind of unfortunate. If you say tea gathering instead of tea ceremony, that gets closer to the heart of what it’s about. The tea experience isn’t mediated through anything.

There’s no phone or computer screen. It’s the connection aspect that makes it rich and rewarding.

Back in the tatami room, the less advanced student who has received the tea wipes the cup and places it back when he finishes sipping. He admires the cup, and comments favorably on the plum blossom sweet he has been served.

“You forgot to ask her about the tea bowl!” Goodman admonishes.

“Is it too late?” he asks. It is not.

The students proceed to discuss the tea bowl, bamboo scoop and scroll, with Rosenberg sharing their rich histories, including information about their makers and related passages of poetry. Rosenberg recites the poem written on the scroll, and they discuss their interpretations of its imagery.

“There is no wrong answer. Everybody’s answer is the right answer,” Goodman says. “The interaction is what’s important. Over a bowl of tea, you share each other’s company. This is the idea of ichigo, ichie. There’s only one moment, and so we must enjoy that moment.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest