Teatime for the soul at Buddhist center

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Teatime for the soul at Buddhist center

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MUAN, South Jeolla province ― Last week was the first time that I realized that Korea is not such a small nation, after all. While the rest of the country was under flood over the weekend, Muan county, where I was taking Zen meditation training, didn’t have even a drop of rain.
It was cloudy but bright when I arrived at the birthplace of the Venerable Choui (1786-1866), a Zen master monk who repopularized the Korean traditional tea-making ceremony, or dado, and who harmoniously mixed Zen and non-Zen Buddhism in the late Joseon dynasty when Buddhism itself was being taken over by Confucianism.
The location of the complex was awesome. At its rear is Mount Bongsu, better known as Dolsan (Stone Mountain) to the locals, and as it is on a hill, islands in the Yellow Sea are visible from the site. At the entrance of the complex, a yellow dog of an unidentifiable breed was lying with its head on its paws. It didn’t bark at strangers or even look cautious when someone unknown passed by, as if it understood Buddhism and considered all beings just piteous living things.
The site not only includes the house where the venerable Choui was born, which has been restored, but also has a small museum on the monk and arbors that were rebuilt based on records from the Joseon dynasty. More recently, just last month, a training center named Choui Seonwon was built in order to commemorate the 220th anniversary of the monk’s birth. Muan county spent about 2.2 billion won ($2.29 million) and two years to complete the center.
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The Venerable Yongwoon, who has spent nearly his entire life studying the venerable Choui, came to Muan in late 1997 and has since worked on restoring his predecessor’s birthplace. “When building Choui Seonwon, I added philosophical and historical aspects to the building, as well as functional and artistic aspects. I tried to reflect Choui’s life in the design,” said the monk.
According to Monk Yongwoon, the training center measures 81 pyeong, or 267.8 square meters (2,882 feet), as the venerable Choui was 81 when he died. (A pyeong is a Korean traditional unit of area, equivalent to 3.3 square meters). The height of the outer pillar is 15 ja (4.54 meters) and that of the inner pillar is 19 ja ― the venerable Choui entered the Buddhist priesthood when he was 15 and attained Nirvana when 19. (A ja is a traditional unit of length, equal to 30.3 centimeters.) The height of the purlin is 24 ja ― 24 is the age at which the venerable Choui met Dasan Jeong Yak-yong for the first time. Dasan (1762-1836) was a great scholar of practical science who taught Confucianism and poetry to the young monk. Dasan also learned dado from the venerable Choui. The center has 65 doors, the Buddhist age of the venerable Choui when he died. Thirty-three are carved based on paintings that the monk drew, such as the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and anecdotes from his life, such as him teaching Dasan how to make tea.
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The venerable Choui was also a good friend of Chusa Kim Jeong-hui (1786-1856), one of the greatest calligraphers of that period. When Chusa was banished to Jeju Island, the monk visited the island three times to talk with his friend over tea.
“I want to make this area a mecca for the Venerable Choui to continue his tea culture,” said the Venerable Yongwoon. The center is now used to teach dado and Zen meditation. The Venerable Yongwoon plans to construct about 180 buildings over about 100 hectares. This year, construction is slated to begin on a museum on the tea culture of the Joseon dynasty.
On July 1, Choui Seonwon started a six-month course on dado every Saturday at a cost of 300,000 won. Anyone who is interested can still join at an adjusted cost. Every Sunday, there is Zen meditation training given for free by Monk Yongwoon.
On Saturday, I observed the dado class, which was completely different from what I had expected. I had thought that it would just cover how to make and serve tea, details like allowing the water to cool a little after boiling before making the tea. However, as it is a six-month course, it teaches the tiniest details about dado, not only making the tea, but also how to offer it to a deceased master monk, here the Venerable Choui, and how to drink it. Last Saturday was a bowing class, learning the different bows used during when presenting the tea. It was similar to the Confucian ritual, but instead of meat and wine, used fruit and tea.
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I was surprised to see a Catholic nun participating in the course. “The religion doesn’t matter, it’s just learning dado, our tradition,” said Sister Maria. She also attends a special tea lecture provided free by Monk Yongwoon every third Saturday.
On Sunday, I took the Zen meditation class, expecting it to be a process of emptying my mind, as I had heard from lay sources. However, it was more like focusing on one mind. Monk Yongwoon asked the participants to sit with legs completely crossed like Buddha statues and to count while exhaling from the abdomen until 100, not in order, but alternately up from one and down from one hundred ― as in, “one, one hundred, two, ninety-nine, three, ninety-eight,” and so on. He said that method makes one focus harder on what you’re doing. “Usually, one needs to do this training for at least three months,” said the monk.
“People don’t have much time to sit down and rest. They keep moving and seemingly don’t know how to stop. If the body moves, the thoughts also keep moving, not staying still,” said the Venerable Yongwoon. “As when the wind and waves sleep, the water gets clean, so does the mind also get clean when the body is quiet and still.” Counting is a way to hold the mind and body at one point, he added.
But it wasn’t easy for me to even count. Almost as soon as I started, I fell asleep, before reaching 10.
“It’s not only you. Everyone falls asleep or has worldly thoughts. I do that, even now,” said the Venerable Yongwoon. In order to stay awake, beginners should keep their eyes open when meditating, but not move their eyeballs, he said. “As the mind moves, the eyeballs move. So, when meditating, you should try not to see a physical thing, but to see your mind,” the monk said.
When asked what normal people can learn from Zen meditation, the Venerable Yongwoon said, “If your life becomes more beautiful through dado and Zen meditation, that’s enough. Don’t try to learn things or gain enlightenment from them, because that is also greed.”


by Park Sung-ha

There will be a three-night and four-day training session on the tea culture of the Joseon dynasty at Choui Seonwon from July 28. For more information, call (061) 285-0302

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