The Ecology of a Korean’ Buddhist Temple | The Oak Tree Forest of Ssanggye-sa Temple __ Chun Yeong-woo


The Oak Tree Forest of
Ssanggye-sa Temple

Chun Yeong-woo | dendrologist


The temple entrance’s Oak Tree Forest

Old trees can be found in the
forest of near the Illju-mun Gate

We can learn about the relationship between
Ssanggye-sa and tea through the story of the
stupa of Seon Master Jingam (National
Treasure No. 47)


Pansang-jeon Hall’s Yeongsanheosangdo
Painting (National Treasure No.925)

Ssanggye-sa’s first tea farm, located in the Jangjuk-jeon
(長竹田, field of long bamboo)


The foothills of Mt. Jiri-san stretches across Jeollanam-do Province and Gyeongsangnamdo Province and are home to the five cities of Namwon, Gurye,  Sancheong, Hadong, and Hamyang. It is also the home of many temples. One temple is Yeongok-sa Temple that carries the history of Mt. Yulmokbong-san and Daewon-sa Temple is well matched by the broad-leaved forest and valley. Another temple is Beopgye-sa Temple that has the highest elevation of any temple in Korea. There are Hwaeum-sa Temple and Silsang-sa Temple that are more prestigious due to the site of enlightenment of “flower adornment” than any other temple. Of all these temples to choose from, I decided to visit Ssangye-sa for no particular reason. It was because of only human instinct. The beginning  places for climbing the Mt. Jiri-san last 40 years were Daewon-sa Temple and Beopgye-sa Temple but on the way back down from Nogodan Peak I took the path to Ssangye-sa by the way of Seseok-peongjeon (flat ground of mountain) and Daeseong-ri County rather than Hwaeum-sa. One reason I went to Ssangye-sa was because I had read on a news that the Jogye Order and Korea Forest Service had agreed on a new management stategy in 2010 that would include Sudeok-sa, Jikji-sa, Eunhae-sa, Songgwang-sa Temples and the forest of Ssangye-sa in a “Holistic Management Business of Temples Act.”


I first visited the stone gates of Ssangye (雙溪石門). Here visitors can see writings on a large boulder that legend says Master Choi Chi-won wrote with his cane; they are supposedly 1,000 years old. In order to promote convenience and comfort, the road to the temple was paved so that cars could drive up to the stone gates easily.


After one crosses the bridge that stretches across the Naewon Valley, the entrance to the forest appears. Upon reaching a fork in the road, the left road is the old road, and the right road is the new paved road. Naturally, the old road is quieter because there are no cars and less people. The only sound to be heard is the occasional sound of acorns hitting the ground. And amid the quiet, squirrels, chipmunks and other creatures are lurking about. The squirrels are
busy gathering acorns for food, some of which they will bury in preparation for winter. The oak trees are pleased to watch this activity because they know the squirrels won’t remember where all the acorns are, so some on them will grow into the next generation of oaks. The oaks feed the creatures of the forest, and they in turn help the oaks reproduce. Such symbiotic relationships are found throughout nature.


We can see evidence of older larger tree
in the pillar of Cheonghak-ru Pavilion


Jeongsang-tap Paragon dedicated to Master
Hyeneung, the first of the six patriarchs of
the Chan school in the main hall

The stone gates of Ssanggye-sa that retain
the writing of Choi Chi-won

Interestingly, at the entrance of the forest I saw no tea plants. Though there is some controversy on when the first tea plants were brought from China, Seon Master Choui’s book Dongdasòng (東茶頌) states, “Hwagae-dong Village on Mt. Jiri-san has around 40 to 50 ri (1ri=400m) of oak trees, and there are not any larger tea fields in our country,” which shows how Ssangye-sa and tea have had a close relationship for a long time. Seonsam-sa Temple, Baekryeon-sa Temple, Yeongoksa Temple and many other temples can produce many different types of tea, but not Ssanggye-sa. The reason for this is because of the relationship between Ssanggye-sa and the tea can be seen through the 47th National Treasure Meditation Master Jingam stupa at the front yard of the main hall or because around the temple there is a wider tea field nearby. Because of damage done to temples by the Japanese colonization and the Korean War, management of temple forests had to be done carefully. I was disappointed at not seeing a lush forest surrounding Ssanggye-sa; there were only oaks and pines about 50 to 60 year old, and they could only be found arround the temple’s Ilju-mun Gate and stupa field.


Famous mountains and temples were previously always surrounded by great temple forests, but such forests could not escape the exploitation of the Japanese occupation and the ravages of the Korean War. Records of the exploitations of Korea’s natural resources by the Japanese were kept by the Japanese Governor-General of Korea at that time and are now preserved in the National Archives of Korea. The records state that in 1933, 51 ha (hectare) of Ssanggye-sa’s 606 ha of land was deforested.


Starting next year, the forest of 20 Korean temples, including Ssanggye-sa will be managed by the Korea Forest Service. This change will take into account such things as forest and mountain reclamation and even the business aspect of temples. But instead of the government-dominant approach, it will be better to approach more carefully to treat the temples as life and culture heritage. It will be especially important to apply a wise and conservative perspective which appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds temples and the temple culture that preserves precious cultural resources. Most importantly, Buddhists leaders must develop new ways to effectively capitalize on their forest resources in addition to using them as traditional venues for meditation and healing minds afflicted with the disease of materialism. In addition, each temple will need a research and the advice of experts regarding its religious, cultural, and  historical background. We must remember that, like any other forest, a temple forest takes hundreds of years to grow, but they can disappear in the blink of an eye.

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