The Pilgrim’s Forest From Baekdam-sa Temple To Bongjeong-am Hermitage
Chun Yeong-woo | dendrologist
Only determined pilgrims can enjoy the beautiful scenery that surrounds Bongjeong-am
The Pilgrim’s Forest starting from Baekdam-sa Temple
“Old lady! Why do you walk this difficult path?” “Did Buddha promise to grant all your wishes?” She stopped walking for a moment on the steep path through the fir forest of nearby Yeongsi-am and wiped the sweat from her brow. She only smiled. The small nametag on her chest read “Daegu Huh bosal.” What special meaning does the path to Bongjeong-am Hermitage hold for the elderly who struggle up this mountain path on aching legs?
I wondered why so many bosals (bodhisattva; can also refer to a female Buddhist in Korea) search for Buddhist temples only reached by difficult mountain trails? My curiosity continued even after I reached Bongjeong-am and was assigned to room 103 in the guest quarters. My next objective was to look into how and why people came here. Also at the hermitage were twelve male Buddhists who only stayed for one night. Their reasons for being there varied. Some had come to Bongjeong-am by way of Gugok-dam through Yeonsi-am and the Shinjung-dong Shelter near Baekdam-sa Temple. Others had come to Bongjeong-am via Yeosi-am and Ose-am. There was also one college student who had come alone to Bongjeong-am from Daecheong-bong. They had come to Bongjeong-am by different routes, but their common goal was the same, to visit this sacred site where relics of the Buddha are enshrined.
After taking pictures of Bulnoe-saribotap, I asked one middle-aged couple why they had come. I still remember their answer.
“Spending time in this beautiful nature washes away the dust of the world and clears the mind. It is quite a long hike and it keeps the body and mind healthy. It is also good to be able to visit one of Korea’s five ‘Sacred Buddha Relic Temples.’”
The couple said they were very happy because they felt a sense of accomplishment at having visited yet another “Sacred Buddha Relic Temple.” They had delayed coming to Bongjeong-am earlier because the terrain was so rugged. The hidden charm of Bongjeong-am may be due to the rugged terrain which makes it hard to reach. Unlike the other four temples, Bongjeong-am sits 1,244m above sea level and getting there requires a 22km round trip hike. However, Buddhists continue to make the pilgrimage there year round. Why?
St. Jean Pied de Port
In Europe there is an entire network of pilgrimage paths used by devout Christians, collectively called the Camino de Santiago (“Road to Santiago”). One popular section starts from the French border commune of Saint Jean Pied de Port and goes over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain where it continues on to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The total distance of this section is about 800km (500 miles). This pilgrimage route was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1993 and is now well-known not only to Christians but also to pilgrimage-oriented people all over the world. For Buddhists, the path to Bongjeong-am has similar significance. It is a rugged and rocky mountain trail, but at the same time also especially beautiful and peaceful. It treats all pilgrims the same, regardless of social status. It recognizes neither wealth nor gender. The automobile is not welcome here, only hikers. This is the only temple in Korea that must be reached by strenuous effort and sweat. That is why many consider it the best pilgrimage a Buddhist can make in Korea.
A panoramic view of Bongjeong-am from Bulnoe-sarobotap
Buddhists gather for the evening prayer in the Temple of Honor
Forest path leading to Yeongsi-am
Bulnoe-sarobotap where Buddha’s true sarira are enshrined.
The path to Bongjeong-am is not nearly as long as the Camino de Santiago, but it did not appear overnight. It exists because of the foresight of Jajang, the founder of Bongjeong-am, who brought from Tang China about 1,300 years ago some of the sarira (bodily remains) of the Buddha to be enshrined here. Also because of the hard work and sweat of Wonhyo who rebuilt the hermitage after it was burned down. One reason so many Buddhists come here is to pay their respects to Master Wonhyo and to Ven. Manhae, a Buddhist monk who actively resisted the Japanese occupation of Korea. Other reasons are to enjoy the physical exertion of the pilgrimage, to commune with nature, to meet other sentient beings, and last but not least, to worship the Buddha. Another reason Buddhist pilgrims love this path is because the scenery is so beautiful. It is lined with a dense variety of deciduous trees along its entire length. There are maple, Mongolian oak, and Chinese cork oak, to name a few, almost forming a long continuous tunnel.
Another thing that makes this pilgrim’s path special is that it is imbued with devotion to the Buddha. Pilgrims come here hoping to find some measure of their own Buddhahood and the courage to abandon their earthly desires and attachments, the root cause of life’s suffering. This forest path is a symbol of our inner desire to approach the Buddha’s realm, in spite of our own physical discomfort, through the simple natural act of walking.
Let’s take a look at the fir forest and pine trees guarding the temple like the guardian deity around the main hall of Baekdam-sa Daeung-jeon with a leisurely and relaxed mind. It is a privilege only granted to pilgrims who are not afraid of sweating in the mountain road. Such pilgrims only able to enjoy these forests, which can be considered the essence of nature, the most traditional Korean scenery intact. Such a privilege given to the pilgrims who are in front of the living quarter of Bongjeong-am hermitage.
In the afternoon of the showers, the ridge of Mt. Seulak, which appeared between peaks rising through the valley of myriad valleys. Of course, the elasticity of the beautiful scenery produced by nature resonates in the mouth of the worshipers who visited the sanctuary. Is there any other way to develop the pilgrimage route to Bongjeong-am more meaningfully? How about naming this way as a pilgrim’s way for Buddhists, as templestays become a representative eco-culture in Korea?