From the days of yore, the Korean word “dabansa” has been used in Buddhist temples in reference to eating meals and drinking tea. In common usage, it means “an everyday occurrence” or “the commonplace.” As this suggests, tea drinking, like meals, was considered an integral part of daily monastic life.
Monks pick tea leaves at the tea field of Seonam Temple, located at the foot of Mt. Jogye in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. The temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the few in Korea that maintains the traditional method of tea cultivation.
At traditional Korean Buddhist temples that place importance on Seon (Zen) meditation as the path to awakening, tea is a central part of all monastic rituals. Monks drink tea before they start the morning service and honor the patriarchs on their death anniversaries with a cup of tea.
Tea drinking has become an important part of monastic rituals not merely because monks enjoy it. The spiritual realm of Seon meditation meets the physical realm of drinking tea, leading to another spiritual world where Seon and tea are one.
When a flying bird wants to rest, a single tree branch will suffice. The name of the Ilji Hermitage at Daeheung Temple carries such a meaning. Located on the slopes of Mt. Duryun in Haenam County, South Jeolla Province, at the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula, the hermitage is where Seon Master Choui (1786–1866), known as the “father of Korean tea,” lived 150 years ago.
Venerable Yeoyeon (right) and his disciple, the Venerable Bomyeong, pick tea leaves at the Banya Tea Plantation in Haenam County, South Jeolla Province. They have inherited the spirit and method of Seon Master Choui, who established the Korean way of tea in the late Joseon Dynasty.
The Hub of Korean Tea Culture
One day in the spring of 1830, Choui was boiling water for tea on a brazier when a novice monk asked what the way of tea was. Quoting from his book “Chronicle of the Spirit of Tea” (Dasinjeon), Choui said, “Tea is to be made with care and dedication, stored dry and brewed cleanly. The tea making process is completed in the pursuit of such care, dryness and purity.”
In the summer of 1837, another person presented Choui with a question regarding the way of tea. It was Hong Hyeon-ju (1793–1865), son-in-law of King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty. In answer, Choui composed the poem “Ode to Korean Tea” (Dongdasong), in which he lauded the tea cultivated in Korea for combining the taste and medicinal properties of Chinese tea. Choui also added, “The way of tea is achieving harmony between the tea and the water, which leads to the path of justice and uprightness.”
Ilji Hermitage, built by Choui in 1824 and his home for 40 years, was destroyed by fire after his death. It was not until 1980, when few even remembered the site, that the hermitage was fully restored. Following in the footsteps of Choui, the Venerable Yeoyeon devoted himself to growing and making tea at the hermitage for 18 years. He first learned about the way of tea at Haein Temple where he entered the priesthood, and together with renowned tea masters like artist Heo Baek-ryeon and independence fighter-cum-monk Choe Beom-sul he belongs to the first generation of modern teaists in Korea. Choe named the tea made by Yeoyeon “Banya Tea,” banya being the Korean transliteration of prajna, a Buddhist concept meaning wisdom or insight.
Most books about tea state that the prime time to make tea is around April 20, whereas Choui claimed that the best time is around May 5, Korea being at a higher latitude than the main tea-growing regions in China. Heeding his advice, Yeoyeon begins the first harvest after April at the Banya Tea Plantation at the foot of Mt. Duryun.
In the winter of 1996, social activists in Haenam County formed a group called Namcheon Dahoe to learn about tea from Yeoyeon. They went on to create a tea culture community that gathered for tea ceremonies and spiritual practice with Yeoyeon and, in 1997, began cultivating a tea field, which would later become the Banya Tea Plantation. The first Dasinje, a tea harvest rite, was held in 2004 with the first crop, and the rite is continued to this day. It is an occasion to appreciate and realize through a cup of tea that the heavens and earth, humans and all other living beings are interconnected.
Freshly harvested green tea leaves are sorted, roasted in an iron cauldron, and rubbed. This process is repeated two to three times.
Venerable Yeoyeon (far right) and his disciples process tea leaves picked from the Banya Tea Plantation, located near Daeheung Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“When I slowly take the cup of tea shimmering with the spring haze to my lips, its lush aroma stirs my heart like a bamboo grove under a clear sky.”
Banya Tea Community
The processing of green tea leaves involves roasting, rubbing and drying. Choui is known to have made five types of tea, including loose leaf tea and caked tea. Yeoyeon also makes different types of tea depending on the quality of the leaves. He stresses the importance of differentiating the production methods according to the weather at the time of harvest and the moisture content of the tea leaves, the basic elements to be considered in roasting, rather than the temperature of the cauldron. He mainly produces leaf tea and caked tea roasted in an iron cauldron over a wood fire. With expertise developed by visiting many domestic and overseas tea production sites, his skill in controlling the intensity of the fire and roasting time depending on the quality of the tea leaves is a cut above.
After the leaves are roasted, Yeoyeon quickly cools them down and lightly rubs them. Tea brewed with leaves that are cooled quickly has a greener hue. With leaves that are rubbed lightly, the flavor comes out more slowly so that the tea can be enjoyed longer. Also, as the shape of the leaves is preserved this way, you can enjoy watching the leaves open as you drink the tea. On the other hand, when the leaves are rubbed too hard, the natural compounds are released all at once, producing a stronger taste and making it difficult to drink more than one cup. Yeoyeon contends that rubbing the leaves too hard is the vice of tea production in Korea.
Yeoyeon is known for his sharp tongue when making tea or at tea gatherings. He resorts to such harsh admonition as he believes that without thorough self-reflection, a proper tea culture cannot take root. He faces up to hard facts and is unreserved in his criticism, showing a tough side that is in stark contrast to the gentle, deep taste of the tea he makes.
When Yeoyeon samples freshly harvested tea, he puts the tea leaves in a small tea cup, pours hot water over them and then waits a few minutes before taking a sip. This is the so-called “tear tea.” As the tea leaves meet the water and turn soft, the fragrant aroma and green color spread through the cup. The aroma is reminiscent of the sweet smell of a newborn baby, the color is a clear greenish yellow, and the taste is smooth and refreshing. The sweet taste that follows makes you gently close your eyes and savor the warm spring sunshine that fills your mouth and envelops your body. Tea lovers express this state as “all 84,000 pores feeling refreshed,” effusing that “it feels like having wings under your arms.”
A monk pours tea at Ilji Hermitage of Daeheung Temple, which continues the tea tradition of Seon Master Choui. Boiling clean water, brewing tea at the optimal water temperature, then pouring the tea into a cup is a process that requires care and focus.
Temple Stay participants at Naeso Temple in Buan County, South Jeolla Province, drink tea.
Tea Leads to Friendship
Back in 1977, I obtained a place in Insa-dong where I could drink tea with acquaintances. For over 40 years, every spring I have rushed to the tea fields in southern provinces, yearning to hear news of the first flush. The monks dressed in gray robes standing over the hot cauldron roasting tea leaves, putting their heart and soul into the job, are always a beautiful and reverent sight.
One year, when I was visiting the Daehan Tea Plantation in Boseong, I noticed a monk busily roasting tea leaves by the pond, where late double cherry blossoms were fluttering in the wind. It was the Venerable Yeoyeon. The sight of the monk roasting the dew-washed tea leaves at the crack of dawn left me in deep thought. I wanted to live like him.
I met Yeoyeon again in 1986 at the Lu-Yu Tea Culture Institute in Taiwan, which is famous for its modern teahouse. I was having a discussion with Taiwanese teaists when I heard a familiar voice. I turned around and saw him standing there. He said he was on his way to Korea from Sri Lanka, and to save on expenses, had taken a low-cost flight with several layovers, including Taiwan. He thought he would use the brief time he had to check out Taiwanese tea. His passion for tea was such that even during a short stopover, it was all he could think of. If it weren’t for tea, our paths would never have crossed. He, too, would have lived a different life.
In 2017, when Yeoyeon turned 70, he held an exhibition of his tea utensils. In the catalogue preface, he wrote:
“If tea is the heart, then the tea bowl is the vessel that holds it. When I boil the water, I hear the whispering of the wind among the pines on the moonlit mountain, and when I pour the tea, my heart strolls along the small stream before settling on a rock. When I slowly take the cup of tea shimmering with the spring haze to my lips, its lush aroma stirs my heart like a bamboo grove under a clear sky.”