The ability to feel the leavesSUNCHEON, South Jeolla
I am sitting by the cauldron, sniffing the scent of fresh tea leaves roasting on an iron pan. The fragrance in the air, which is close to the scent of lilac, thrills my nostrils. As I sit closer to watch a pair of Buddhist monks parching tea leaves with their fingers, the sound of the roasting leaves on the pan tickles my ears. The monks at Seonamsa Temple compare this to “a sound of snow pellets landing on grass in a winter night.”
“To be able to make a good tea you need to become sensitive to the color, the sound and the taste of the leaves,” says the Venerable Chongmu, a monk who manages the temple’s tea plantation at Seonamsa. “But mostly you have to develop the ability to feel the leaves.”
I am sitting in a kitchen that belongs to the sanctuary called mu-u-jeong, which means “a house without anxiety” in Korean. One of the monks opens a sliding door, and through it I can see a tall plum tree and a garden that lies like a green Persian carpet. I stand on the deck for a while, overwhelmed by the moment, releasing all the ruptures of my past.
My adventure began in an express bus to Suncheon when a female secretary of the Seonamsa temple called me on my mobile phone.
“Our senior monk went out to the field this morning and decided that he is going to hold off on the tea-leaf picking until after the Buddha’s birthday on the 8th,” she said. “The leaves haven’t grown big enough for picking yet.”
She apologized in a plain and harmless manner.
For the last three weeks, I had been calling the temple to see if the leaves were ready for tea processing. There was always an underlying uncertainty in her voice. Every time I called, I hung up feeling strangely anxious, insecure about whether my message got through. It was too late now. I was less than an hour away from the temple, a five-hour trip, when I received the call that my trip appeared to be in vain.
My original plan was to drop my bags in a motel, spend the entire evening reading some books about tea and walk to the temple early the next morning, when the tea picking was supposed to begin.
I changed the plan and, as soon as I had thrown my bags in my hotel room, hopped a taxi to the temple. By the time I arrived at Seonamsa around 6:30, the door of a temple office was firmly locked. I began to panic, the last thing I had expected to do at a tea patch in a temple.
I called on a passing monk clad in a brown suit ― a sign of a newcomer in the temple ― and asked him to take me to Chongmu. He made me wait outside. A few minutes passed, and he came back, telling me to wait in the guest room until the monk finished his last-minute tea parching.
“You came too late,” he said adamantly. “Nobody may enter or leave the grounds once the tea work begins.” Showing no signs of compromise, he quickly went on his way.
In the morning my luck has changed for the better. Chongmu has saved six baskets of tea leaves he had picked on the previous morning. To show me how he processes the shoots, he lets me endure the “herb sauna” in the kitchen all day.
Seonamsa is one of the few places in Korea that makes traditional tea. Despite the temple’s long history, which dates back to 1660, the structures of the temple have been well preserved; no tradition has been compromised to suit the taste of modern visitors. Even now, the temple refuses to turn on electric lights at night on the road leading from the temple gate to the parking lot, a good 20-minute hike by foot. Even for the World Cup Seonamsa refused to admit outsiders for the government’s temple-stay program.
Technically, the teas made here are green teas, because their leaves are green, but the temple monks will always correct a person who happens to call their produce nokcha, green tea. Here, the monks simply call the extract they drink “tea” or “a local tea.”
This careful choice of words is a means of separating the traditional, local style of tea making from the very different process used in Japanese green tea. Color and flavor are different, too ― tea made from the local leaves is more of a yellow-brown hue than green. The size of the local shoots is also about half the size of the Yabukida Japanese breed, grown in the Shizuoka region of Japan. In general, the taste of the local tea is more savory than the Japanese, and less bitter.
The labor involved in preparing the year’s worth of tea leaves every spring at Seonamsa is immense. Up to 10 monks and a group of women volunteers gather in a kitchen and work from dawn to dusk for days.
The preparation begins when a young junior monk in the kitchen dumps a large basket of freshly gathered leaves onto a huge iron pan. Surrounding the pan are two middle-aged women who wear three layers of cotton gloves to protect their hands from the intense heat as they stir the leaves in large circles for about 20 minutes. In that first roasting, the pan reaches temperatures of 400 to 500 degrees centigrade (750-930 Fahrenheit). Then the monk slowly lowers the temperature of the stove. By the end of each day, the workers’ fingers are covered with burns and blisters.
The leaves are taken to the other side of the room for rolling on a large rug made of straw. Then they are sorted, with torn or burned leaves set aside to be prepared separately and given to junior monks and volunteers as a gift at the end of the day.
Once the sorting is done, the leaves cool on a rug for a few minutes and are brought back to the pan for another roasting. The monks repeat this process eight times. After the eighth run, the leaves are taken to a separate room on a steamed floor and left overnight on top of rice paper to extract any remaining moisture.
The next morning, the leaves are stuffed in a bag and kept there for up to 10 days. Then they are removed from the bag and the entire process is repeated one last time ― roasting, rolling, sorting. Finally, they are packaged, ready to be sold and enjoyed.
An 80-gram pack of tea leaves sells in the temple’s souvenir shop for 100,000 won ($82), about four times higher than the price of typical teas sold elsewhere. Yet visitors from Seoul come every year to the temple just to buy the leaves, often futilely hoping to get a peek at the tea making, which is strictly closed to public.
Preparing the local tea was considered such a sacred business in the ancient days that in order to qualify for the job, one had to be a virgin. That rigorous pride still prevails among these monks.
Joo-yeon, my artist friend who is more familiar with Buddhist tradition than I am, had warned me of the particular meticulousness some monks display toward their tea making. She shared a story about a monk who served a single drop of tea essence in a cup when an enthusiastic admirer came a long way to taste the monk’s tea. When the guest asked why he was served an empty cup ― overlooking the essence inside ― the monk yelled at him, scorning him as too inattentive to discover the single, precious drop, which is said to yield five different tastes to the tip of the taster’s tongue.
Even on my visit, a man who identifies himself as “a student of traditional tea” carefully knocks on the door of a kitchen, and asks Chongmu for permission to watch the process. The monk bluntly turns him down.
“If you are a student of tea, you had better learn that you should be even more humble and stay out of the kitchen,” he yells. The man leaves the house without protest.
A little later, Chongmu grumbles, “Visitors are always pesky. They only create dust.”
Later in the afternoon Chongmu takes me to the elevated tea patch behind the temple. Looking down through the green tea leaves, the gray roofs of the sanctuaries show through.
“You hear old monks saying that the golden statue of a Buddha’s back and the backyard of a temple are the two most futile things in life,” Chongmu says. The proverb comes from the old days when temples didn’t have enough money to gild the backs of their Buddha statues or to plant trees in their backyards. But it isn’t true at Seonamsa.
By the end of the day, he guides us, me and my friend Joo-yeon, to his room and serves us tea with the leaves that have just been roasted, but haven’t been fully processed.
Normally the etiquette of serving food to guests in Buddhist tradition depends on the person’s seniority. In serving tea, he says, the order always starts from the person sitting on the right to the left. “It’s a lesson that everyone is equal when they drink tea,” the monk says.
By the third round of drinks, he suggests that its time to stop.
The philosophy of Seonamsa Temple is also evident in its preservation of a traditional toilet. Kim Hoon, a Korean novelist, called this kind of bathroom “a paradise of human excretion.”
Each toilet in Seonamsa is partitioned by a thin wooden panel, but has no door. Strangely, people in the restroom here seem more social than intimidated, chatting and giggling with strangers as if at a public bathhouse. The waste in the pits is mixed with heaps of leaves and regularly burned, which is why the temple’s bathroom doesn’t have a noxious odor.
Seonamsa is a place where one needs to liberate oneself from the intensity of everyday life in order to truly appreciate what the natural pleasure offers.
Now I know. Next time I visit the temple, I will throw away all my arrangements and guidebooks and just drink tea.
by Park Soo-mee
To get to Seonamsa Temple, take an express bus to Suncheon. Bus No. 1, which leaves every 20 minutes, takes you from the Suncheon bus terminal to the temple. For more information, call 061-754-6160.