Korean Tea Poems

A monk I know, the Ven. Jinwol, has translated some poems by the Ven. Cho-ui (1786-1866) who was responsible for the 19th-century Korean tea revival. Here are a few.

Ch’o-ŭi was born in 1786 in Sin-gi Village, Samhyang District, Muan County (新基里 三鄕面 務安郡) in Chŏlla Province. His family name seems to have been Chang () but in 1800 he became a Buddhist monk and as such never spoke of his family origins to those who later wrote about his life. His first Dharma name was Ui-sun (意恂) but after receiving instruction from the Sŏn (Zen) master Wanho Yun-u (玩虎 倫佑) at the temple of Taedun-sa he attained enlightenment and received the name Ch’o-ŭi. In 1809 he first met Tasan Chŏng Yak-Yong who was living in exile in his mother’s native country of Kangjin, only seven or eight miles away. They visited each other and became very close friends. This was unusual, since Tasan was socially superior and a Confucian scholar who had been deeply influenced by the Sŏhak (western learning) that included Catholicism. Usually such men had little or no sympathy with Buddhism. It seems unclear which of the two introduced tea to the other. In 1815, Ch’o-ŭi first visited Seoul and established strong relationships with a number of highly educated scholar-officials, most of whom had been to China, who became his “followers”. These included Haegŏ Hong Hyŏn-ju, son-in-law of King Chŏngjo, and the famous calligrapher Ch’usa Kim Chŏng-hŭi. It was most unusual for a Buddhist to be recognized as a poet and thinker in this way by members of the Confucian establishment.


After this, he withdrew to the mountain above Taedun-sa, built a hermitage known as Ilchi-am in 1824, and lived there alone for the next 40 years, practicing meditation and studying the scriptures, In 1830, he composed Chasinjŏn (Tea Spirit Message) as a simple guide to making and drinking tea. In 1831 he once again visited his friends in Seoul, reading and writing poems with them. In the same year, he published a collection of his own poems with prefaces and postscripts by four leading scholar-administrators in which they show their personal interest in Sŏn (Zen) practice and the drinking of tea. He then returned to his hermitage, where he also practiced painting. In 1837 he wrote the set of poems translated below, the Hymns to Korean Tea, at the request of Hong Hyŏn-ju. In 1838 we find him climbing to the topmost peak of the Diamond Mountains, Piro Peak, before visiting the hills around Seoul. From 1840 until 1848, Ch’usa Kim Chŏng-hŭi was exiled to the southern island of Cheju and during those years, Ch’o-ŭi visited him no less than five times, once staying for six months, teaching him about tea and Buddhism.


He remained vigorous and healthy to the end. Early in the morning of the second day of the eighth month1866 he called his attendant to help him get up, sat in the lotus position and passed away (‘entered Nirvana’).















Return message to Kim Tochon who sent me a Poem

Imo (1822)

At Tochon's place, where he practices Zen and takes his ease,
the mind becomes distant, and days go slowly.
A path leads to stone steps around hidden orchids;
a gate faces rocky peaks beyond a curved pond.
He decocts herb medicine to disperse ennui,
he drinks tea to reduce sleep.
A past promise to live with rosy clouds
comes true naturally in the clear autumn.













On Kŭmgang rock with Sŏn monk Ŏn

Kyemi (1823)

To listen to the songs of birds, I skippend the evening meditation,
enjoyed a patch of grass by the edge of an ancient mountain stream.
Please ure recollected depends on a beautiful phrase;
the appreciative mind neets with a close friend.
Spring water cries out in a rocky valley;
pine trees echo when wind is coming.
I drank a cup of tea and watched the flowing and stillness.
Quietly and naturally I seemed to forget the return of time.

3. On Boiling Tea with Stone-Spring Water

Here the sky's light is like water and water is like mist.
I came and enjoyed it here; now already a helf-year has passed.
Good nights were like lying down under a bright moon;
a clear river is now facing white sea gulls sleeping.
Since hatred and jealousy jave not stayed in my mind,
how could either discredit or honor approach the rim of my ear?
In my sleeve there still remains some Enlightening Thunder Smile tea.
Drifting like a cloud, I will try the spring water at Turung again.

The new moon is beautiful in the sky in early evening.
Clear light shining amiably is boundless.
A group of stars circles clearly around the Milky Way.
All come together with Jade Dew tea and make a sleepless night.

From long ago, saints and sages have both loved tea.
Tea is like a perfect gentleman whose nature has no evil.
The first human had tea in earliest times
when he entered far into Snowy Mountain to pick tea leaves.
Thereafter its qualities have been transmitted by the Way of Tea
and teas were kept in jade jars like ten kinds of brocade.
After long seeking, the best water for tea was found in the Yellow River
which has eight kinds of virtue and also beauty.
Water should be drawn from the depths and examined for lightness and softness.
If water is really pure, it develops both the body and the spirit of the tea.
When all dirt and coraseness are eliminated and essential vitality enters,
attainment of the Great Path is not far, is it?
When I pay homage to the Spiritual Mountain and offer tea to all Buddhas,
I must be careful of the boiling point and consider Buddhist precepts.
Although the real body of Och-ieh tea seeks its mysterious origin,
the mysterious origin is the Perfection of Non-Attachment.
Alas, I was born three thousand years after the Buddha;
his voice is dim as the Sound of the Tide from the primordial heaven.
I wanted to seek the mysterious origin but obtained nothing.
I deeply regret that I was not born before the Buddha left the world.
So far I have not been able to wash away my love of tea,
so I brought some to the Eastern Land (Korea) to smile at my difficulty.
I'm now unpacking the brocade wrappings from a jade jar,
to make a gift of some tea to close friends first.
  You can also go to view his great Hymns to Korean Tea.