The Ecology of Korean Buddhist Temple │ Naeso-sa’s Fir Tree Forest Knows No Greed, Anger or Delusion __ Chun Yeong-woo

Naeso-sa’s Fir Tree Forest Knows
No Greed, Anger or Delusion

Chun Yeong-woo | dendrologist

Naeso-sa’s Daeung-bojeon, the main hall of temple

The Bright Smiles Who Enter Naeso-sa Temple

The faces of those who enter Naeso-sa, regardless of age or gender, are bright. I sense no discomfort or uneasiness in the faces of the young, the middle-aged, or even the elderly, who have walked this long forest path with stooped backs and bowed legs, the result of a lifetime of hard physical labor. Are their faces bright because they have now entered the Buddha’s realm? Or perhaps the aromatic fir tree-lined path washed away their petty worldly concerns and helped them clear their minds? Perhaps both? It was also somehow comforting to see one Catholic nun pay homage to Buddhism’s four heavenly kings (‘Sacheon-wang’).

Looking at the bright smiles on the faces of the temple’s visitors, I once again pondered the symbolism and significance of the fir tree forest surrounding the temple. Before entering this one particular corner of Buddha’s realm, one must first become attuned to the powerful and majestic spirit of the fir trees; after all, it is they who guard the path to Naeso-sa. Most people, when they encounter these lovely trees, feel a renewed sense of the wonders of nature in their hearts and even their spirit is somehow moved. Every time you step into a fir forest, you somehow get the sense that the huge trees are watching over you, and you just naturally feel better. In my own experience, my worldly desires disappear, and I see myself transformed into my original pure form, the innate Buddha mind. Walking the fir tree-lined path to Naeso-sa, one’s worldly desires fade into insignificance as one becomes more present in the here and now. Consequently, visitors’ faces seem brighter and somehow more innocent, and better prepared to enter the realm of the Buddha.

Walking the Fir Tree-lined Forest Path

The fir tree-lined trail leading to Naeso-sa Temple is already well known throughout Korea. It was designated a ‘Beautiful Forest Route’ at Korea’s 7th National Beautiful Forest Competition, organized by the Korea Forest Service. And in 2006, Korea’s Ministry of Construction and Transportation also designated it a ‘Beautiful Walkway,’ one of 100 in Korea. Already the number of visitors to Naeso-sa is said to exceed 300,000 a year. Why does this temple attract so many people?

In addition to the forest, Naeso-sa is also home to the following: a painting in the temple’s Daeung-bojeon (National Treasure No. 291) which legend says was painted by a bird; Gwaneum-jo, a ‘Gwaebul’ altar painting of Buddha at the Vulture Peak assembly (National Treasure No. 1268) and exquisite wooden lattice-work doors with hand-carved designs of lotuses and peony blossoms. Centuries of wind and rain have stripped away whatever paint may once have decorated these doors, but, to me, the exposed wood grain now visible is even more beautiful.

Ancient lotus and peony lattice-work doors; carved peonies on the left, carved lotuses on the right

Naeso-sa’s bell pavilion and bronze bell (left); the Buddha of Goryeo bronze bell (right)

In addition to the tangible treasures found here, the temple is located near Byunsan Peninsula National Park where one can enjoy magnificent views of both the sea and the mountains. The fir forest of Naeso-sa Temple is considered a unique ‘living heritage site.’  The following are some of the activities one can experience at a Naeso-sa templestay program: ‘meditation’, ‘hiking’, ‘becoming one with nature’, ‘emptying of self’ and etc. Many of these activities take place in the forest. Unlike other Korean temples, Naeso-sa tries to make extensive use of the forest as a venue for its templestay program. I, for one, am highly supportive of this approach. A templestay program at Naeso-sa gives city dwellers the rare opportunity to enjoy the beauty and the revitalizing qualities of nature, things they rarely experience at home. These programs also bring together men and women of all ages and from all walks of life to learn about Buddhist cuisine, culture and their approach to life.

Casting Off Worldly Cares

I first sought out Naeso-sa’s abbot to learn about the history of the temple’s fir tree forest; unfortunately, he was unavailable. Instead, I talked to a resident monk named Jinho who enlightened me on the forest’s history.

Ven. Jinho informed me that about 150 years ago, near the end of the Joseon dynasty, the temple’s monks planted fast-growing fir trees along the path that led from the temple’s One Pillar Gate to the Gate of the Four Guardians because the path looked so desolate and barren.  Even though the temple was damaged in the Korean war, the fir tree forest survived relatively unscathed. 

Over the years the monks did what they could to maintain and preserve the temple’s fir trees, but there were many times when survival was a much higher priority. Today however, preserving the forest is also a top priority. Could the monks of 150 years ago even have imagined that the trees they were planting would still be standing today? In Buddhist thought, one should leave behind all worldly cares when one passes through the Iljumun Gate (the first gate to a temple). You have to do that before you enter the temple, the realm of the Buddha. If you bring any residual cares through that gate, the path through the forest will help you get rid of the rest of them before you reach the second gate. 

The maple forest as seen from the Four Guardians’ Gate

Pine tree forest surrounding Naeso-sa

To me, the fragrance of the fir forest in winter is more appealing than in summer. In addition, watching the morning sunlight slanting through the forest on a foggy day is not unfamiliar to me. It gives me a secret pleasure that only monks doing walking meditation in the early morning might experience. I have had similar experiences walking through the forest near Woljeong-sa Temple in Gangwon-do Province.

Pine Trees in the Cemetary

In addition to all the other trees at Naeso-sa, visitors need to be mindful of the pine trees near the temple’s stupa field (an area having many stupas in which the remains of deceased monks are enshrined). During the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, the Byunsan area was a pine tree conservation zone that was strictly managed by the royal court. The pine forests along the national highway to Naeso-sa Temple are descendants of that time. The tall, straight pine trees found in this area were cultivated to be used in construction and are quite different from the smaller, twisted pine trees often seen in central or southern South Korea. 

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