The Forest of Songgwang-sa Temple, Historically Protected by Royal Decree__Chun Young-woo

The Forest of Songgwang-sa Temple,
Historically Protected by Royal Decree
Chun Young-woo | Dendrologist
▲ Forest path through the woods surrounding Songgwang-sa
As I stepped onto the forest path leading to Songgwang-sa Temple, the verdant surroundings greeted me with unpretentious geniality. It was pleasantly unexpected because previously I had been subdued by the awe-inspiring forest surrounding Tongdo-sa Temple, a ‘Buddha-jewel temple,’ meaning that a relic of the Sakyamuni Buddha is enshrined there. And I also recalled that while visiting the Dharma-jewel temple of Haein-sa, home of the Tripitaka Koreana, I had felt compelled to bow humbly to its dignified majesty. Perhaps the air of geniality I felt here was because Songgwang-sa is a Sangha-jewel temple where monks of present and future generations are being trained, whose warmheartedness infuses even the trees around it?
Geungnak-gyo, or the Paradise Bridge, marking the beginning of the forest path to Songgwang-sa, sits astride the stream flowing down the valley from Mt. Jogye, gushing merrily beside the temple grounds. Interestingly, a dainty pavilion called Cheongnyang-gak straddles this stone bridge. ‘Paradise’ in the Buddhist tradition refers to the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, a utopian world free of all suffering and pain, while Cheongnyang means a pure and clear state. Therefore, the act of crossing the bridge and passing through the pavilion symbolically signifies  washing off the stain of delusion and the taint of affliction, the first rite of passage before entering the Buddha Land.
▲ Geungnak-gyo and Cheongnyanggak viewed from the forest path
▲ Neungheo-gyo and Uhwa-gak, two main symbols of Songgwang-sa
The thickly wooded mountain road splits after the bridge into a foot path on the left and a car lane on the right, separated by the stream flowing under Geungnak-gyo. Take either fork and you still meander through the dense foliage all the way to the Single Pillar Gate, or the One Pillar Gate.
▲ Juniper trees connected to the legend of National Preceptor Bojo and his walking stick
▲ The Main Buddha Hall and Seungbo-jeon at Songgwang-sa
After the Single Pillar Gate, the faithful who wish to enter the temple proper must cross the stream again via Neungheo-gyo and Uhwa-gak, and while doing so, they are introduced to the most splendid natural beauty Songgwang-sa has to offer. The word ‘Uhwa’ originated from Chibifu, or The Red Cliffs, a poem written by Su Shi, one of the most esteemed Chinese poets of the Song Dynasty. This term means that ‘the body and mind become as light and airy as feathers, like a sinseon (an enlightened sage who achieves spiritual immortality).’ It teaches us that clarity and purity of mind are prerequisites to entering the Buddha Land.
▲ Wooden tablet delegating Songgwang-sa with
the duty to manage the royally designated chestnut and pine groves
▲ Copy of the Chapter on Forestry (left) and the table of contents (middle)
from Jogyesansonggwangsa sago; Pine and chestnut forest,
designated for charcoal and tablet production respectively by the Joseon
court, as recorded in the Chapter on Forestry (right)
▲ Bisari gusi, a gigantic trough-shaped rice
container used by Buddhist monastics, one
of Songgwang-sa’s three treasures
All ancient temples of some renown boast one or two tales involving a walking stick, and Songgwang-sa is no exception. One such tale features a gnarled dead tree stump that still remains between Uhwa-gak and Seowol-gak. The legend says that one day, National Preceptor Bojo (1158-1210) thrust his walking stick into the ground, and it was transformed into a lush juniper tree. When he passed away, the juniper dried up and died too. Most people visiting Songgwang-sa do not even notice the gnarled stump, but the monks think the world of this desiccated juniper and cherish it. That is because some believe that when the tree comes back to life, National Preceptor Bojo will also be reincarnated and return to the temple.
Perhaps the most famous of walking stick fables at Songgwang-sa involves the pair of juniper trees standing side by side near Cheonja-am Hermitage, a branch temple of Songgwang-sa.
These trees with dramatically contorted trunks are over 800 years old and have been designated Natural Monument No. 88. According to the legend, National Preceptors Bojo and Damdang, Bojo’s attendant at the time, stuck their juniper walking canes into the ground here after they returned from China. Afterward, they came alive and flourished into their current shapes of impressively twisted contours. Tree worship, or dendrolatry, was widespread across many ancient cultures, both in the East and West. Legends about juniper walking sticks are convincing evidence of indigenous beliefs being grafted into the relatively new, younger religion of Buddhism.
▲ Single Pillar Gate
▲ A forest path
Songgwang-sa, besides being one of the three temples traditionally called jewel temples, is also famous for its collection of precious Buddhist relics and artifacts. Some of them are: a miniature wooden chamber enshrining a Buddha triad (National Treasure No. 42), a decree bestowing the title of Grand Seon Master on National Preceptor Hyesim (Korean National Treasure No. 43), Guksa-jeon (a hall where the national preceptors are enshrined) (Korean National Treasure No. 56) and a painting illustrating scenes from the Flower Garland Sutra (Korean National Treasure No. 314), to name a few. However, the importance of the Jogyesan-songgwangsa sago, the detailed historical record of the temple, looms large to a student specializing in  forestry. This book contains a chapter on buildings, a chapter on miscellaneous subjects, a chapter on forestry and a chapter on personalities, the last of which was recently translated into modern Korean.
I was deeply moved when Ven. Gogyeong, the director of Songgwang-sa’s Buddhist Treasure Museum, showed me the chapter on forestry. This chapter contains a detailed record of how the forests around Songgwang-sa were designated as royally protected chestnut groves in 1829 (the 29th year of King Sunjo’s reign) and how the temple was delegated the duty of systematically managing the forest and supplying spirit tablets to the Joseon royal court and to influential courtiers and Confucian shrines and schools. It also gives a meticulous account of how, in 1900 (the 4th year of Emperor Gwangmu’s reign), the pine trees in the Mt. Jogye area were to be reserved for producing fragrant charcoal to be supplied to the court.
I also learned by perusing this chapter on forestry that there was an exacting process for making a field survey to assess the value of any potential forest. It involved setting definitive parameters, rules and boundaries if the said forest was found suitable and marking the forest boundary by planting stone markers at the four cardinal points. Ven. Gogyeong added credibility to the accuracy of the chapter, which he said was used to discover and ascertain sites of old woodcraft workshops  and kilns where the chestnut tablets were produced and where charcoal was made. It was a special blessing for me, a student of forestry, who took on this journey of discovering the hidden meanings of ancient Buddhist temples to be able to take pictures of the wooden tablets housed in the Buddhist Treasure Museum and be able to connect them to the designation of forests by royal decree.

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