Journey to Korea

The main purpose of my trip to Korea this time was to study Korean tea and Korean Seon.   The only worry was that I would miss my Korean tea friends.

buddha_waterfall_cropIn fact, before I visited Korea, I had no way to contact my Korean tea friends because my cellphone was changed once I arrived in Hong Kong.  All my Korean tea friends’ phone numbers were in my old cellphone which I left on the  mainland.  Fortunately, just the day before I arrived in Seoul, I found an old tea friend was online in MSN. This was most fortunate because we are rarely online, and even more rarely at the same time!   Lucky for me, I got another Korean tea friend’s phone number from him.  Then I had enough confidence to go on with my Korean tea and Seon travelling because I know this one Korean tea friend would bring me to where and what I needed.  If  I could choose just one contact, she is the right person.

I was right. The first thing I did was call her once I arrived in Seoul. She took me to a Chinese tea center first, where we met with the owner of the center. The owner is a Korean lady who just finished her Ph.D in Tea Studies at a famous university in China and opened the Chinese tea center in Seoul. Her name is Kim Young Suk. Kim studied Chinese tea in China for more than 15 years, and  said she received generous help from many Chinese when she was in China. In the time since, she felt she owed the Chinese a debt of gratitude for their help.   Therefore, she welcomed the chance to help me on my Korean journey.

With the help of my tea friends, I went on to the Journey to Songgwangsa (松广寺) in South Jeolla Province. For my two purposes—Korean tea and Korea Seon—–my friends thought it would be easy for me to study Korean tea because they, themselves, are Korean tea experts.   However, if I wanted to study Korean Seon, it would be better for me to experience it in the Korean temples. At the Sangha-Jewel Temple,  Songgwangsa has produced 16 National Preceptors in Korean History. Thus, my friends believed it would be meaningful for me to visit Songgwangsa.


There are three basic elements in Buddhism which are revered: the Buddha; the Dharma Teachings;  and the Sangha community.  In Korea, the temple Tongdosa (通度寺) has become known as the Buddha-Jewel Temple which enshrines the Buddha’s relies (sarira).  The temple Haeinsa (海印寺), which has preserved the Tripitaka Korean, revered as the Dharma-Jewel Temple. Songgwangsa represents the Sangha-Jewel Temple, proud of having produced 16 National Preceptors in Korean History.

In Korean, Songgwangsa is also called Jogye Chongnim, which means a “Comprehensive Monastic Training Center.”  It is equipped with a Seon Center, Sutra College, and Precepts School. The Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng said: “Seon is the Buddha’s mind, the sutra are the Buddha’s teaching, and the precepts are the Buddha’s conduct.” And, “If a monk’s conduct has dignity, the Buddha’s teaching is given dignity; if a monk’s conduct lacks dignity, the Buddha himself loses respect.”

This indicates that Sangha is built on the foundation of Seon doctrine, and precepts; therefore if any one of them collapses, the whole foundation will be destroyed, and consequently the Sangha will no longer exist in this world. That’s why in Korea, Jogye Chongnim Songgwangsa Temple, Gaya Chongnim Haeinsa Temple and Youngchuk Chongnim Tongdosa temple are all equipped with a Seon Center, (禅院), Sutra College,(讲院),  and Precepts School(律院.)

Usually, before entering into the Sutra College, a new monk is called Hengza, (行者) and undertakes many hard tasks, such as cooking and cleaning responsibilities. After one year’s experience of Hengza, the monk becomes a Sami, (沙弥) having earned the qualifications for Sutra College. After four years study in Sutra College, the monk then becomes Biqui, (比丘). Generally, a new Biqui will enter into Seon Center studying meditation for at least two years. Monks who graduated from both Sutra College and Seon Center have the qualifications to become precepts students.

The monk whom my tea friends introduced to me is the precepts master in Songgwangsa Temple, and he also is a tea lover. His name is Doil(道一).

Songgwangsa is located on the lower edge of Mt.Jogyesa in Songgwang-myeon, Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. Songgwangsa has a unique atmosphere which comes from its tradition as the Sangha-Jewel Temple. The temple faces west along the eastern range and stretches from north to south. It is said that the building layout parallels the pattern of the Dharma Chart(法界图),and allows people to go anywhere without getting wet, even when it is raining.

Songgwangsa has more government-designated cultural properties than any other temple in Korea. The temple museum, the Seongbo-gak (圣宝阁),displays an array of National Treasures, designated Treasures, and local cultural assets. The temple also boasts three unique features: the Bisarigusi (a giant rice container), the Neunggyeonnansa (an ancient offering vessel) and the Ssanghyangsu (twin Juniper trees) at Cheonjia-am Hermitage.

However, the most attractive and interesting to me in Songgwangsa are the people here.

Monk Doil

The precepts master, Doil, is a monk with an artistic and sublimate temperament. The first time I saw him slowly coming to me while I was waiting for him – sitting with my luggage at the big stone of the temple – my only thought was that this monk seems to have stepped from the Song Dynasty, with a temperament of ancient poet. After getting to know him, I realized where this temperament comes from.

He is a tea lover. He is especially good at Zisha (紫砂) . This surprised me. Actually, the Zisha which I saw in monk Doil’s tea room is the best among the Zisha used by Korean tea people, in my observation. What I observed is right. Monk Doil told me: “It is strange for Korean tea people, who pay attention to the quality of tea but ignore the quality of teaware. How strange is it when you put the best tea into a tea pot with bad quality of Zisha?”

He is a musician of Guqin (古琴). He is the student of the famous Taiwan Guqinist, Sunyuxian, and the illustrious Chinese Guqinist, Lichangting. Doil wrote a book on Guqin, which might be the only book about Guqing in modern Korea. He said, “sadly, Koreans are not interested in Guqing because Guqing is used to practice improving oneself; on the country, Guzheng (古筝) ,which in Korean is named Kayagem, was easily accepted and became popular because it is used for peoples’ enjoyment.”

Doil, is a master of calligraphy and painting. He is the last student of the famous Chinese painter Zhang Daqian. He also is a linguist, having studied in London for six years.  He studied in Taiwan as well;  thus he speaks English and Chinese fluently. In Buddhist Studies, he is famous for the study of precepts in Korea. Actually, the precepts school in Songgwangsa is “equated” with graduate school in university, and monk Doil is the president of this “graduate school”.

However, for me, the most profound impression about Doil is not his achievements, but rather an anecdote which he told me about the experience of following Taiwan Guqinist Sunyuxian to study Guqin.

Guqinist Sunyuxian was a type of musician not easily persuaded to accept students. When monk Doil came to him, Sun asked him: “You are a monk. You should study Buddhism. Why have you come to study Guqin?”

And the young monk Doil answered: “The Dao of Buddhism is same as the Dao of Guqin. That’s why I like to study Guqin.”

Sun replied, “It seems reasonable. From now on, you can come to study Guqin.” Guqin Master Sunyuxian is a traditional teacher. The traditional relationship of teacher and student in China is that the teacher regards the student as the son or daughter to cultivate and train once accepted as a disciple. Thus, as a student Doil never paid for his study, and after class, he had dinner at the home of Master Sunyuxian. Sun, like many other artists, had a difficult life, living in a small house with simple furniture.  

Monk Doil thought he should do something in return for his teacher. One day, after Guqin class, Doil handed over to his teacher money for one month’s tuition, which Master Sunyuxian accepted. From then on, Master Sun would take Doil to the luxury restaurant to eat and paid for both. Once, then twice, Doil thought to himself, “The payment for the restaurant is more than the fee I gave to Master Sun.  Why does Master Sun do this? This is not the style of Master Sun.” A third time, after the Guqin class, the teacher tried to bring Doil to that expensive restaurant, the young monk Doil said to Master Sun, “I am sorry! I should not pay you money! I am sorry! Master Sun, please do not bring me to this restaurant anymore.”

Since then, Doil has never tried to pay for his Guqin study, and Master Sun stopped bringing him to restaurants. They resumed eating dinner at the master’s home together. From then on, Doil tried his best to study Guqin, because this is the payment which the traditional teacher wants.

When I heard this story, I was touched. I do not know why. Perhaps it is because I have never seen a traditional teacher like this in my life. Maybe the generation of Doil is the last generation who had the chance to connect with this type of traditional teaching. I do not want to judge traditional teaching as good or bad, but I was purely touched.

Monk Daijing

Before I began my Korea Journey, I thought I would study Korean Seon in a Seon center in a temple after I arrived in Korea. Actually I have heard that it is easy to find a Seon center where Buddhists practice Seon in South Korea. I thought it would be my way of  Seon study, too. I had never thought I needed to find a Seon teacher whom I really trust and follow, from whom I can truly study Seon. I never thought it – it just happened.

That day, Monk Daijing and I backed to Songgwangsa from Guangzu after a Dhama talk. After entering into the door of Songgwangsa mountain, Daijing and I were not going into the Songgwangsa directly, but going to hiking around Songgwangsa.

 Monk Daijing seemed to want to lead me to a small hermitage. We stopped in front of Bulil-am(佛日庵),where the famous monk Bopjong, the author of many Buddhist bestselling books in Korea,  resided until he passed away two years ago.  Now, one of Monk Bopjong’s disciples lives here, Monk Daijing told me.

Bulil-am is quietly located in the deep mountain. The voice of wind and birds are the only sounds. There is a small wooden sign reading, “silence,” at the entrance of the Bulil-am.

Daijing and I sat at the stone chair in front of the Bulil-am, taking a rest, sliently. After a while, we left and hiked to Songgwangsa temple. While hiking on the road down to Songgwangsa, we met a monk going up to Bulil-am. This monk looked a little younger than Daijing.  He asked us to go to Bulil-am with him, in the manner of a spoiled child. Daijing told him we had been there and now were on the way down.  The young monk said, “Why not go there once more? Once more!”

I could not help smiling – what is going to happen when the serious Monk Daijing meets this totally different monk?

Then Monk Daijing introduced me and the young monk asked me:

“How long have you been here?”

“For four days.”

“Four days? Why not come to play with me?”

“I do not know where you live.”

“I live there,” He pointed with his finger.

“I still do not know,” I said.

“OK. Let him,” He pointed to monk Daijing, “bring you to my hermitage!” He looked the time, “Say, in one hour, that is, 17:20, come to my hermitage to have dinner. You know, my dinner is very delicious! Much more delicious than what you had in Songgwangsa temple!”


This chance meeting brought me to the Inwall-am, where the young and different monk resided. I say the monk is different, because most monks, like Daijing, are very serious but inflexible. This monk is a little different, for example,

I asked him, “Do you think I should get up to attend the Buddhist rites at 3 o’clock in the morning?  I feel it is difficult for me. But I am now in the temple and I have to obey the rules in temple.

He said, “You do not need to obey the rules. Those rules are for the monks who sleep at 20:00 in the evening. What time is your sleeping time? Even if you go to bed at 20:00, you could not go to sleep if you always sleep late. And if you cannot sleep well, you need more sleep in the day, or become tired in the day. I do not think the rule of taking part in the 3 o’clock Buddhist rite is more important than that you have an enough sleep.

I think he is a little bit different. Most monks would tell me I should obey the rules in temple. I feel he is kind of the mix of Laowantong (老顽童,means “old child”)  and Yangguo(杨过),* a monk with a child’s heart and tendency of challenging the traditional rules. Maybe because of this, I like him.

Later, he became my Seon teacher.

With increased interest in Korean Tea and the cultural of Korean Tea, we have republished this article by Lisa Dong, originally published in August, 2013. All changes were technical, not editing the text or images of her original article.