"Mariko watched the fire critically, the coals a glowing mountain on a sea of stark white sand below the triped, her ears listening to the hissing sound of the fire melding with the sighing of the barely simmering kettle above . . . The cha-no-yu was ended. Now life must begin again ."

Buntaro's tea ceremony from "Shogun" by James Clavall

In the quiet of an emoty Bethesda bedroom, three women kneel of floor cushions and silently watch another kneeling woman as she whips green tea powder and hot water to a froth. The woman uses a fine bamboo whisk, raising it high above the tea bowl, then lowering it to circle the inside of the bowl. She pauses in the circling and drops the whisk against the bowl's rim. In the stillness, the sound breaks like a solitary raindrop in a window sill.

Deftly, with almost slow-motion grace, the woman presents the bowl to one of the women, wo sips from it and passes it to her neighbor.

This is the cha-no-yu, or Japanese tea ceremony, a kind of Oriental communion that has caught the fancy to Westerners in the wake of James Clavell's best-selling novel "Shogun," and that practitioners say brings tranquility, self-discipline and oblivion from care. Now, under the aegis of a petite Japanese woman named Kay Wain, Washington has its own Urasenke Tea Chapter.

Born in Japan, but now an American citizen, the 48-year-old Wain has practiced the tea tea ceremony since she was 5 years old. "I readly don't teach tea," she maintains. "I think of it as holding workshops because I'm still a student myself. I've wanted to have this tea chapter for many years because there are many, including many japanese, who don't understand tea. They think of it as an exotic pastime without looking at the deeper meaning, the philosophy, behind it. I always lood forward to someone who is truly interested in tea."

"It's like listening to a beautiful piece of music," says Rose Ann McHenry, a housewife and former docent for the Smithsonian's Asian division who is one of Wain's students. "You get something different out of each time even though the piece of music is the same."

Unlike many of the other curent roads to nirvana, the tea ceremony isn't something that can be picked up after memorizing two syllables and the 12 signs of the zodiac.

The tea ceremony must be done slowly and often takes many years of apprenticeship, according to tea master Hisashi Yamada, who was in Washington for the founding of the Washington Friends of Tea chapter. There are already chapters in San Francisco, Honolulu, Seattle, Sacramento, New York and Boston.

Sitting in Wains's living room in Bethesda, Yamada explained that the tea ceremony had been around since the 4th century in Japan and in that time had accumulated all the elements of Japanese culture.

"It involves appreciation of beauty, pride in work (of even the simplest kind), courtesy and politeness," Yamada said. "It is a cyystallization of the ordinariness of life - the things that most of do most of the time."

While the newly-formed Washington Urasenke chapter has only 10 members, mostly Smithsonian docents, tea chapters are well-established on the West Coast where there is a heavy Japanese-American population.

In Los Angeles, Susie Matsumoto, who has taught tea ceremony for more than 25 years, has 50 students, including and ex-Green Beret and an anatomy professor who has taken lessons since she began to teach.

"I laught when people ask me how long it will take to learn tea ceremony," she says. "I say maybe 10 years. That quickly weeds out those who are not serious about tea."

For those like anatomy professor Valentine de Mignard who stick with it, though, the "tea ceremony gives you everything. It is a way of suspending time."

"Everytime I go there, it's like immersing yourself in another world," says another LA student, Robin Rector Krupp. "You have to calm down. You can't do it fast. It took me years just to learn that hot water sounds different from cold water."

As esoteric as it sounds, the tea ceremony itself is quite simple. The ceremony takes place in an almost empty room. The guests, usually numbering from one to four, arrive and seat themselves on mats in a kneeling position. The hjost then prepares the tea for the guests.

When the guests have finished drinkin their tea, they admire the tea caddy and the cup, ask about the artist who made the instruments and whether the implements have names. They then depart, perhaps admiring the flower arrangement, almost the only ornament in the room, as thy go.

To the outsider, the exterior components of a tea ceremony may seem exotic and Japanese, but it is merely k the lack in the Western tradition of remembering the substance under some of our own traditions, according to Yamada. "If you want to emphasize the religious aspects of tea ceremony, you could compare it to communion, only the communion is within yourself," he said. "I think the Western world needs that."

The religious aspects of the tea ceremony are what appealed to Frederick Ossorio, a director of Armstar Sugar Corporation and one of Yamada's students in New York. "I started collecting antique tea bowls. Then I started taking tea lessons here in New York. I like the religious references relating to unselfishness.

"Tea ceremony can be anything you want it to be," Yamada maintains. "It can be religious, since there are elements of en to it, it can be social, or strictly aesthetic. You bring what you want to the tea and it gives it back."

At the turn of the century, Kakuzo Okakura, scholar, art critic and curator of Chinese and Japanese Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, wrote "The Book of Tea," about the symbolism and significance of the tea ceremony.In it, Okakura says: "Life is an expression, our unconscious actions the constant betrayal of our innermost thought. Each preparation of the tea leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story."