The Way of Tea, by Popchong Sunim

Green Tea setIn preparing green tea one should first bring the water to the boil. Then one should pour it into a largish bowl and let it cool to about 60 degrees Celsius. If the water is too hot, then too much of the tea’s bitterness will be extracted into the water. At this lower tem­perature the fragrance of the tea is extracted more slowly. The teapot and cups should be warmed with some of the water. After warming put the tea leaves into the teapot, pour in the water and let the leaves infuse for two or three minutes. It is important when pouring the tea to make sure that the taste is evenly distributed in all the cups. Therefore, never fill each cup in a single pouring, but fill them little by little — up to three servings each. While drinking the tea, refill the teapot with water.

Do not gulp the tea but sip it slowly allowing its fragrance to fill one’s mouth. There is no need to have any special atti­tude while drinking except one of thankfulness. The nature of the tea itself is that of no-mind. It does not discriminate and make differences. It is just as it is.

There are four inherent at­tributes of tea: peacefulness, respectfulness, purity and quietness. In drinking tea these qualities should be cultivated in the drinker.

A Way is present when there is no-mind. This no-mind is our fundamental nature. The sun shines and it is warm; this is a Way. If you are hungry, you eat; this is a Way. When you are tired, you sleep; this is a Way. The nature of water to run from high to low is also a Way.

A Way is present when there is no-mind. This no-mind is our fundamental nature. The sun shines and it is warm; this is a Way.

Tea is said to be a ‘Way’ (Tao). This is because it is something you learn to appreciate through feeling, not through putting it into words. If a person is in a state of quietness, only then will he appreci­ate the quietness inherent in the tea. If he is excited, he will never recognize the tea’s quietness. For this reason it is said that tea and meditation are of one taste. If one’s meditation is not single-pointed, one will fail to appreciate the true qualities of tea. A Way is present when there is no-mind. This no-mind is our fundamental nature. The sun shines and it is warm; this is a Way. If you are hungry, you eat; this is a Way. When you are tired, you sleep; this is a Way. The nature of water to run from high to low is also a Way. Nan-ch’uan said that the Way is a constantly equanimous mind. However, when his dis­ciple Chao Chou was once asked about the Way, he said it was the road that ran by the house! Lao Tzu maintained that the Way you speak of is not the true Way.

Korean Monks having TeaIn China the Way is under­stood as equivalent to the Dharma and the truth. Chinese Christians even identify it with God. Nevertheless, it is also understood in the conventional sense of a road or a path, i.e. something which connects two separate points in time and space. These two concepts of the Way only appear to be different to a dualistic, dis­criminating mind. In reality they are intimately related since movement and stasis are essentially one. This is what is meant by the statement in the Avatamsaka Sutra, ‘All is equal to one and one is equal to all,’ and the Heart Sutra’s maxim, ‘Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.’ In reality, waves are the ocean and defilements are enlightenment.

Q: So is the ultimate purpose of drinking tea to realise the Way?

A: No. You drink tea because you need to quench your thirst, not to discover some ‘Way’ hidden somewhere in the tea.

Great Man drinking TeaDrinking tea gladdens the mind. The taste of tea is the taste of the entire universe because it is produced entirely through natural sunlight, water, wind, clouds and air.

Tea is first mentioned in the ancient texts as an offering. In the Buddhist scriptures it is often spoken of as an offering made to the Buddha. Originally, rice was not offered to the Buddha — just tea, incense and flowers. Nowadays, although water is offered instead of tea, the character for tea is still used for the water one offers to the Buddha as well as for the water used in death cer­emonies and harvest festivals. In old times, as a sign of mutual respect, husband and wife would serve each other tea at their marriage. During the Koryo dynasty all people, com­moners as well as aristocrats, drank tea. Because of the need to make utensils for tea, pottery was highly developed during this period. At the end of the Koryo era the drinking of tea declined in popularity because the ceremonial aspects had become overly elaborate and ritualized. During the Confucian Yi dynasty wine replaced tea as the formal drink. However, even in this period the court demanded a tea ‘tax from the Buddhist monasteries. Although Buddhism was suppressed at this time, the tea drinking which had come to be associated with it still prevailed and influenced life at the court. During the Silla dynasty tea was often used as a medicine. First the leaves would be steamed and then pounded into the shape of a coin. This compressed form would be boiled for a long time in a medicine pot before being drunk. In Koryo powdered tea was drunk in a larger bowl. During the Yi period the drinking of simple green leaf tea was introduced. In this way one can observe a progression from complexity to simplicity in the preparation and drinking of tea. Nowadays in Japan they use tea bags. As life becomes more busy, the complex forms of tea drinking are dispensed with in favour of quick and simple methods. The style of pottery in Korea also changed according to the ways in which tea was prepared and drunk. Thus, both in China and Korea, tea was first developed as a medicine and only later adopted for the pleasure of drinking it.

Great Man Tea DetailIn spring we gather the tea leaves and then roast them by rolling them on a hot iron plate. This gives the tea in Korea a slightly burnt flavour. Such a flavour is very much liked by Koreans; it is also discernible in our rice water and barley tea. In Japan the people like the taste of sea­weed. So often their tea has a similar taste to seaweed. The Chinese enjoy heavy, oily food. Thus they also tend to like their tea to have a strong flavour. In this way you can see how the different tastes of people determine the flavour of their teas.

To determine whether the tea is good or not one should examine its colour, scent and taste. The perfect colour is like that of the first leaves in spring. The scent should re­semble that of the skin of a young baby. The taste cannot be described but only appreci­ated through experience.

Tea is drunk either to quench the thirst, savour the taste or simply to spend a quiet hour appreciating the pottery and the general atmosphere that accompanies tea drinking.

After the Yi period when Buddhism started to revive, an interest in drinking tea also revived. Nowadays it is growing in popularity in Korea. Tea plants grow wild near most monasteries. In addition they are now being cultivated com­mercially.

The word for green leaf tea in Korean is chaksol. This literally means ‘bird’s tongue’. It is so-called because the first leaves of the tea plant re­semble the shape of a bird’s tongue. It is also called chugno, which means ‘bamboo dew’. It derives this name from the fact that tea plants often grow in bamboo groves and are nourish­ed by the water which drips from the leaves of the bamboo.

Popchong Sunim was interviewed by Martine Batchelor at
Songgwang Sa Monastery, Korea, on 25th October 1982.

Buddhism Now, December 1990

Categories: Buddhist, Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, History, Martine Batchelor

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5 replies

  1. Happy new year.

  2. Tea. The Way. Knew it.

  3. Thanx for this, tea for me is also a way to mindfulness to enlightenment and has helped me to find my place and my path.

    Muchas gracias,
    los saludo desde México.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing the intricacies of this noble art form. Drinking tea reminds me of all the beautiful things that I should be aware of in life.

  5. wow I never thought I would see an article about my favorite 법정 sunim on this website :) Without his great books I wouldn’t have grown this much, spirituality-wise.

    Thanks a lot


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