10 Mag's May Cover Story: The Way of Tea
From the side streets of Insadong to the plantations of Boseong, Korea has got a lot to offer lovers of tea.
I sit cross-legged in a small room on the third floor of a grey brick building on the main street of Insadong. This is the Panyaro Institute for the Way of Tea, and I’m lucky enough to be spending time with the Great Tea Master Chae Won-hwa. Watching her make Panyaro tea (translated as “tea of the dew of enlightening wisdom”) is a transcendental experience. I sit in silence with two of her students as Master Chae scoops hot water into bowls and spoons strands of dark green leaves into the tea pot. Every action is precise, every movement deliberate and yet it all seems to flow so naturally.
The silence continues. Master Chae finally pours warm water into the tea pot and cradles it in her hands. Outside we can hear the rush of traffic and the babbling of tourists, but in this small room we are at peace. This process gives space for the mind to clear, for a moment of meditation. Finally the time comes for it to be poured and I accept my first cup of this unique green tea.
Great Tea Master Chae Won-hwa teaches the Korean Way of Tea. She studied under the Venerable Hyodang (the Buddhist monk who led the 20th century revival of the Korean tea tradition), founded the Panyaro Institute after his death and began teaching others about Seoncha (선차, Zen tea). For the past forty years, she has been involved with the preparation of Panyaro tea, which is hand-picked on the slopes of Jiri Mountain and then dried and treated with the utmost care.
If you’ve only ever had green tea in tea bags, then you’re in for a real surprise. The tea that Chae Won-hwa and others like her prepare has profound levels of flavour. Master Chae believes that in just one cup of her tea you can taste salt, sweet, sour, bitter, tart and pepperiness. And tea is not just something to gulp down: you should take your time, look at the color, inhale the fragrance, taste it on your tongue and then in your throat. The Korean Way of Tea allows you to take a moment out of your busy life and reflect, finding calm in the process and pleasure in the drinking.
Of course, Korea’s relationship with green tea goes back much further than the Panyaro Institute. For almost two thousand years it has been a part of Korean life, whether supped by royals or used as part of memorial ceremonies. However, it is in the Buddhist temples of Korea that the tradition of making and drinking tea really flourished. At Jiri Mountain on the border of Jeolla and Gyeongsang Provinces, tea has been cultivated by monks for many centuries. This is where you can experience tea-making first hand thanks to the Royal Asiatic Society, which is organizing a tour to Hwaeom Temple at the end of May led by Brother Anthony of Taizé.
But there are many other opportunities to experience tea culture at this time of year, whether it is heading down to the vast tea fields of Boseong for the Boseong Green Tea Festival or the Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival (both at the beginning of May, see the Jeolla Calendar) or to the Tea World Festival at COEX (beginning of June, see the Seoul calendar) or simply taking a trip to one of the many tea shops around the country.