There are tea parties, tea dances, tearooms ... and then there are Tea Ceremonies.

Alas, few Westerners are familiar with the quiet beauty of Japan's centuries-old ritual. But each summer, at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Mass., you can see the ritual unfold as authentic Japanese tea ceremonies are performed in an exquisite little tea hut called Shofuan, or Wind in the Pines Hut.

This summer, the museum -- about 35 miles south of Boston -- is featuring a special exhibition spanning 4,000 years of Asian art, including many Japanese tea utensils. The program also includes lectures and artists' demonstrations, concerts and tea ceremonies.

To the uninitiated, it looks like nothing much happens in a tea ceremony. We Westerners, always searching for a faster way to do things, would probably never dream of taking an hour or more to savor a cup of tea. At its most basic level, the ceremony consists of preparing powdered green tea for one's guests by mixing it with water and whisking it. And yet, this act "has its foundation in the reverence for everything," says Allan Palmer of Brookline, Mass., who has served as tea master at Shofuan for more than a decade.

Infinite layers of meaning and history enfold the ceremony, but trying to explain them is no simple matter, so fundamental are they to the fabric of Japanese life. "One can spend one's entire life trying to iron out the complexities," Palmer says.

Each gesture of the tea ceremony is smoothly rehearsed and embodies centuries-old forms of courtesy. Some gestures have symbolic meaning, involving purification of the self and the tea utensils. During a ceremony, there is much bowing and admiring of the utensils, which, besides being elegantly functional, are often beautiful.

Visitors are inevitably curious about what it all means, and have many questions for Palmer and William Thrasher, who field them with grace and erudition after the ceremonies. Thrasher is guest curator of the special Asian art exhibition at the Art Complex Museum, and also helps present the tea ceremonies.

The tea ceremony actually originated in China, where tea was a medicine that later become a beverage. It was brought to Japan around the 9th and 10th centuries by Japanese Buddhist monks, who had gone to China to study Buddhism. During their long hours of meditation, they used tea as a stimulant to stay awake. Even today, some rules of tea relate to codes of monastic life.

By the 12th century, princely families had adopted the tea ceremony, and great works of tea art in porcelain and celadon had begun to appear. Because tea originated in China, most utensils used were Chinese, and only the wealthy could afford them.

Tea remained the realm of the aristocracy and nobility until the 16th century, when the modern ceremony was introduced. A seminal figure in founding the modern ceremony was Sen no Rikyu, a great tea master who lived in the mid 16th-century. The modern ceremony embodies Sen no Rikyu's four essential elements of tea: wa, kei, sei and jaku. Wa means the complete harmony of all elements; kei conveys reverence, as well as humility and respect; sei identifies orderliness, cleanliness and purity; and jaku means tranquility and calm.

It was Sen no Rikyu who democratized the tea ceremony in Japan and gave it a more Japanese identity. While the Chinese favored porcelain for many utensils, Rikyu used such ordinary materials as Japanese bamboo for flower containers and clay for making tea bowls. (The clay bowls came to be known as Rakuware, and are a famous tradition in Japan. Made with glazes of black, red, gray or white, Rakuware has been crafted by 15 generations of potters, who carry on the tradition today.)

After Rikyu's innovations, tea huts and tea rooms were built in towns and cities. Most tea huts in Japan are separate outdoor structures, and many resemble distant mountain retreats.

Today there are more than 100 ways to make tea -- one reason it takes so many years to become proficient in the tea ceremony. Some variations reflect seasonal changes, with different arrangements and different utensils chosen according to the time of year. Some ceremonies involve aspects of the traditional Japanese calendar, such as the new year or the new moon. Ceremonies range from simple, casual observances to lavish formal presentations using gorgeously decorated Chinese utensils.

At Wind in the Pines Hut, the typical tea ceremony lasts about an hour. The sun slants through pine, maple, bamboo and ginkgo trees in the tea hut's Japanese garden, complete with water basin, stepping stones and granite Japanese lantern. The scent of a charcoal brazier fills the air as observers spread out on the lawn, seated on tatami mats or in lawn chairs.

Wind in the Pines Hut, which was designed and built in Kyoto and reassembled here in 1975, is authentic in every detail. It is built of 14 kinds of Japanese wood, including Japanese cedar, goldenrod, bush clover, cypress and crape myrtle. The walls are of small reed and bamboo laced with wisteria vine for strength, and the sliding shoji doors are of mulberry paper. The shoji doors are taken down from the front wall so the public can see the ceremony.

On this occasion, in late August, the tea hut is simply yet elegantly decorated. In the tokonoma (art alcove) are the traditional hanging art scroll with Japanese calligraphy expressing a Buddhist idea or a seasonal reference, and a flower arrangement chosen in keeping with the season. Since this ceremony anticipates the autumn moon, the Japanese characters read "Sui, getsu, yu, yu" ("water, moon, tranquil, tranquil"), and autumn flowers hang in a moon-shaped container made from a gourd.

The three participants -- the tea master and two guests -- are dressed in close-fitting kimonos with pastel-colored obis. Tea master Allan Palmer, wearing a black kimono, serves as host.

Palmer has made the Japanese tea ceremony a way of life for more than 20 years. He studied in Kyoto, taking professional training at Urasenke, a revered school that is traditionally entered only by Japanese. In recognition of his achievement, he was awarded a Japanese "tea name" -- one of only a handful of Westerners so honored. His tea name, Sosei, gives him the right to teach the tea ceremony to others.

Palmer's two guests on this occasion are art exhibition curator William Thrasher and Elaine Lubin, both of whom have studied tea with him for several years.

Host and guests always enter the tea hut through the roji (garden), pausing to clear their minds and to bring themselves closer to nature in preparation for the ceremony. They purify themselves by washing their hands in a fieldstone basin.

The guests wait, kneeling, as Palmer rings a bronze gong five times. The sound reverberates in the grove with the resonance of ancient times. Before entering the tea hut, the guests remove their sandals at the tokonoma and bow in reverence to the art and flowers. They take time to savor the scent of the incense burning in a bronze brazier, and bow to each other before seating themselves on the tatami floor.

Palmer prepares tea for his two guests, but does not drink: The ceremony is considered a gift. Before the tea, he serves the guests pastel-colored sweets in the shapes of autumn leaves.

Palmer purifies each tea bowl and utensil with hot water dipped from an iron kettle atop the charcoal brazier. Dipping a thin bamboo scoop into a lacquered container of powdered green tea leaves, he prepares the first bowl of tea for Thrasher, whisking the leaves with hot water in an amber-glazed Raku tea bowl. Palmer and Thrasher bow to each other as Thrasher receives his bowl of tea. Palmer repeats the procedure to serve Lubin's tea.

Much of the ceremony takes place in silence, interspersed with quiet comments complimenting the host on the art, flowers, utensils, sweets and, of course, the tea. It comes softly to an end as the utensils are purified once more, shown for the guests' admiration and carefully put away.

To Western eyes, nothing dramatic has taken place. But tea ceremonies are, after all, private acts of hospitality. They can be given to celebrate almost any occasion, at any time of day. A full ceremony takes four to five hours and involves a meal, drinking sake and tea, and viewing the garden.

"The tea ceremony has been the arbiter of taste in almost everything in Japanese life," Thrasher says. It is a cleansing and spiritual experience, "the time away from time, the space away from space."

Patricia Mandell, a freelance writer in Marshfield, Mass., is coauthor of "Hidden New England" (Ulysses Press, 1990). WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: The Art Complex Museum (189 Alden St., P.O. Box 2814, Duxbury, Mass. 02331, 617-934-6634) is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free.

From Boston, take State Route 3 south to Exit 11. Head east on Route 14 to the first traffic light at Route 3A and turn right. Alden Street is the first street on the left.

TEA CEREMONIES: Japanese tea ceremonies are performed once a month during the summer, generally on the last Sunday of the month. This summer's ceremonies are at 2 p.m. on July 29, Aug. 26, Sept. 30 and Oct. 28. Photography is not permitted. Tatami mats are provided, or you can bring a blanket. Admission is free.

OTHER MUSEUM EVENTS: In conjunction with the exhibition "Tribute to Kojiro Tomita: Asian Art From the Permanent Collection," a schedule of special events is planned through Nov. 4, including performamces, lectures, videotapes, artist demonstrations and performances for families. A day-long festival of demonstrations and work- shops, from flower-arranging to dance, will be held Nov. 3. Admission to all events is free, but seating is limited. Free tickets are available on the day of the event on a first-come, first-served basis.

RECOMMENDED READING:

"The Way of Tea," by Rand Castile (John Weatherhill Inc., 1971).

"Tea Taste in Japanese Art," by Sherman E. Lee (Arno Press, 1976).

"Chanoyu -- the Urasenke Tradition of Tea," edited by Shoshitsu Sen XV (John Weatherhill Inc., 1988).

"The Book of Tea," by Kakuzo Okakura, with foreword and afterword by Soshitsu Sen XV (Kodansha International, 1989). -- Patricia Mandell