By Don Baumhart
If you want a glimpse into the soul of traditional Korean culture, you should try to experience grace and charm of the Korean tea ceremony. Like its Japanese counterpart, the Korean tea ceremony is meditation in motion. Each slow and mindful movement is carefully choreographed from start to finish. As in meditation, the purpose of the tea ceremony is to center each person in the present moment, to create a sense of purity, respect, tranquility, and harmony.
History of Korean Tea
The tea ceremony in Korea has a long and complex history. The origin of the Korean tea ceremony dates back to the founding of the earliest Buddhist temples, such as Bulgapsa (불갑사) and Bulhuisa (불희사) around 384 AD or Hwaeomsa (후ㅏ엄사) in 544 AD. (Unfortunately, this early close link with Buddhism was to later doom the tea ceremony when Buddhism fell into disfavor in Korea). By the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 AD), Korean tea culture was at its pinnacle. The Tabang or, “Tea Chamber”, was established to oversee tea rites at important events. At court, the tea ceremony became an extremely elaborate ritual. Meanwhile, Goryeo scholar-officials had their own relaxed way of enjoying tea by holding tea parties at beautiful locations. Buddhist temples also developed ceremonies known as Heon-cha (헌차) where tea is ritually offered to the Buddha statue.
However, at the rise of the Chosun Dynasty of the 14th century, Buddhism was violently suppressed and the majority of Korea’s Buddhist temples were destroyed. Yet the Korean tea ceremony still managed to survive. Many of monks who had fled to the mountains became hermits and developed their own individual tea ceremony styles. Meanwhile, the new Neo-Confucian rulers of the Chosun Dynasty adopted their own way of tea. They included tea drinking as part of their daily official routine while discussing business. Eventually taxes on tea production became so high that tea became extremely rare. Finally King Yeongjo (1724-1776 AD) ruled that wine or simply boiled water be served instead. From then on, wine was used for offerings in most rituals and water replaced tea as offerings in temples. Though tea continued to be used in some special rites, such as upper class weddings or memorial services, it was no longer widely used in ordinary practice.
In the early 19th century, a young exiled scholar named Jeong Yak-yong (정약용) met a monk known as the Venerable Hyejang (혜장), who introduced him to the Korean way of tea. Jeong Yak-yong moved to a region of Korea known as Dasan (다산), or “Tea Mountain”, where many tea plants grew in the wild. There he cultivated the way of tea. In 1809, the monk Cho Ui (조의), now known himself as “Dasan,” studied under Jeong Yak-yong and learned the way of tea. Cho Ui himself made serious efforts to resurrect the tea ceremony and is now nationally recognized in Korea as the restorer of the Korean tea ceremony. Nonetheless, the way of tea was still nearly unknown at that time, except among Buddhist monks.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, every aspect of traditional Korean culture was suppressed, making any revival of the tea ceremony even more difficult. The destruction and poverty that resulted from the Korean War also kept the way of tea in the shadows. At long last, the modern revival of the Korean way of tea began with Venerable Hyodang (효당, also known as Choi Beon-sul or 죄번슬). He wrote a study of tea and introduced many people to the Korean tea ceremony. He was the teacher of nearly all the leading tea masters of the modern Korean tea ceremony. Presently in Korea, there is a wide variety of tea associations, often centered on one teacher, each with its own area of influence.