AN UNCOMMON JOURNEY
I have a little confession. My understanding of the connection between tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism is shallowest at best. Familiar to me in popular culture is the Japanese matcha ritual with its measured movements that mirrors contemplative thoughts. Naturally, a cup of hot brew is also calming to the body and soul. Regarding the spiritual aspects of tea ceremony, I can safely say the teachings of Zen Buddhism are expansive and profound that some takes a lifetime to grasp. Thus, beyond my scope at my present state of being. Fortunately, we recently connected by email with an extraordinary lady with an uncommon journey who can shed a bit of light on this topic.
Martine Batchelor was born in the picturesque town of Béziers, France, in 1953. She was ordained a Buddhist nun in Korea in 1975. In 1985, she left the order and return to Europe with her husband. Her unconventional journey is worthy of a book, and she has written many. Mainly about topics revolving around Zen Buddhism. She currently leads meditation retreats worldwide with her husband. Find out more about Martine here.
Martine Batchelor – The Early Years
Idealistic and possessed with a restless spirit, Martine was an aspiring journalist who dreamt of saving the world and was interested in politics in her teens. She dappled in the various religious, cultural and political ideas of her times. Anarchism – checked. Hippie Movement – checked. Eastern spiritual events – checked. Going to university? Double-checked but quit after a few months both times. It was at 18 while working as a canteen assistant in London that she discovered a collection of books on Buddha’s teachings for living a good life at a friend’s house. That was the turning point. She realised it’d be better to change oneself before thinking of changing the world. Thus, she became interested in meditation and Buddhist teachings.
The Journey to Korea
Scrapping together five hundred dollars, Martine set off for Asia. At a temple in Thailand, she met a Korean monk who extolled the meditation practice of Korean Zen, and he gave her the address of a nunnery called Sognamsa in southernmost part of Korea. She had originally planned to travel to Japan, but decided to visit Korea for a month before heading to Japan. That detour lasted 10 years. She studied under various Zen masters and was ordained a nun despite the initial cultural differences in living habits, food and language. Towards the end of her long sojourn in the monastery, Martine also met her future husband, Stephen, who came to Korea from Scotland to live as a Korean monk after having been a Tibetan style monk. In 1985, they went back to lay life and returned to France to live.
I’d like to highlight here that there may be a common misconception that leaving her religious order is difficult. I had that mistaken notion too, but Martine said one can enter the religious order freely, you can also leave freely. I find that such an enlightening move and a representation of practice at your own free will. She also said her religious order was happy that she continues to meditate, teach and write about her experience and Buddhism.
Korean Way of Tea & Buddhism
In an article that Martine wrote, she quoted a buddhist monk who did extensive research on Korean tea ceremony. He explained that green tea is used over all other types of teas and beverages because of its subtlety. He said, “In order to fully appreciate it, the mind must be quiet and empty of distracting thoughts. If you talk while drinking, it is likely that you will miss the fullness of the taste.” This ability to appreciate the subtle taste develops over the years, and changes the person accordingly. Synonymously this is a form of self-cultivation, which the monk termed as a ‘Way’ (Korean Way of Tea).
Thus. the Korean Way of Tea combines the appreciation of tea through taste, aroma, colour, health benefits with spiritual practice, which Martine described as “inner realisation and active manifestation of the Buddha’s words.” There are lots of details from the boiling of water to the grinding of the tea into powder that are integral to Korean Way of Tea. Some are social and cultural symbolism like the seating orientation, others express religious symbolism like the length of the bamboo serving spoon. However, in modern times, many details are discarded or overlooked.
Personally I find the symbolic meaning in regards to the sequence of distribution or pouring tea into cups especially illuminating. According to Martine in one of her articles, the Way of Tea also demonstrates how people proceed in their evolution as human beings. Specifically self-cultivation to develop personal traits of equanimity and harmony. She wrote, “as the tea infuses the pot, the bitterness remains at the bottom with the leaves. Thus on the first round of pouring the tea, each serving become progressively more bitter. To equalise the taste, during the second round of pouring one fills the cups in the reverse order. In this way the taste is evenly distributed.” In practical terms one even out the taste among all the cups. In spiritual expression, it becomes a symbolic basis for harmony and equanimity.
I am sure I still scratching the surface behind the mystery and concept behind tea ceremonies, but I hope at least a small corner had been illuminated. Since coming back to France, Martine only drinks green tea occasionally for health reasons, but she stills appreciate the taste. Like any self-respecting tea company, we have to ask her any other teas she like. She replied, “Korean picked by hand and home made, rolled up green tea was the only tea I could have drunk.”
I did not pry into her health reasons, and I wish her the best.