Spiritual Tea Drinking Expressed in Old Poems

by Richard Rutt
Korea Times article (sometime in the early 1970s)

    Yi Gyu-bo's grave on Ganghwa Island

    I have drunk warm milk fresh from the cow under the apple-blossom of an English farm. I have quaffed white wine in a medieval cellar in Umbria, and I have slaked my throat at a mountain spring after a long climb on a broiling day.
    These were all memorable drinks; but they take second place to bowls of tea brewed from the first tips of spring. I tasted that ambrosial tea only once, in a cottage deep in the mountains of Cholla, while the rain was swishing on the bamboos outside.
    Nowadays few Koreans ever taste good tea. The abominable teabag contains sweepings and dye, the simple rule of the English “take the pot to the kettle, never the kettle to the pot” is utterly unknown and the horrid little sachet of dust is dunked in flat water, long off the boil, is poured on pathetic scraps of leaf.
    Once upon a time, however, Koreans knew how to appreciate tea. Throughout the Koryo dynasty they drank it copiously, and much of the finest old pottery was created for the sake of superior tea. Today all that is left of the tradition is the effete “tea ceremony” of Japan.
    Several explanations are offered for the disappearance of tea from Korean culture. The most likely is that tea flourished as an adjunct to Buddhism, and went out of favor with that faith. Outside the temples it was probably an aristocratic drink.
    It called forth dithyrhambs of praise from the poets of the late Koryo days, who always suggested that it was a spiritual drink, claiming more for it than the wildest have claimed for marijuana or even acid drugs.
    This tradition depended on the Tang poet Li Tung, whose ode in praise of tea was constantly quoted. He even composed a Classic of tea, though Koreans do not seem to have known it well.

Yi Kyu-bo, a twelfth-century poet, grew excited about a teapot.

        Fierce fire melted the cruel iron
        For fashioning this sturdy pot.
        Its long spout curves like the neck of a crane,
        Its round belly swells like a frightened frog,
        Its handle arches like the tale of a snake,
        Its neck stands straight like a mallard’s--
        A deep kettle with a tiny lid,
        Firm on its slender tripod.
        I lack Szuma Hsiang-ju’s talent,
        But I share his craving,
        For I think only of drinking tea
        And have long since stopped drinking wine.
        Although I have no Yang-tze water,
        I am blessed with tea from Fukien.
        I will call the servant boy,
        Tell him to draw water from the ice-cold well,
        Then boil it myself on the brick-built stove
        In the lamplight of the evening room.
        It bubbles at first with throaty gurgling,
        But soon sings with a piping whistle.
        By the third pouring my hand is well –practised,
        By the seventh cup the aroma transports me—
        With this I have perfect joy:
        What need every day to get drunk?
    He might almost be an English lady by the fireside, most particular about boiling the water for herself. Only she would scarcely dream of drinking seven cups, and certainly not expect transports of joy if she did.
That idea came from Lu Tung, and it occurs again in a poem by Yi Yon-jong, another late Koryo writer. He is writing to thank the great lord Pak Chi-am for a gift of fresh tea.

        As a boy I stayed at temples in Yongnam,
        And often took part in Buddhist tea-making contests
        Through stony paths up dragon cliffs and phoenix hills
        I followed the monks among the bamboo
            to pick “hawksbill” buds.
        They said it was best when cured by heat,
        Best of all with water from dragon springs
            and phoenix wells:
        And the young monks deft hands never paused
        As they vied to fill bowls of “Snow-milk.”
        Now I have trodden officialdom’s windy dusty paths,
        Where all the world’s savors can be tasted,
        And lie at home, ailing and useless;
        My affairs call for no errands, no bustle;
        I do not dream of rich cream or water-lily broths,
        Nor envy splendid house with their songs and music.
        Summer noontime’s hazy light slants through the
            bamboo blind;
        I wake from a nap and want a cup of tea.
        My mind returns again to the tea of Yongnam;
        There is no news of those friends in the mountains.
        Indeed, why should the men I knew then
        Bother to remember me or send me anything?
        Prince Chiam alone does not forget,
        But sends a runner to my poor cottage:
        Before I have broken the seal and seen the purple shoots
        The fragrance reaches my nostrils
            through the wrapping paper.
        Although I fear the brass of the brazier may taint it,
        I do my best to brew it on the glowing embers.
        The wind among the pine trees has entered the kettle!
        That sound alone is enough to clarify the soul!
        I fill a bowl and taste it: the flavor is sound;
        I swallow it and it cools and melts my marrow.
        In those days at the temples I was only a boy
        And had no glimmer of what tea-drinking can be,
        But today because of your generous gift
        I am transported in ecstasy like the Jade Stream Sage.
        Surely a wind will rise under my arms
        And bear me away to the top of Peng-lai-shan,
        One sip of the Queen Mother’s “purple mist chalice”
        Will wash all the bonds of smoky passion,
        And I will bring back the ninefold elixir of gold.
        A small requital of your precious gift.   
    The Jade Stream Sage was Lu Tung, and the last part of the poem owes much to his writings, but I also hear echoes of the kettle that sings on my own library stove of a winter afternoon, and I approve the care of tainting the delicate leaves.
    As a note of thanks it strikes a hyperbolic note. Choe Chi-won, however, the “father of Korean literature,” could outdo Yi Yon-jong without going into verse He was a man of Silla in the ninth century.  In his twenties he lived at the court of the Tang, where a general sent him a gift of sprung tea-buds, and he replied in these terms:

        It is as though I had received the abundance of Shu, the
        wafted fragrance of the gardens of Sui. Superbly cured, with
        all the essential oils perfectly preserved! This emerald
        cream should be brewed in a golden kettle and the aromatic
        nectar poured into bowls of jade. If no ancient immortal
        comes to share it, then surely some leisured angel will appear,
        for it is indeed a fairy gift, unaccountably bestowed
        upon such an ordinary person as myself. There is no need
        to mention plum forests, for it would quench any thirst; no
        need for mystic narcotics, for it makes me promptly
        forget every care.  My gratitude and astonished pleasure
        overwhelm me.

The plum forest was dragged in because Tsao Tsao after a battle rallied his parched soldiers by telling them that over the hill there was a plum forest, and the thought o the fruit made their mouths water. Choe Chi-won’s style was decadent. Even an Englishman balks at emerald cream in golden kettles.

The poem by Yi Kyu-bo (이규보 李奎報·1168~1241)
「得南人所餉鐵甁試茶   득남인소향철병시다」

猛火服悍鐵 創作此頑硬  맹화복한철 창작차완경
喙長鶴仰顧 腹脹蛙怒迸  훼장학앙고 복창와노병
柄似蛇尾曲 項如鳧頸癭  병사사미곡 항여부경영
窪却小口甀 安於長脚鼎  와각소구추 안어장각정
我無文園才 徒得文園病  아무문원재 도득문원병
唯思喚酩奴 已止中酒聖  유사환명노 이지중주성
雖無揚姜水 有福建溪茗  수무양강수 유복건계명
試呼平頭僕 敲江寒氷井  시호평두복 고강한빙정
塼爐手自煎 夜閣燈火炯  전로수자전 야각등화형
初如喉聲哽 漸作笙韻永  초여후성경 점작생운영
三昧手已熟 七勤味何並  삼매수이숙 칠근미하병
持此足爲樂 胡用日酩酊  지차족위락 호용일명정

남인이 보낸 철병차를 달이며

  센 불로 강한 쇠 녹여내어 이처럼 단단하게 만든 멋진 철병 차솥
  네 긴 목은 학이 우러러 보는 것 같고 불룩한 배는 성낸 개구리와 같구나
  손잡이는 뱀꼬리 굽은 듯 모가지는 딱따구리 목인 듯하고
  입 작은 항아리처럼 움푹하니 다린 긴 솥보다 안정감이 있구나
  우리는 문원재(文園才)는 없어도 부질없이 문원병(文園病)에 걸려
  오롯한 생각 끝에 술 빚는 시동 불러 빚은 술 중지케 하였노라
  비록 양자강 물은 없어도 복건성(福建省) 차(茶)는 있으니
  납작머리한 노복에게 얼음 깨고 청수 길러오게 하였도다
  하여 내 손으로 스스로 화롯불 피우니 밤 누각엔 등불만 찬란하고
  물 끓는 소리 쉰 목소리 같더니 점점 은은한 피리소리 되는구나
  차와 물과 불이 함께 익으니 일곱 잔을 마셔도 오히려 모자라
  차 마시는 것으로 깊은 낙을 삼으니 어찌 날마다 술에 취하랴

The poem by Yi Yeon-jong
이연종 李衍宗     사박치암혜차 謝朴恥庵惠茶

젊은 시절, 영남의 절에 손님으로 가서            (少年爲客嶺南寺)
여러 번 스님 따라 명전 놀이 했었지                (茗戰屢從方外戱)
용암의 바위 가장자리, 봉산의 기슭에서            (龍巖巖畔鳳山麓)
대나무 사이로 스님 따라 매부리만 한 차를 땄네        (竹裏隨僧摘鷹觜)
한식 전에 만든 차가 제일 좋다고 하는데            (火前試焙云最佳)
더구나 용천과 봉정의 물이 있음에랴                (況有龍泉鳳井水)
사미승, (차 다루는)삼매의 날랜 솜씨                (沙彌自快三昧手)
백설 같은 다말(茶沫), 찻잔에 따르기를 그치지 않네        (雪乳飜甌點不已)

Choi Chi-won  최치원 崔致遠, 857∼?
≪東文選≫ 卷之四十七(狀)崔致遠 謝新茶狀 右某今日中軍使兪公楚奉傳處分送前件茶芽者, 伏以蜀岡養秀, 隋苑騰芳, 始興採 擷之功, 方就 精華之味, 所宜烹綠乳於金鼎, 汎香膏於玉甌, 若非靜揖禪翁, 卽 是閑邀羽客, 豈期仙貺, 猥及凡儒, 不假梅林, 自能愈渴, 免求萱草,始得忘憂, 下 無任感恩惶懼激切之至.

(저는 오늘 중군사(中軍使) 유공초(兪公楚)가 처분할 일을 전하기에 처리했더니 차를 보내셨습니다. )
생각건대 이 차는 촉(蜀)의 언덕에서 빼어난 기운을 받고 자랐으며, 수원(隋苑)에서 차 싹을 피운 것입니다. 비로소 (차를) 따는 공력을 다해 순수하고, 빼어난 맛을 갖추었으니 귀한 솥에 차를 달여, 향기로운 차를 옥잔에 담는 것이 마땅할 것입니다. 만약 고요히 선승을 대접하는 것이 아니라면 한가히 신선을 대접해야 할 차이거늘 뜻밖에 훌륭한 선물을 외람되게도 보내시니 매림(梅林)을 빌리지 않아도 절로 갈증이 멈추고, 훤초(萱草)를 구하지 않아도 근심을 잊을 수 있습니다.