Learning the Korean Way of Tea
-Episode Two

The School of Thought pertaining to the Way of Tea

By Hooi Yoke Lien

When I was learning from Madam Chung-hee Moon, I noticed that there are different schools of thought when it comes to the Korean Way of Tea. It is, perhaps, fair to say that each teacher represents a school of thought.  As such, when a person learns tea brewing, the choice of the teacher would mean the choice of a particular school of thought.  This is perfectly fine, as pursuing a school of thought is nothing restrictive. Similarly, people have their own theories, methods and styles, and it is just natural that they pass the ideas on to their followers. This is not unlike selecting a faculty in a university, or learning to play piano or dance with the teacher of one’s choice; what is offered by the faculty or the teacher would be the basis of one’s studies. However, it seems that such approach is not prevalent in other places within this region, most of which take the form of structured teaching conducted in tea art centres or private tutorial centres.  

Teaching built upon a school of thought differs from teaching conducted in classrooms (tea art centres or private tutorial centres), in that the latter needs to complete the teaching of certain contents within a stipulated period of time. This format of learning is characterised by the agreed fees, duration of each class and the issuance of certificates to students by the end of the course. In general, the teachers will keep talking about the stipulated contents during the class, and distribute notes, photos and other relevant information to reinforce the students’ understanding of the knowledge. There is little effort to ascertain if the students have grasped the contents or revised the lesson with the notes given. ‘Learning’ in this case is achieved through ‘experience’ – it seems that listening to the teachers and touching the physical objects involved during class is good enough.

It is very different when it comes to teaching based on a school of thought. A tea master does not distribute notes and photos. No photography is allowed and talking is prohibited. Each protégé concentrates on his body movements to physically express what is required in the process of brewing. He will focus on the way to lift the teapot, to wait for the tealeaves to infuse, to offer tea respectfully, and the meaning of precious tea infusion. The master demonstrates the proper way, which is followed by the protégé. This is repeated time and time again during each lesson.

There are a few features common to this form of teaching:

a. There is mutual understanding between the master and the protégé that determination is key to success before such a habit of learning is built.  The emphasis of this mode of teaching lies in the ability of a protégé to properly ‘put on one’s clothes, greet the tea drinkers, pick up each object of the tea presentation setting, and to brew, serve and take tea’. This is similar to the process one goes through when it comes to learning piano, singing and dancing.  It involves dedicated physical practice over an extended period of time; there is no room for empty talk or mere imitation. All the protégés must realise that ‘incorporating the way of tea into one’s lifestyle’ is the only way to ensure that they will not give up learning. This form of teaching does not stress the importance of ‘graduation’ – while one may ‘graduate’ when a certain level of knowledge on theories has been attained, tea brewing must be practised and its technique improved over time.

b. There is no talking, note-taking, recording or viewing of slides during the lesson. Sitting side by side, the teacher and students repeat the same way of bowing, straightening each crease on the clothes, greeting, and tea brewing, serving and drinking.  Such subdued environment makes it easier for a person to direct his full attention to brewing, and to be aware of the slightest movement of the teacher. Meanwhile, the students will develop the ability to reflect on their own movements. Those who have gone through this training over a long period of time tend to be relatively subtle and understated in their action.  The process has become a part of the body’s memory – what began as mechanical and staged has become natural from within.

c. Some people worry that the formation of these ‘schools of thought’ may impede the development of art and culture, bringing the progress to a standstill and discouraging people from presenting new concepts and initiatives. For a newcomer, following a school of thought is similar to taking a shortcut in learning the skill and understanding the idea. With someone guiding us along, we will not tangle up in puzzlement. In this regard, the ‘school of thought’ approach should be encouraged.
Besides, the ‘school of thought’ approach does not imply an absence of change. Madam Chung-hee Moon adopts Madam Ok-ja Seol’s school of thought.  Over the years, she has made two changes to the process after obtaining the approval of Madam Seol.  Whenever we practice the adapted steps concerned, Madam Moon will specify that on (a certain date), we realised that changes could be made to this step. After obtaining approval from Master Seol, it has been changed to the current approach.

The establishment of these ‘schools of thought’ is an expression of people who stand up for what they believe in. The tea fraternity provides a lot room for the many ‘schools of thought’ to survive and thrive. This indicates the existence of nutrients for self-expression of individual thoughts and respect for others’ interpretation of the Way of Tea in the entire tea environment.  The Way of Tea does not belong to an organisation or an individual. You will have what it takes to initiate a school of thought if you are very creative and have your own technique and concepts. Having said that, the real test of you being an influential pioneer depends on subsequent development, such as the number of followers you manage to secure, and whether the implementation of this approach is lasting.