david mason on korean tea history and hiking the baekdu-daegan trail

David A. Mason is the Professor of Korean Tourism at Kyung Hee University in Korea, who has authored a number of books on Korean history, mountains and tea culture.  David took some time chat with me about drinking tea with Monks, what makes Korean tea special and the important Baekdu-daegan trail.

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You have lived and worked in Korea for a very long time, what was it that first drew you to Korea.

I was initially first interested in China and its culture, especially the religious and philosophical aspects, ever since high school – don’t think that I had really heard of Korea, beyond the Korean war and if after that and its aftermath, and the problems that had with military dictatorship. I toured around East Asia with a backpack after graduating from university in 1981, mainly seeking experiences of the I Ching, Daoism and Zen Buddhism, and sort of stumbled across South Korea in the summer of `82 without really intending.

But I was immediately fascinated by its similarity to classical Chinese culture, but with its own distinct flavors. Particularly interesting was how Daoism and shamanism were blended into their Seon (Zen) Buddhism. Traveling to temples in the beautiful mountains to check of the artworks and hang with the monks became my hobby, as I started teaching English to support myself here. That’s when I had my first experiences of Korean green tea, which was still quite uncommon at that time, as monks offered it to me when they found me wandering in their courtyards. They taught me about the close association
between green tea and its customs with meditational Buddhism, ever since they both were transplanted to Korea around 1200 years ago.

I became deeply impressed with the depth and quality of spiritual culture that still remained in South Korea despite all the turbulence of its history, and how easily accessible it was compared to other East Asian nations, with only language being a significant barrier.

There was still very little about Korean history and culture published in English in the early 1980s, and so I got interested in researching about these things and writing articles and books about them, kind of announcing these unknown but excellent cultural heritages to the global community. This has led to my
several websites and a slew of publications, and what turned out to be my unexpected lifelong career. Fortuitous serendipity, I think you would have to say.

The book that you co-authored, Baekdu-daegan Trail covers a very significant mountain area in Korea. What can you tell me about Korea mountain history, and how it relates to tea and the Korean tea-growing regions.

Well, it cannot be considered just an accident that Korea’s most-sacred mountain happened to be the one at which Korea’s first tea-fields were planted, and remaining the spiritual home of its tea culture and the primary destination of tea-aficionados. That mountain is the southern end of the Baekdu-daegan range, the spine of the Korean Peninsula. A river flows past the mouth of the Hwagye Valley creating the perfect foggy conditions, in combination with the steep rocky soil there, for growing tea.  But that also came to be the place because of the presence of a major Buddhist temple right there, with the monks capable of and interested in caring for the tea plants at the beginning. There are other major
spiritual sites farther up that valley, along with unusually beautiful scenery, which combined to make it the tea-paradise that it has been for more than 1000 years.

Koreans have always believed that powerful mountains manifest powerful spirits that interact in a harmonious way with human life, and that herbal products coming from those mountains have particularly high ki (energy, chi) levels, transmitting along with them a little health-giving good-fortune from those powerful mountain-spirits (Sanshin) to those people who consume them. The peaks above this special tea-growing valley are some of the holiest in the nation, believed to be inhabited by ancient and mighty matriarchal spirits. Therefore the tea coming from that area is held in such high regard. Its long association with Korea’s very strong meditational Buddhist traditions just amplifies this reputation.

Do you have a favorite tea-fable or tea-tale from Korea tea history.

Meditation master Cho-eui (1786-1866) was the greatest tea-master of the past 200 years, reviving the old Korean tea traditions that Confucianist scholars had neglected, and writing both poems and essays about them so that they could be passed along to future generations. After relocating to Mt. Duryun-san Daeheung-sa Temple at the farthest southwestern end of the Korean Peninsula, he established a hermitage known as Ilji-am where he sincerely cultivated the Way of Tea for the next 40 years. His writings are still the most important written legacies about tea that we have, and that hermitage remains as a kind of a shrine to tea culture.

At his Ilji-am retreat he wrote one of my favorite tea-poems:

Here the sky’s light is like water and water is like mist.
I came and enjoyed it here; now already a half-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 have 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 Duryun Ridge again.

Is there a tea that you think is quintessentially Korean, one that would be a perfect first introduction to Korea tea for someone new to tea from this part of the world.

What is quintessentially Korean for me is the total experience of visiting that Mt. Jiri-san Hwagye Valley and visiting any one of the many little tea-producing farms there, experiencing their warm and generous hospitality while sampling their wares – none of which are ever poor, they’re all excellent in their own
way despite having their different personalities.

Just to be having good green tea made with the perfect temperature of fresh clean water in the midst of such beautiful scenery, pine trees against the gray granite cliffs, then wandering up to a grand Buddhist monastery or high waterfall, then having a great meal of the wild mountain vegetables, then more tea… It’s always such a wonderful experience when I do, and me and my friends just don’t want to leave.

I suppose that I could mention one of my original old favorites, the Okro (Jade Dew) Tea Company located right at the mouth of the valley where it meets the highway, on the eastern side. The grandfather who still runs it was one of the original guys who set up a modern green tea picking, drying and packaging business; for 20 years they have always been so nice to me whenever I drop by, and the high quality of their products never disappoints even though they deal in a fairly high volume by now. A box of their tea, whichever variety, is guaranteed to be an excellent drink for quite a reasonable price (only half of what you’d have to pay for it in the cities).

In closing, I would really like to recommend to your readers my friend Brother Anthony’s book “The Korean Way of Tea” (click on photo for more info) – it is truly the best introduction to the history, selections and usages of Korea’s green tea – and its deep cultural traditions and association with Seon Buddhism.

He did such a good job on it, that I have felt no need to write a book of my own on these things.

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