the way of tea: an interview with morgan beard, tea ceremony teacher at philly tea

This is the second interview in my series with tea ceremony practitioners, this time with Morgan Beard.  Morgan is a Japanese tea ceremony teacher who also does lectures and demonstrations around the Philadelphia area. You can learn more about tea ceremony in Philadelphia by visiting www.phillytea.org.

Philadelphia is a bit of a tea hub, with the wonderful Teaspoons and Petals blog also being based out of this wonderful city.  The first interview in this series, with Gabriel Caciula, a chanoyu practitioner from Belgium can be found here.

Tell me about your connection to Japan and to tea and what ignited your passion for tea.

jikōin temple -creative commons by hideyuki kamon via flickr

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where there was nothing about Japanese culture to be found, but even at an early age I was fascinated by the idea of a ceremony dedicated to tea. Once I saw an article about Japanese tea ceremony in the newspaper, and without really understanding why, I cut it out and hung it on my wall.

I didn’t get a chance to learn about tea ceremony until I went to college, where there was a course on Japanese tea ceremony that included instruction in how to prepare tea.

I really loved it. It’s hard to explain; I think that if you come to a tea gathering, or if you start to study it, it either touches you deeply or it doesn’t, and the people who are touched often become tea  students.

The tea ceremony, while being very special, can be a little intimidating to newcomers – why is it special to you and what do you think non-Japanese can take and learn from it.

matcha - creative commons by josh berglund via flickr

It’s difficult to put into words why the experience can be so profound. For me, particularly in the beginning, it was the sense of peace — there was this small, self-contained world where everything moved in its own rhythm and nothing outside mattered. In a stressful, chaotic world it can be very healing to have a place like that. It can also be very meditative, and I think that’s the aspect that appeals to most people.

Tea ceremony is an invitation to focus your mind and open your senses, to touch, taste, smell, and listen.

If as a guest you can get yourself into a mindset where you’re letting yourself go — not worrying about what’s coming next or what you have to do, but simply being there — you can experience some of the tranquility that we really strive for when we practice tea, and that’s something that anyone can appreciate, regardless of culture.

Can you tell me a little about your very first experience with chanoyu.

I hope I won’t disappoint you too much if I say I don’t remember a lot about it. I’m sure that in the context of the class we started with a demonstration of the type of tea ceremony we would be learning, but at that point I was there as a college student rather than a tea student, if you get the difference, and I wasn’t really absorbing the details.

It wasn’t until later that little movements and little experiences started to have a deeper meaning, and I started to truly understand what my teacher was saying when he talked about bringing tea into your everyday life, and those were the memorable experiences.

For example, I remember one story my teacher used to tell about keeping your tea mind as you do chores. He was doing dishes one day, and trying to be very mindful and keep focused on his movements in the way that we do when we’re preparing tea. As he went about his work, he opened a cabinet to put the dishes away and suddenly had an experience of his mind opening to the eternal (very much like what a Zen monk would experience during a moment of enlightenment). Although I never had a moment like that myself, I would often try to get into my “tea mind” while doing everyday tasks and feel the enjoyment of being in that state.

In terms of instruction, how long have you been practicing chanoyu, how has your learning changed over time.

I’ve been studying tea ceremony for 16 years. In my school, Urasenke (as with most schools) the types of temae — procedures or “ceremonies” — get progressively more complex as you go on, building on skills that you learned before. The more complex temae represent an older philosophy of tea, so as you go onward you go deeper into the origins and the symbolism of tea ceremony, and even in terms of the simpler temae, there are always new levels and layers of meaning to learn. As I encounter new people and even in my regular classes, I’m constantly learning things I didn’t know before. This education is an ongoing process that never stops, as long as you’re doing tea.

philly tea

I think the biggest change in the way I learned came when I began to teach. About eight years ago I started assisting my teachers with beginning students, and gradually took on more responsibility until I was licensed as an independent teacher. Being a teacher yourself makes you much more aware of how little you know, and it gives you a whole new appreciation for being in lessons and paying close attention to every detail — much more so than when you’re simply a student.  We have a saying in the West that youth is wasted on the young, but I think in tea you could say that beginner’s mind (that sense of openness to new information) is wasted on beginners!

What have you learnt through practicing chanoyu, about Japan, rituals, and yourself.

That’s a big question!

I’ve talked a bit about this above, and I could add that in order to practice tea well, you need to educate yourself about many other Japanese arts — ceramics, calligraphy, lacquer ware, flower arranging, and so on.

I joke sometimes that it can be like the “tea scouts,” where your essential skills include building fires, tying complex knots, and identifying plants.

For advanced students kimonos are generally required, at least on formal occasions, and that requires a whole other set of skills and knowledge. So even if you’re not a Japanophile in the beginning, if you study tea long enough you end up learning quite a bit about Japanese traditional arts and the seasonal cycle of the year.

But of course tea ceremony is about more than facts, and more than knowing the sequence of a particular temae. I think if I were going to sum it all up, which is quite the difficult task, I would say that the biggest thing any student can take away from studying tea is an approach to life, and perhaps the best word for that approach is openness — opening of the senses, of the mind, of the heart, and being aware in every moment of your surroundings and your self.

Most of us aren’t in that state of mind all the time, of course, but I think the point of tea ceremony is to take that awareness, that “tea mind,” and carry it with you all the time, so that in any moment you can look at a flower or a painting or a stack of dirty dishes and see the glorious harmony that underlies all of it.

Otherwise, you might as well just grab a bag of Lipton’s, a dirty cup, and some tap water and be done with it.

Tell me how you best translate the traditional tea ceremony to your tea practices at home, how are they simplified, what is still really important.

I actually don’t do any variations on tea ceremony outside of the tearoom — I’m either in that environment and fully doing tea, or I’m not. But, as I mentioned above (not to belabor the point) little things about my mental state and even the way I move often pop up in my everyday life, so I never fully leave tea ceremony behind.

Outside of matcha and the ceremony, what do you like to drink at home.

Water, juice, milk, soda. I have a fondness for smoothies, though not always the time to blend them up myself. I also do enjoy drinking all types of loose-leaf tea — our cabinets and drawers are overflowing with the various finds we’ve made online and at tea stores.

In terms of language, I was wondering about your Japanese – I am curious as to whether knowing (or not) the language is a hindrance, or can you get what you need just by watching, observing and participating in the tea ceremony.

I am not fluent in Japanese, but I have a basic conversational / reading knowledge of it. At the most basic level — if you were a guest, for example, or just beginning to study tea ceremony — it’s really not necessary to know Japanese at all. We have a few basic phrases that we have our students memorize, but in gatherings we will use the English equivalent if not all of the guests understand Japanese. Certainly language isn’t a barrier to understanding the non-verbal aspects of tea ceremony, and you could argue that those are the most important!

However, for a serious student of tea ceremony, someone who has studied for many years, having at least a basic knowledge of Japanese is very helpful. For one thing, there are a wealth of books, articles, and other educational materials on tea ceremony in Japanese, and only a tiny fraction of it has ever been translated into English. The few English books that are widely available tend to be either highly repetitive (in the sense that the books all present the same principles on a beginner’s level) or very academic. Also, if you go to Japan to study, or even attend an advanced seminar here in the United States, often the instruction is in Japanese only. It is certainly possible to study tea ceremony on a high level without knowing Japanese, but there are times when it is a definite handicap.

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Morgan Beard is a Japanese tea ceremony teacher who also does lectures and demonstrations around the Philadelphia area. You can learn more about tea ceremony in Philadelphia by visiting www.phillytea.org.

Philly Tea have one more event in October – get in touch if you’d like to attend:

October 10 — Omotesenke tea ceremony demonstration at Shofuso, the Japanese House and Gardens. Omotesenke is a different school of tea ceremony from Urasenke, which is the style normally demonstrated at Shofuso. Don’t miss this chance to see the difference!

There will be three sittings of usucha (thin tea) at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.; the fee for these is $30, or $25 for Shofuso members. There will also be one sitting of koicha (thick tea) at 2 p.m. in the tea room; space for this sitting is extremely limited. The fee is $40, or $35 for Shofuso members. Reservations are required for all sittings. To register, call (215) 878-5097 or e-mail info@shofuso.com.

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  1. […] You can read part 1 with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; and part 2 with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here. […]

  2. […] This interview excerpt with tea ceremony practitioner comes courtesy of travelandtea.com. To read the full interview please see: http://travelandtea.com/2010/10/03/morgan-beard-philly-tea/ […]

  3. […] with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; part two with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here and part three with Rebecca Lyn Cragg from Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada […]

  4. […] with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; part two with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here, part three with Rebecca Lyn Cragg from Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada here, and part four with […]



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