|My Appreciation for Korean
Green Tea and its Culture
an Essay by Professor David A. Mason
College of Tourism Management, Kyung Hee University
(a Korean translation of this essay, was published in Cha-in [Tea-Master] Magazine in 2006, and a revised English version
published in Lotus Lantern [the English magazine of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism] in Spring 2007 and Summer
I first came to know about Korea's green tea and its close association with Seon [meditational, Zen] Buddhism
more than two decades ago, when I started visiting the great temples found in Korea's National Parks and other
beautiful mountain areas. In those days there were few domestic producers of high-quality tea, and relatively
few monks had a regular habit of drinking tea and serving it to their guests, and finding one was a rare delight;
I learned as much as I could from them. Green tea rapidly regained popularity through the 1990s, and by now
Han-guk Chado (the Korean Way of Tea) is a standard aspect of temple-life, the neo-traditional-style tea-
parlors in Insa-dong, Anguk-dong and elsewhere, and many Korean homes. When I helped to design the
successful “Buddhist Temple-Stay” tourism program in 2002 before the World Cup, Chado lessons were one
of the primary items that we included in the programs (and they remain so).
Over the years of talking with monks and other cha-in [Tea-Masters]
I slowly became aware that Korea had a grand ancient tradition of
tea-culture, beginning as Buddhism was fully accepted in the Three
Kingdoms Era (4th~7th Cen CE). According to the Samguk Yusa [Myths
& Legends of the Three Kingdoms], when Princess Heo Hwang-ok from
Ayuda or Ayodhya (Ancient Hindu kingdom/city in India, although Thailand's
Buddhist kingdom/city Ayutthaya was more probably her actual homeland)
arrived by ship on the shore of the Gaya Kingdom (far-SE Korea, west of
the Nakdong River) in 48 CE for marriage to its Founding-King Kim Suro,
she carried some tea seeds which were planted on the slopes of
Baekwol-san [White Moon Mountain, now in Gimhae City]. This is quite
likely just a myth (certainly the date is too early), but today there are tea-
bushes still growing wild in that area. The leaders of Gaya (which was
absorbed into the Shilla Kingdom before 600) are legendarily credited
with paying tribute to their ancestors with offerings of tea (in addition to
the usual fruit, rice, meat & etc), and this ceremony became known
throughout Korean culture as Charye [茶禮, Tea Ritual], as it is still
called today (even among the Neo-Confucians who follow ancient
Chinese-Confucian custom in offering rice-wine to ancestral spirits
instead of the more Buddhist-tinged green tea).
In the late 1400s, the era of the flowering of Korean Neo-Confucianism, “Hanjae” Yi Mok (from Jeonju City, became a
Scholar in the Seonggyun-gwan) was a pioneer in documenting and preserving the Han-guk Chado traditions. While
sentenced to exile in Gyeongju (due to factional politics) he wrote a book named Dabu which included information,
poems and Korean songs related to tea. He not only admired tea for its taste and benefits, but emphasized that the
proper application of mental training during a life devoted to tea-culture can lead people to find The Way [도] and
therefore spiritual happiness. For Hanje, chado was not an aesthetic pursuit, a stylish social fashion or sensory
enjoyment, but rather a path to raise one’s spiritual level. The Dabu is composed in poetic form but has far more
philosophical depth than most ordinary literature.
For the next three centuries, a now-unknown lineage of Buddhist monks and local Confucian worthies just barely maintained
Korea's green tea culture and practices in the south coast region, utilizing the wild tea-bushes that had spread around its
foggy mountain-slopes. It is recorded that following the Imjin Japanese invasion (1592-98), Ming Chinese General Yang
Hao informed Joseon King Seonjo (r. 1567-1608) that while maneuvering around Jiri-san he had discovered that the native
tea there was of premium quality, comparable to China's best. Unfortunately, Seonjo-wang dismissed this information, only
replying "Our nation has no custom of drinking tea," and deriding Korean green tea as only fit for the lower classes. General
Yang insisted that the tea he had found was high-quality and advised the king to drink it "to relax your stress and clear your
mind," but Seonjo-wang could not accept this good advice due to Neo-Confucian prejudice against Buddhist culture.
The next stage of advancement began in 1801, when the great Neo-Confucian
scholar of Shilhak [Practical Studies, an important trend in late Joseon Neo-
Confucianism] “Dasan” Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836) was sentenced to exile in
the south coast's Gangjin Town. He met Buddhist Master Hyejang-seunim
(1772-1811) from the nearby Mandeok-san Baeknyeon-sa [10,000 Virtues
Mountain White Lotus Temple], who introduced him to the pleasures & culture
of drinking green tea. Jeong built a hermitage for his scholarship on a wild-
tea-covered hill, and from it adopted his pen-name Dasan [Tea-Mountain].
In a letter to Hyejang he stated that he valued the green tea as a kind of
medicine for the heart, to ameliorate the painful sadness that a good person
feels when struggling with the corruptions of our world. It is recorded that when
a guest visited the Dasan-chodang hermitage (now a popular tourist-site), he
would immediately brew tea as they sat together in silence, and not begin their
conversation until each of them had drunk three bowls of the golden nectar.
|At Ilji-am he wrote one of my favorite tea-poems:
Here the sky's light is like water and water is like mist.
I came and enjoyed it here; now already a half-year has passed.
Good nights were like lying down under a bright moon;
a clear river is now facing white sea gulls sleeping.
Since hatred and jealousy have not stayed in my mind,
how could either discredit or honor approach the rim of my ear?
In my sleeve there still remains some Enlightening Thunder Smile tea.
Drifting like a cloud, I will try the spring water at Du-ryeong again.
(translated by Jinwol-seunim of the Jogye Order)
The Korean tea-ceremony format, more than a thousand years old, was re-envisioned by Cho-eui as quite
different from what had developed in China and Japan – closer to the former than the latter, but still unique.
It emphasizes ease and naturalness as friends enjoy brewing and drinking green tea in a semi-formal and
spiritually-oriented yet friendly setting, far less stiff and elitist than the famous tea-ceremony styles developed in
Japan. It combines the best philosophy and aesthetics of Korea’s Seon Buddhism and “Sage-Principle” Neo-
Confucianism. The ceramics and utensils are all as simply natural as possible, with colors that call the mind,
although made with unforced artistic skill. The highest values in Korean Chado are peacefulness, respectfulness,
purity and wise insight. Today, Cho-eui’s style and atmosphere have become popular as part of the “well-being”
movement, as modern Koreans seek harmony and relaxation during their stressful and rapid urban lives.
His spiritual devotion to tea is well expressed in these verses:
From long ago, saints and sages have both loved tea.
Tea is like a perfect gentleman whose nature has no evil.
The first human had tea in earliest times
when he entered far into Snowy Mountain to pick tea leaves.
Thereafter its qualities have been transmitted by the Way of Tea
and teas were kept in jade jars like ten kinds of brocade.
After long seeking, the best water for tea was found in the Yellow River
which has eight kinds of virtue and also beauty.
Water should be drawn from the depths,
and examined for lightness and softness.
If water is really pure,
it develops both the body and the spirit of the tea.
When all dirt and coarseness are eliminated and essential vitality enters,
attainment of the Great Path is not far, is it?
When I pay homage to the Spiritual Mountain
and offer tea to all Buddhas,
I must be careful of the boiling point
and consider the range of Buddhist precepts.
Although the real body of Och-ieh tea seeks its mysterious origin,
the mysterious origin is the Perfection of Non-Attachment.
Alas, I was born three thousand years after the Buddha;
his voice is dim as the Sound of the Tide from the primordial heaven.
I wanted to seek the mysterious origin but obtained nothing.
I deeply regret that I was not born before the Buddha left the world.
So far I have not been able to wash away my love of tea,
so I brought some to the Eastern Land (Korea) to smile at my difficulty.
I'm now unpacking the brocade wrappings from a jade jar,
to make a gift of some tea to close friends first.
(also translated by Jinwol-seunim)
Cho-eui’s hermitage devoted to Chado was abandoned after he died, but a little more than a century later it was
rebuilt under the leadership of the late Tea-Master "Myeongwon" Kim Mi-hi , as interest in Korea’s tea-traditions
were starting to revive, thanks to her efforts and those of Hyodang-seunim and others. The first time I visited that
reconstructed Ilchi-am I feel deeply in love with it, particularly its plain-wooden thached-roof tea-pavilion (built later
in the 1980s) next to the brook of particularly pure water. My companions and I were simply stunned by how
charming it was, how it expressed such deep devotion to Seon and Daoist Chado in such elegantly simple ways.
It seemed like a kind of paradise-retreat of the true Korean spirit.
the Tea-pavilion at Ilji-am, 1989
Ilji-am's main building, 1989
the summit of Duryun-san, above Ilji-am
Korea's original tea-field
|2000 brush-painting of Ssanggye-sa by artist Hong Seon-ung
There's a growing global interest in green tea, largely due to its many reputed health benefits and remarkable
lack of any bad side-effects – none at all have been found, no matter how much you drink. It's increasingly
fashionable here in Korea as part of the “well-being” [wholistic health] trend, and many of us foreign residents
have also developed enthusiasm for it as a gentler alternative to coffee, as a way to discover Korean traditions,
and/or as a pleasant, healthy and charming supplement to our spiritual path.
enjoying green tea with the Abbott and a friend
at remote Sangseon-am of Jiri-san, 2004
Traditional Korean tea-ware: a full set of
white baekja with an old-style pot, and a
Zen-crude buncheong-style bowl
This field and its surrounding children flourished during the Buddhist-oriented Goryeo Dynasty, as the main source of tea for
the many royal and monastic rituals. Tea became the subject of some of Korea's oldest poems that we know of. It was
served and offered in blue-green Celadon bowls at the royal court and to Buddha and Bodhisattva statues in the great
temples, in regular ceremonies called Honcha.and at grand festivals such as the Palgwan-hoe and Yeongdeong-hoe.
Gentle doses of it were an essential aid to long sessions of wakeful meditation or deep study, and stronger doses of it
offered experiences that led to it becoming known as “the taste of enlightenment.” Royalty developed an elaborate ritual and
ceremonial code for drinking tea, and all national events and court ceremonies began to include tea-ceremonies of various
kinds; pavilions and arbors were built for the purpose of preparing and serving tea while literati composed poetry and
philosophical essays. As tea became more abundant and cheaper, its popularity expanded outwards from the royal court
and high-ranking Buddhist monks to scholars, officials and then even the general public. Kings bestowed tea as royal gifts
to loyal retainers and subjects; they even established a special agency, the Dabang (茶房) to oversee tea supplies and
regulate the official ceremonies. Tea-ware became important collectible treasures among the nobility and Buddhist monks,
and in the elite classes tea-drinking parties became snobbish social-cultural events with their own particular etiquette, to
which it was an honor to be invited. Cultural customs and artworks centered on tea blossomed in many ways, and it became
so valued and respected that it even became commonly offered in the Confucian ancestral ceremonies, as said above.
Goryeo Dynasty scholar Yi Gyu-bo (1168-1241) left us the poem "Visiting Monk Om"
describing the elegant spiritual depth of conversations shared over tea:
An anecdote for every bowl; gradually we approach the mystery.
The joy is limpid, plain; you don't need to drink alcohol to be drunk like this.
|"Myeongwon" Kim Mi-hi,
who led reconstruction
of the above building
Cho-eui-seonsa (1786-1866) was another deep thinker who enjoyed the tea
from Jiri-san and did what he could to understand and revive the Han-guk
Chado traditions, and pass them along to future generations. He became
friends with Dasan at Gangjin, and learned about green tea from him,
beginning his lifelong enthusiastic study of its ancient Buddhist cultural
connections. They enjoyed drinking green tea together and had many
fascinating conversations about philosophy applied to practical life and
spirituality reaching across religious boundaries. After becoming a Master
of Meditation at Duryun-san Daeheung-sa (a.k.a. Daedun-sa) Temple at
the farthest southwestern end of the Korean Peninsula, he established a
hermitage known as Ilji-am in 1824, where he sincerely cultivated the Way
of Tea for the next 40 years.
In 1830 he composed a simple guide to making and drinking tea named
Chasin-jeon [Message of Tea-Spirit], and around 1836 he wrote a famous
poem named Dongdasong in praise of tea. When the famous scholar
“Chusa” Kim Jeong-hui 1786-1856), one of Korea's greatest calligraphers,
was exiled to Jeju Island 1840~48 Cho-eui visited him five times, staying for
up to six months and discussing tea and Seon Buddhism with him. In 1838
he traveled to the famous Geumgang-san [Diamond Mountains] and climbed
all the way to the summit Biro-bong (1638m). All these activities demonstrate
his wide-ranging mind.
However, tea itself and the venerable fields of Jiri-san were to a large extent abandoned during the subsequent Neo-
Confucian-oriented Joseon Dynasty era (whose rituals returned to being conducted with wine), forgotten by all except a few
Buddhist tea-aficionados and their Confucian friends. Seo Geo-jeong (1420-1488), a great writer and eminent official of
early Joseon (compiler of the first Anthology of Korean Literature), testifies to tea's benefits in "Brewing Tea While Sick":
This year I am debilitated by sickness, racked by thirst.
My only joy is the occasional bowl of tea.
In the clear dawn I draw tingling-cold spring water;
At my leisure, I brew the golden "Dewdrop Leaf" in a stoneware pot.
There’s no need to discuss aroma, color, and taste;
Just drink it, and you'll find that your mind becomes bright.
I got a very special feeling from my first visit to the Hwagye-dong Valley
of Jiri-san National Park, running from the lovely Seomjin River up to
remote and profound Chilbul-sa and the Daeseong-gyegok [Great Saint
Scenic-Valley]. There, on the warm and frequently-foggy southern
slopes of Jiri-san's sacred Samshin-bong, Korea's first tea field was
planted by Kim Dae-ryeom-gong in 828 CE. He smuggled some tea
seeds out of southern China by sewing them into the hem of his robe
and presented them to the King of Shilla, who directed him to seek out
the most suitable an auspicious site for their cultivation, and plant them
there -- he chose a slope of Hwagye-dong, just outside the entrance of
Ssanggye-sa, one of Korea's greatest monasteries. The field was
initially cared for by Meditation-Master Jin-gam-daesa (who is credited
with establishing Beompae, Korea's Buddhist ritual-music-&-dance).