Tea with a Zen Master

A Korean friend named Heidi invited me and some other Ulsan English teachers to go hiking with her this past weekend.  All week it had been beautiful and I had been trapped inside my school, unable to escape and enjoy the gorgeous Fall weather.  Hiking sounded like a fabulous idea!

Saturday morning dawned grey, dreary, and raining hard enough to wake me up BEFORE my alarm (I hate when I wake up before my alarm!).  Why does it always rain on the weekend?

Only slightly daunted, we set out with raincoats, umbrellas and enough snacks to feed an army.  Heidi lives in the outer edges of Ulsan city; it took us about an hour by bus to reach her.  Thankfully it had stopped raining by the time we arrived but it was still misty which made the woods lovely and ghostly.

The first part of our walk was through this forest of funny wobbly trees.  I don’t understand why Korean pine trees (are they pine trees?) don’t grow straight.  They all look like they’re out of a Dr Seuss book, wibbly, curvy and beautiful.

In this section of the woods, quite a few of the trees had white tags.  Apparently these trees required injections because they suffer from some sort of infection (or possibly a vitamin deficiency – Heidi’s English while fabulous, didn’t extend to forestry terms).  I thought perhaps that was why the trees didn’t grow straight, but even the non-sick trees were twisty.

I also wondered how you gave a tree an injection.  Would a normal syringe do, or was there some sort of specialized tree needle?

We reached our first temple after just a short walk.  According to Heidi, if you crossed this bridge, you could go to heaven after you died.  Just looking at it gave me the heebie jeebies.  I decided to gamble on my afterlife, and hopped that Buddha would look kindly upon people with height issues. 🙂

The bathrooms at the temple were what we would politely refer to as “rustic” and came complete with examples of the local wildlife.  This spider was beautiful (her abdomen was a gorgeous metallic blue which for some reason doesn’t show up) but I certainly wouldn’t want those fangs anywhere near my nether regions!

Once we passed the temple, the skies cleared a bit and we actually had a little sun! 

Our second temple was one of the branch temples of Tongdosa (one of the top 3 temples in Korea).  The leaves here were glorious!

The ginkgo trees are my favourite.  The colour is awesome; pictures just don’t do it justice. Here are some ginkgo leaves and spare roof tiles for the temple.

More ginkgo leaves!

One lonely persimmon.

As we wandered around taking millions of pictures, Heidi disappeared.  Apparently she knew one of the Buddhist nuns so I assumed she had gone to say hello.  A few minutes later, she returned with her friend who invited us to have tea with her.

We sat on cushions around a small table while the nun made tea in a beautiful dragon-covered tea pot.  We were joined by a monk who seemed eager to chat.  Both Buddhists were dressed in identical baggy grey outfits and had shaved heads.

The tea was poured in pretty little handle-less cups and passed around.  I didn’t understand what the tea was made from but whatever it was, it was supposed to keep us warm.  The nun was concerned that we had been hiking in the rainy weather.

The tea was thick and a dark, rich brown.  It smelled rich and earthy, comforting in an odd sort of way.  Smiling, the nun gestured for us to drink.  I took a good swallow and nearly gagged.  It tasted like a combination of dirt and bark.

The monk introduced himself then patted his chest and said “I am Jen Mas-tah!”

Clearly the dirt tea had addled my brain because it took me ages to figure out that he was in fact a Zen Master.  I’m not entirely sure what a Zen Master is or does but it certainly sounded impressive!

We chatted and the nun continued to refill our tea cups with dirt tea.  I couldn’t figure out if she was brewing more tea because there was a requisite number of cups temple visitors had to drink or if it was because trying to be polite, we were all choking down our dirt tea.

Heidi mentioned that my friend Maury and I were vegetarians.

“Ah! Very good!” the monk exclaimed.  Heidi very kindly translated everything for us. “When you are vegetarian, it is easier to control your mind!”

Startled, I glanced at Maury but she was smiling and nodding.  What did he mean, control my mind?  Could Zen Masters control people’s minds?  Was Maury’s mind already under his control?  She is a much better vegetarian than I am; did that make her mind easier to control?  I was starting to feel like I was in a bad science fiction book.

Puzzled and slightly apprehensive, I tuned back into the conversation.  And then felt like a fool.  Vegetarianism made it easier for ME to control MY mind.  Oops.  Clearly I needed to eat a little more tofu and a little less ice cream.

The Zen Master sitting in the building where we had tea.  I didn’t take any pictures during the actual tea party; it didn’t feel appropriate.

After tea, the nun took us on a tour of her studio.  In her spare time, she is a painter.  She is also (I snuck a peek at her CD collection) a big fan of Toni Braxton.


About Carrie K

Teacher, writer, traveller. Slightly neurotic. Overly talkative. Loving life. You can also follow me on Twitter: kimchigirl72
This entry was posted in Buddhist, Education, Korea, tea, temples, Tongdosa, Travel, Ulsan, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tea with a Zen Master

  1. dougrogers says:

    Easy to understand Zen in a beautiful place. Hard to understand when the tea is bitter.

  2. judy fletcher says:

    Your adventures in Korea are making me feel it is time for a visit.What beautiful scenes and what a great way to see a country. Something your mom and I should have done before SMK came into the picture. You are not only a good teacher but a great photographer.

  3. Mr. Propter says:

    As I said, I have some idea of what a Zen Master is in the Japanese tradition, but only a hazy one. ‘Master’ or ‘teacher’ usually translates ‘roshi’, which refers to a senior Zen practitioner, normally one who has undergone a ceremony called ‘inka shomei’ after many years of study. This is sometimes rendered ‘dharma transmission’ and makes the master an heir to teachings supposedly ultimately derived from the Buddha himself.

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