Tea Tour Korea

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In Korea, the drinking of tea seems to have been introduced in the sixth or seventh centuries, probably by Buddhist monks returning from China, where the many schools of Buddhism attracted some of Korea's finest scholars. There are reports in the early chronicle-histories known as Samkuk-yusa and Samkuk-sagi that Queen Sondok of Silla (ruled 632-47) drank tea and that King Munmu in 661 ordered tea to be used during ceremonial offerings; King Sinmun advocated the use of tea in order to purify the mind, while King Heundok is reported to have obtained tea seeds from Tang China for planting in 828, but these may not have been the first.

In Japan the first record of brick tea being used dates from around 593, and the first planting of seeds is said to have occurred in 805. The modern history of tea in Japan is said to have originated with the monk Eisai (1141-1215), who introduced the Rinzai Zen tradition to Japan. He brought tea with him upon his return from study in China. He also wrote a treatise called the Kissa Yojoki, which extolled the properties of tea in promoting both physical and spiritual health. Eisai's interest in tea was shared by his renowned disciple Dogen (1200-53), the patriarch of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. When Dogen returned from China in 1227, he brought with him many tea utensils, and gave instructions for tea ceremonies in the rules which he drew up for regulating daily life at Eiheiji, the temple founded by him. Eisai is reported to have brought back tea seeds which were the origin of most of the tea planted subsequently across Japan as the fashion for tea-drinking spread among social classes not previously touched by it. This grew into the tea ceremony practiced by the samurai during the Shogunate period..

During the Korean Koryo Dynasty (in the 10th -13th centuries) tea was made the subject of some of Korea's oldest recorded poems. Tea was long offered in the ancestral ceremonies, which are still known as Ch'a-rye although tea has not been offered in them for centuries. Likewise there were regular ceremonies known as Hon-ta in which cups of green tea were offered before the statues of the Buddha in the temples.

Why is Korea not well known for its tea culture?

The culture of tea was so deeply identified with Buddhism that when Buddhism was replaced by Confucianism as the main official religious tradition at the end of the Koryo dynasty in the 14th century, the Buddhist way of drinking tea was repressed at the same time as most temples were destroyed and many monks returned to civilian life. It continued unabated, however, among the scholarly classes and in the royal palaces, where a special government ministry was responsible for tea. In the 1590s the Japanese invaded Korea and forced hundreds of the best Korean potters to go and work in Japan. Many of the finest bowls used in Japanese tea ceremonies were made in Korea or were produced by potters of Korean descent. The Korean forms of tea ceremony, of tea equipment, and of simple building style for tea-rooms, are the origin of the entire Japanese tea tradition. This is a fact that is well-known in Korea and, like so many other aspects of Japan's cultural debt to Korea, has been systematically denied by Japanese 'historians' intent on creating a purely Japanese pedigree for everything Japanese. They have created a tissue of lies that is still too often mistaken for the truth by western admirers of all things Japanese.

After this disaster, when virtually every significant building in Korea--palaces, temples, local administrative compounds--was burned by the Japanese invaders, tea culture survived but slowly declined, in part because the impoverished farmers could not afford the high rate of taxation. Tea remained one of the highly valued items taken in the annual tribute embassy to Beijing from Korea, however; then in the early 19th century we find the great scholar Tasan, Chong Yak-yong (1762-1836), drinking tea in a formal way in a special tea-room during his exile in his mother's home near Gangjin, in the far south of the country. He had learned the traditional method of making and drinking tea from a monk, the Venerable Hyejang, at the Paengnyon-sa temple in Gangjin.

In 1806, a young Buddhist monk, Ch'o Ui (1786-1866), visited him there, stayed several months and drank tea with him. The first great restorer of the Way of Tea in Korea, Ch'o Ui later built the hermitage known as Ilchi-am (below) at the temple now called Taehung-sa near Haenam, in the far south of Korea, and lived there for many years, cultivating the Way of Tea in his own tea-room.

(Ch’o Ui is considered Korea’s Sen No Rikyu )

The tea-room and hermitage now visible at Ilchi-am (above and below) are modern reconstructions. In 1836, the year of Tasan's death, Ch'o Ui composed the Dongdasong, a great poem in celebration of tea. He also wrote other poems that mention tea, some of which have been translated into English by the Ven. Jinwol and are available here.

Yet despite the example of Ch'o Ui, the Way of Tea remained almost unknown in Korea, even among monks, until its restoration in the course of recent decades, a restoration due in large part to the efforts of the Venerable Hyo Dang, Ch'oi Pom-sul. He might be considered to be the Ch'o Ui of the 20th century, for he wrote the first full length study of tea to be published in modern Korea and taught many people about the various aspects of tea. He was active in the Korean Independence Movement, and founded several schools and a university after 1945, as well as being the teacher of virtually all the leading figures in the modern Korean tea revival. His way of making Panyaro tea, continued by Chae Won-Hwa, is described in the following pages on Br. Anthony’s web site.  Click here to continue there.

The Venerable Ch'o-Ui first became a monk at Unheung-sa temple in Naju, near Mokp'o. The temple buildings did not survive time and the war, the main hall has recently been rebuilt and one monk is living there.

Beside the temple there are large expanses of wild tea bushes of great antiquity. They remain almost untended and unexploited.

Ilchi-am has recently been much expanded with the addition of a hall and other buildings

Ilch'i-am itself remains to one side above a small tea plantation, together with a little hermitage building, both (re)built in 1979.

We are including here, and on the next page, considerable information on Ven Cho-ui, the great Seon (Zen) Buddhist monk, who is considered to be the most important Korean figure in the history of Korean tea.  He has been likened to the famous Japanese tea master Sen No Rikyu (who incidentally was part Korean).

To read a Buddhist perspective on Cho-ui, please click here.

Today, Korea practices the most pure form of Zen Buddhism.

Brother Anthony / An Sonjae