Ecological Environment of Korean Temples_Beopju-sa Temple’s Pine Forest,A Living Natural Heritage of the “Hangeul Road”_Chun Young-woo

▲ The 2km forest trail of Beopju-sa Temple

Beopju-sa Temple’s Pine Forest,,
A Living Natural Heritage
of the “Hangeul Road”

Chun Young-woo | Dendrologist

The Legend Associated with the Minister Pine

Pine trees are seen more often than not around any temple in Korea, yetthose of Beopju-sa Temple are extraordinary due to its famous“Minister Pine” or “Jeong-i-pum song.” Among the various objectsselected as outstanding icons representing Korean culture, the pine treeis the one and only plant species representing the entire botanicalkingdom of this country. From among the 4,000-plus plant speciesinhabiting this peninsula, the pine tree is thus solely recognized as thedistinctive vegetative icon of Korean culture, and among pine trees, theMinister Pine of Beopju-sa Temple stands out as the most noteworthy.

Regardless of one’s religion or faith, any Korean would know thestory of King Sejo and the Minister Pine. When King Sejo’s royalprocession arrived at Beopju-sa Temple’s entrance, the tree is said tohave lifted its drooping branch up for the royal carriage to pass. So theKing, in praise of its loyalty, bestowed an official ministerial rank ofgovernment upon the tree, approximately equivalent to today’s cabinetministership. This story is an eloquent testimony to how our ancestorsregarded trees as sentient beings.

Nevertheless, in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty that include morethan 700 records on pine trees alone among many other things, nomention whatsoever can be found about King Sejo’s bestowal of agovernment post on a pine tree. Therefore, the story about the MinisterPine must be regarded as a legend embodying the intimate relationshipbetween human beings and trees, or Nature itself, which Koreans feel.


The Symbol of Supreme Sovereignty

The myth related about King Sejo and the Minister Pine has influencedus so strongly that pine trees have settled in our minds as an icon ofKorean culture. If we look deeper into this legend, yet another mythicstory is found, endearingly called the “Hangeul Road,” referring toBuddhism’s contribution to the creation of the Hangeul or the Koreanalphabet, the core of Korean culture. “Hangeul Road” refers to the routefrom Maltijae Pass to the Minister Pine and through Beopju-sa Templeto Bokcheon-am Hermitage.


History explains King Sejopaid a visit to the Great MasterSinmi (1403-1480) on February28th, 1464, at Bokcheon-amHermitage, located on the samemountain as Beopju-sa Temple.King Sejo, enthroned afterdeposing King Danjong, hisnephew (the child king), wassuffering from a severe skindisease. He went to BokcheonamHermitage to visit the greatscholar-cum-high-priest Sinmi,who had actively participated inthe creation of Hangeul when heserved as a scholar during theGreat King Sejong’s reign.According to one theory, Sinmiinitiated and led the invention ofHangeul; at the least historyrecords that he was directlyinvolved in its invention.

Upon hearing from Sinmithat the Buddha Relic Hall (abuilding where a sacred relic ofthe Buddha is kept) at SangwonsaTemple was on the verge ofcollapsing, King Sejo orderedthat the resources necessary forits restoration be provided from5the royal treasury. When the Buddha Relic Hall was restored, King Sejovisited Sangwon-sa Temple to commemorate its restoration. And it iswidely known among Buddhists that Bodhisattva Manjusri appeared andscrubbed King Sejo’s back that night while he was bathing in the streamrunning through the valley, thus curing him from the chronic skin disease.

History has it that the royal procession of King Sejo, after being on the road from Cheongju, stayed the night at the palace ruin at the foot of Maltijae Pass. The following day, when the procession reached flat land after long winding roads and passes covered densely by pine trees, their eyes would have been drawn to that stately, handsome-looking tree among all the surrounding pines, standing out like a crane among numerous hens.

As yet another 4km remained before arriving at the temple, the king might have let the palanquin bearers take a rest, as well as allowing his attendants to have some free time to adjust their attire, etc. under the pine tree. 

It is imagined that the pine tree under which the king took a rest after descending from his palanquin was considered to be bestowed with a divine sovereignty. That led to the speculation that the tree was given a very high official post, becoming the Minister Pine. Sadly, the stately, beautiful figure of the Minister Pine cannot be seen any more. The tree had good-looking branches spreading out all around it for several hundred years, but during the past couple decades some of the branches have been broken by heavy snow-fall and severe storms.

Relationship between Great Master Sinmi and King Sejo

Starting from the town of Boeun, I pass along the steep mountain roadsof Maltijae Pass, following the “Hangeul Road” toward Beopju-saTemple instead of taking the shortcut through a newly made tunnel. Ipull up in front of the Minister Pine and contemplate the journey alongthe “Hangeul Road” again. Then I pass through the One Pillar Gate,imagining the royal procession of King Sejo with a 500-plus retinue,heading down the 2km forest trail or “oritgil” in Korean.The gradual disappearance of pine trees, which are being replacedby broad-leaved trees, can be witnessed everywhere along the 2km foresttrail. There are of course many national and other treasures in the chargeof Beopju-sa Temple, but as a dendrologist, my attention is drawn to thefir trees in front of the Gate of Heavenly Kings and the teil trees in frontof the Main Buddha Hall. What could be the significance of those two firtrees standing in front of the temple gate, majestically reaching towardthe sky like flagpole supports? And the two teil trees, also called lindentrees, in front of the main building? The linden or bodhi (enlightenment)tree witnessed the Buddha’s enlightenment as he sat beneath it. Since theleaves of the teil tree resemble those of the bodhi tree (called pipal tree inIndia), and its nuts can be made into prayer beads, East-Asian Buddhistsusually call teil trees “bodhi trees.”

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