The Art of Tea With a Monk

Peace, happiness and joy are possible during the time I drink my tea. Thich Nhat Hanh

‘darye’ — the Korean word that refers to the tea ceremony that has been led and handed down by Buddhism over a long period in the country’s history.

Tea has become increasingly fashionable around the globe, especially in Korea! This is largely due to its many reputed health benefits and lack of any bad side effects. Well, none that have been found no matter how much you drink!

I enjoy teatime. It’s always teatime o’clock in my eyes. As a foreigner in Korea, I’ve developed an enthusiasm for it, especially as a gentler alternative to coffee and as a way to discover and explore more Korean traditions. It was easy for me since I never really took much of a liking to coffee.

However, I never imagined that one day, I’d be having teatime and exploring the tea with a monk.

Talk about the taste of enlightenment!

A few weekends ago, I had the honour to make green tea at a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of South Korea. It was a pleasant experience to add to my spiritual path.

The essence of Buddhist culture lies in tea. They drink it to aid their process of wakefulness in meditation. I first became aware that Korea had a grand ancient tradition of tea culture when I first came here. I enjoyed hiking in mountains and national parks here, and always found temples hidden in them. I tried to learn as much as I could from the monks.

Now, having lived in Korea for 4 years, I know the symbolism that tea holds for monks. I have always seen their relationship with tea mirrored in their rituals, myths, and poetry.

However, I never deeply considered that the process of making tea aided their meditation. I knew about it, but never explored it further.

The monk explained that a famous ancient book that praises green tea states that if you drink several cups of tea, you become like Buddha. With each cup of tea that you drink:

  • your thirst, loneliness, and complaints gradually go away
  • you can feel the clear breeze blowing under your arm with no wind at all
  • your mind moves away from distracting thoughts and clears up to focus on single subjects
  • your body eliminates waste easier

One of the monks explained he heard the appreciation of tea from another monk that said, “Everybody falls in love with a clear autumn sky. For me, Korean’s tea taste reminds me of the clear blue autumn sky with some thin, wispy clouds floating in it.”

The Process

Making tea is a multi-step procedure.

We went through 5 steps to make the tea (this depends on the type of tea).

  1. Plucking

This is where the magic of the tea began.

At Daeheungsa Temple, they have a large tea plantation. The monk led us to the tea field. It was the perfect season for it!

There is a specific art to plucking tea leaves. We learned to pick two young leaves and a bud.

As we walked through the field, we enjoyed the fresh scent of the tea.

The monks gave us a basket and we followed them silently as they made their way through the plantations, their hands gracefully danced around the leaves as they plucked all the right ones. We followed suit.

According to the monk, Korean wild green tea plants are deep-rooted. The roots are two to three times longer than the height of the plant. Therefore, in the temple gardens, they do not need to use fertilizers or pesticides. The only maintenance their tea plants require is to be given the environment that they love — shade and wind.

2. Withering

The excess water was evaporated during this step as the leaves withered in the giant heat pot with the monk shaking them around.

Once the withering process was completed, the leaves lost almost a third of their water content. They became soft and pliable as their moisture was removed.

3. Rolling

The tea leaves were hand-rolled. The monk explained that this part of the process was crucial because it helped to preserve the flavour and aroma of the tea leaves.

For this part of the process, sometimes machines are used in the cases of mass production, but the monks explained it takes the personal care out of the process and with machines, the leaves often get severed as well. For this reason, they do the entire process with their hands.

4. Oxidizing

It was time for the leaves to get their dose of oxygen! We spread the rolled leaves onto bamboo trays to extract the tea oils (this also brought out a wonderful aroma!) and put them under the sun. This part of the process is also known as ‘leaf maceration’.

According to the monks, this step had to be closely monitored as it determined the taste of the tea.

5. Drying

The final stage.

At this time, we fully dried the leaves to ensure that all of the moisture had left the leaf. This ensured that the leaves would retain their flavour, colour, and aroma for a longer period.

Each step in the process was carefully monitored, almost like we were creating a magic potion. A little bit of one of the other could result in a different tea flavour, type, and colour altogether!

The Tea Ceremony

It was the moment we all had been waiting for. After a long day of making tea under the sun, it was finally time to drink it!

As we sat down in the mountains, we learned about the history of Korean tea as well as the culture of the tea ceremony including everything from the required water temperature to how to brew tea using a tea set.

The tea set itself was made with ceramics that were all as simply natural as possible.

The monk explained that compared to Chinese or Japanese teas, Korean teas are produced in such a traditional way that they tend to have a deeper flavour and colour that lasts from the first to the last cup of tea despite adding water to make more of it.

Moreover, the monk explained that in Japan, there is a stiffer and elitist way of conducting the famous tea-ceremony styles compared to Korea where they are semi-formal and spiritually oriented in a friendly setting. I do much prefer the latter myself.

As a side note, I always take what Koreans say about Japan with a grain of salt. It’s popular here for Koreans to always put themselves above the Japanese due to their history. As a teacher here, I always try to get this out of my students!

Lastly, after observing a demonstration by a monk, we drank our tea in a calm and reflective mood according to the tea etiquettes that we learned. The atmosphere was perfect with the winds whistling through the mountains and the trees around us in the forest.

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

As we sipped our tea, we enjoyed listening to the clear sounds of the ceramic tea set as we poured the tea into the cups, all while appreciating the rich taste of the warm tea that we worked hard to make.

The Disappearing Tea Culture

Moving away from the strong culture of tea began during the Joseon Dynasty when Buddhism was suppressed by the state. However, Buddhist temples have played an important role in maintaining the tea culture. The majority of tea ceremonies are only available at the temples.

In modern-day Korea, the coffee culture thrives and flourishes. The monk at Daeheungsa Temple grieves about this. He worries about the tea culture disappearing altogether. Although there is a particular focus on how to drink tea, he hopes that young individuals would keep tea-drinking alive and recognize that any way of drinking it is okay.

The most surprising thing I learned during this conversation was that a lot of monks have also switched to coffee. There were coffee machines at the temples and a lot of old tea shops had been replaced with modern cafes with a ton of coffee involved. I found that very fascinating. It brought me to the world of the monks behind a specific veil most visitors don’t see past.

I never really thought about the modernization of temples and the lives of the monks. It’s interesting how much we want to see their lives in a specific light and don’t want to think about these things as it shatters a certain image we withhold about life in the mountains.

Why does a coffee machine in a temple surprise me or bother me a little? We live in a time where they are everywhere. I pondered that thought for some time.

This also had me thinking. There must be more conversation about how some Korean Buddhists attempt to remain relevant in the contemporary coffee-crazed Korean society by re-branding the taste of Buddhism as well as creatively associating coffee with insight, meditation, and propagation.

The monk I was talking to believes that these days more than ever, tea should be regarded highly to provide a break to clear one’s mind. This would help those who are especially running at full speed in chasing material wealth.

According to the monk’s friend, the calendar makes people lazy. They disillusion people into thinking they have many days ahead. However, he believes people should instead realize that they are growing old and can get sick and die at any moment.

With a clear mind, we should be able to look at the path we are taking in our life and we should be able to peacefully ask ourselves what we want and can do before our death.

Conclusion

The process of tea-making was more intricate than I had imagined. Every step was handled with care and treated with delicacy.

From leaf to cup, it was an enlightening experience. Being a tea connoisseur helped with the excitement. The whole process felt meditative. The meticulous process respected and presented the quality of the leaves. This felt nice because of the quick industrialized world we live in today where all of these things come from mass production.

After this experience, I was left feeling relaxed and calm. I felt great reverence and sincerity and I now appreciate my cups of tea amidst a quiet and leisurely atmosphere, much like the experience at the temple. The ceremony itself also really helped me focus on peacefulness, respectfulness, purity, and wise insight. This helped me find the harmony that I often seek in my stressful rapid and urban life back in Seoul.

Thich Nhat Hanh had a special relationship with tea. His spiritual devotion to tea is well expressed in these verses that I’ll close with:

Tea is an act complete in its simplicity.
When I drink tea, there is only me and the tea.
The rest of the world dissolves.
There are no worries about the future.
No dwelling on past mistakes.
Tea is simple: loose-leaf tea, hot pure water, a cup.
I inhale the scent, tiny delicate pieces of the tea floating above the cup.
I drink the tea, the essence of the leaves becoming a part of me.
I am informed by the tea, changed.
This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act, the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed: all the complexity, pain, and drama of life is a pretense, invented in our minds for no good purpose.
There is only the tea, and me, converging. — Thich Nhat Hanh

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