In a nondescript room in UCLA’s MacGowan Hall, students kneel by a teakettle on a tatami-lined floor as they learn how to handle a bamboo tea scoop using intricate hand movements. Michelle Liu Carriger, associate professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, stands by the mats in a kimono, welcoming newcomers.

Though it may sound like a class, it’s actually a weekly practice for a student club aptly named UTeaLA, which strives to teach members “o-temae” — the art or practice of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The club, which opened in the fall, has already taught its first group of students the full tea ceremony procedure.

O-temae is about more than just preparing and consuming tea. The ceremony, which started as a Zen Buddhist practice, is also about calming the mind and being present in the moment. The attention to detail required for tea practice creates a place where students can slow down and take a break from the bustle of the quarter system.

“Precisely because tea ceremony requires attention to detail and emotional awareness, it calls your mind into the present moment — bringing you into deeper connection with yourself and the people around you,” said Aldo Schwartz, club founder and president. “Even during busy times such as midterms or finals, we often have full attendance at our weekly practices — a testament to the stress-reducing and socially supportive capacities of tea ceremony.”

Schwartz, who is pursuing a bachelor’s in cinematography and film/video production, was introduced to tea by his Japanese stepmother while he was in high school. In college, he wanted to reconnect with Japanese culture — and steep himself in the introspection and stress reduction that are part of the tea ceremony.

A chance encounter

Though he and Carriger are both at TFT, they didn’t know each other until last year. After reading about her interest in tea in a school newsletter, he contacted the professor as a potential interviewee for his documentary film about a Japanese tea house in Malibu. That meeting led to the inception of UTeaLA as a “space for people of all backgrounds and experience levels to come together over their shared love of tea.”

Carriger, the club’s main instructor, has been studying tea for 24 years. She holds a chamei, a third-level teaching license presented by the Urasenke Gakuen Professional College of Chado in Kyoto. At TFT, she specializes in the historiography of theater, performance and everyday life, and has also taught a Fiat Lux seminar on an introduction to the way of tea at UCLA.

Carriger, who is Chinese and white, first started practicing tea as an undergrad at Pepperdine University. “Even from that first set of classes, I started to realize that the practice fulfilled a lot of my interests and needs at once, like artistic and aesthetic discernment through collecting and using utensils in combination,” she said. 

Thus began her lifelong commitment to the way of tea, which has brought her together with practitioners around the world and finally, UCLA students.

‘A call to the present’

Attending a UTeaLA practice ceremony is an unforgettable experience. As students learn the ceremony, they help each other; the calm and respectful but laidback ambiance and the beautiful aesthetics come together to create a space that feels nonjudgmental and facilitates learning. Every step and finger placement counts, making tea an ideal activity to practice mindfulness.

“Tea ceremony has shown me the preciousness of the present moment, the humility of imperfection, the importance of living intentionally, and that — with enough care and attention — the mundane can become sublime,” Schwartz said.

Looking forward, the club plans to introduce new workshops that expand on tea practice, such as sweets making, ceramics, carving utensils and flower arranging. UTeaLA also hopes to incorporate sustainability. Carriger is working on staging an art-performance version of tea titled “Tea Ceremony with Pacific Plastics,” which will involve thinking about environmentalism, micro-plastics and the history of Japanese Americans’ influence around Southern California.

“In some way, shape, or form, the ethos of tea ceremony has informed and transformed nearly every aspect of my personal life and artistic practice,” Schwartz said. “It is a window to the past, a call to the present, and a hope for the future — with hundreds of years of philosophy, culture, and artistic heritage conveyed in a simple bowl of tea.”

For those interested in joining or finding out more, UTeaLA welcomes all levels of experience and commitment.