A representative Seon master of the late Joseon Dynasty, Seon Master Choui became known as the “Korean Tea Sage” for reviving Korea's traditional tea ceremony. In addition, owing to his remarkable skill in poetry, calligraphy and painting, from the Buddhist perspective he is judged highly as both an artist and a man of letters, erudite in all aspects of the culture of his age.
The late Joseon era society of Master Choui's age, founded on the world view of Song Confucianism, had devolved to the squabbling of power politics and the correctives offered by the appearance of "practical knowledge" (silhak) were losing their power. In addition, with the second wave of nationwide suppression against the burgeoning religion of Catholicism having inflamed the public sentiment, the king's power was also in decline, bringing about a state of affairs that could not easily be rectified. Buddhism as well barely survived, lacking any energy for vital reform or self-strengthening, owing to the Joseon Dynasty's policy of sungyu eokbul, “revere Confucianism, suppress Buddhism.” It was during such times that one monk showed exceptional skill in both his writing and actions, excelling even among those traditional scholars imbued with the wide-spread bigotry of arrogance and contempt that most held toward monks at that time. This monk was none other Master Choui Uisun.
Master Choui was born April 5, 1786, in Samhyang-myeon, Muan-gun, Jeolla-do Province. At the age of four, he fell into some water and was on the verge of drowning before a monk rescued him, thus forging his intimate connection with Buddhism. At the age of 14, he was tonsured under Master Byeokbong Minseong at Unheungsa Temple in Nampyeong. At Daeheungsa Temple in Haenam, he studied the Tripitaka (Buddhist Scriptures) and at 20 he concluded his studies of the monastic curriculum.
In 1801, Dasan Jeong Yakyong, the consummate scholar of the “practical knowledge” (silhak)school of late Joseon and exceptionally erudite author of a compendium exceeding 500 volumes on the fields of chemistry, history, politics, military affairs, economics and others, was exiled to Gangjin in Jeolla-do Province, accused of being a leading figure in the Catholic Church. Master Choui's life and thought were deeply influenced by Dasan. Through his relationship with Dasan, he learned Confucianism and matured in his prose and poetry, developing a close friendship in the process. Even after his thirties, Master Choui exchanged intellectual discussion and friendship with a wide range of the highest Confucian intellects of his age, men who had participated directly in the cultural and political history of late Joseon. One of his closest friends was Chusa Kim Jeonghui (1786~1856), scion of a prominent traditional Confucian family, and pioneer of the imported Qing culture, based primarily on the fields of epigraphy and textual study. Upon Chusa's banishment to Jejudo Island, Master Choui even went so far as to visit him five times to offer him consolation. Coming into his forties, as his own fame began to spread, Master Choui returned Daeheungsa Monastery in Mt. Duryunsan, where he built the Iljiam Hermitage on a valley on the east side of the Monastery. There, he spent roughly forty years writing and practicing samatha/vipassana (jigwan) meditation until on August 2, 1866, at the age of 80, he passed into nirvana.
The life works handed down by Master Choui are by no means scarce in quantity. Beginning in 1830, when the Master was 44, he wrote the Dasinjeon (Tales of the Tea Spirit), a work based on the original text of the “Chajing Caiyao,” a selection about tea taken from the Chinese classic, the Wanbao Quanshu. In 1837, at the age of 51, at the request of Haegeodoin Hong Hyeonju, he wrote the Dongdasong (Ode to the Tea of the East), referred to as Korea's “Tea Chronicles,” a composition of poetry about the history and excellence of Korean tea. Though only the preface written by Yeoncheon Hong Seokju (1774~1842) and Jaha Shin Wi (1769~1847) remains extant, we can infer that at 65, he compiled the Choui Sijip (The Collected Poems of Choui) a collection of the poetry he had written while on break from meditation and engaging in cultural exchanges with high government officials.
There are also many other surviving works written by Master Choui, whose time of composition is unknown. These works include the representative critique, the Sunmun Sabyeon Maneo; the Choui Seongwa (Choui's Seon Teachings), a gloss on the main points of Hyesim's Seonmun Yeomsong;the Jinmuk Josa Yujeokgo (A Biography of Master Jinmuk); and others. After the Master's death, a compilation of his prose works, the Iljiam Munjip (Collected Works from Iljiam), came out in 1890, and a two-volume collection of his poetry, called the Choui Sigo (Anthology of Poems by Master Choui), was published in 1906.
Master Choui's ideas can largely be separated between his ideas on Seon and his ideas on “the way of tea.” To begin with, we can examine his Seon thought through his Seonmun Sabyeon Man-eo, written as a critique of the Seonmun Sugyeong, a work written by his contemporary, Seon Master Baekpa (1767~1852), addressing practice methods and theories based on the capacities of practitioners. Master Baekpa's argument, based on his estimation of the respective merits of Seon, divides the “three categories of Seon” in a hierarchy of patriarchal Seon (Josa Seon), tathāgata Seon (Yeorae Seon), and theoretical Seon (Uiri Seon), and classifies patriarchal Seon and tathāgata Seon as “extraordinary Seon” (Gyeogoe Seon). It is this categorization itself that Master Choui refutes as fundamentally incorrect. He argued his difference of opinion with Master Baekpa, that there should be four categories of Seon—patriarchal Seon and tathāgata Seon, extraordinary Seon and theoretical Seon. The controversy regarding the different approaches to meditation that began in the late 1700s with Master Choui's critique of Master Baekpa's Seonmun Sugyeong would rage for almost a century.
Though the differences between their fundamental viewpoints were quite distinct, both of them shared a common goal to both sincerely clarify and offer solutions to the problems faced by the Buddhist community. They offered significant contributions in arousing an atmosphere committed to clarifying the core tenets of the sect and rediscovering the “Seon spirit.” Having developed this type of Seon theory, in being neither partial only to Seon meditation or doctrinal study (Gyo), Master Choui's practice of samatha/vipassana meditation (jigwan) reveals the distinguishing characteristic of his Seon thought. This fact is expressed in the following passage taken from Shin Heon's Choui Daejongsa Tapbimyeong (Stone Pagoda Engravings about the Lineage Master Choui):
The other day, a monk asked me, “Master, are you solely devoted to the practice of Seon?” to which I replied, “As there in no difference whether I devoted myself only to Seon or to studying the scriptures, why would I insist upon only Seon? For those who devote themselves only to the scriptures, it is very difficult not to forget the principles of the teaching, those who insist upon only practicing Seon, it is difficult to acquire the principles of Seon.”
In this way, Master Choui advocated the practice of jigwan together with a combination of doctrinal study and Seon, more than a devotion solely to the practice of Seon.
We can observe Master Choui's other main line of thought in his view on the way of tea,as expressed in the Dongdasong. As it was cast in the form of a Buddhist song (gesong, or gatha) that praised the tea (da) produced in Korea, which the Chinese referred to as Dongguk (Nation of the East), this work was called the Dongdasong, or Ode to the Tea of the East. With few references to the proper methods for preparing tea or the proper implements used therein, Master Choui reveals his intention to avoid the formalistic complexities of the tea ceremony. His “way of tea” was an ordinary routine of life that involved lighting a fire, boiling some water and then drinking the properly prepared combination of well-steeped water and quality tea. He noted also that the nature of tea was inherently unselfish and impartial to desires, and he said that this nature was something likened to a “pure original source.”
Master Choui stated that it was in this way that tea possessed a sublime and exquisite essence, and if one did not become attached to that essence, one could arrive at a perfectly free state of transcendent perfection (Sanskrit: pāramitā). Accordingly, he stated, “Since you drink of tea's undefiled spirit and energy, the day of great enlightenment can’t be far off.'”
In addition, Master Choui said that tea and Seon are not two separate things and that in drinking a cup of tea, one must experience the “meditative bliss of experiencing the joy of the dharma” (beophui seonyeol). Such words reveal the thought in the dictum, “the one exquisite flavor of tea and Seon” (daseon ilmi). Like this, Master Choui's “way of tea” stands as a testament to his image as a sincere truth seeker, enjoying his Seon practice while simultaneously engaged in asceticism. We can say that this Seon master's modern attitude, one that does not separate but rather seeks to connect the world of enlightenment and the world of our daily life, shown to us by a Seon monk, is a Buddhist response to the modern thought that was being led by the Confucian school of silhak. Moreover, it could also be said that his Buddhist practice was a means by which the Buddhism that had previously been cast to the mountains and kept a distance from the mundane world, could creep just a little closer to the masses.