A Messenger of Spring The Camellia Forest of Baengnyeon-sa Temple __ Chun Young-woo

The Ecological Environment of Korea’s Buddhist Temples

A Messenger of Spring
The Camellia Forest of
Baengnyeon-sa Temple

Chun Young-woo | Dendrologist


▲ A panoramic view of Baengnyeon-sa embraced by the camellia forest,

Natural Monument No. 151


▲ The camellia forest at the entry to Baengnyeon-sa Temple


The camellia flower, which blooms sometime between winter and spring, is a harbinger of spring. The next messenger of spring is the plum blossom, loved as one of Korea’s “three friends” in the cold of winter. The camellia flowers of  Baengnyeon-sa Temple bloom first, before any other flowers in Korea. They seem to send a message northward to the other plum blossoms of Korea telling them it’s time to bloom, to the plum blossoms near the Hall without Sorrow at Seonam-sa in Suncheon, to the plum blossoms of Hwaeom-sa Temple in Gurye, and to the plum blossoms known as “Gobulmae” located at Baegyang-sa Temple in Jangseong. At this time of year, spring blooms all across the southern provinces.

After parking my car in Baengnyeonsa’s parking lot, I walked through a virtual tunnel of camellia trees. There are six camellia forests designated as natural monuments throughout the country, and other temples also have camellia forests, but Baengnyeon-sa is the only temple whose camellia forest is located at the temple entrance.



▲ Baengnyeon-sa’s Main Buddha Hall.

Writings on the door plaque were written by Wongyo Lee Gwang-sa (1705~1777).

The chirping of a white-eye became progressively faster. The bird is busy, flapping its wings to move from one tree to the next. The sight of its lapping up nectar with its beak deep in a camellia flower is impressive. As the bird flaps its wings vigorously, flying from one flower to another, the camellia flowers fall by ones and twos. The camellia flowers covering the forest floor are the result of the white-eye’s vibrant activity, and they confirm again and again that we are in the forest of a different temple, not the pine groves or spruce forests we are accustomed to.

I first directed my steps toward the camellia forest that sheltered the circular monks’ stupas containing the remains of past monks, home to some 1,500 camellia trees ranging 6-7 meters in height. There was an abundance of fallen camellia flowers on the forest floor. Who can say that faded and fallen flowers are not beautiful? I felt uncomfortable stepping on them, so I walked cautiously. I dimly remembered that a camellia flower means “humble beauty” in the language of flowers.


▲ Baengnyeon-sa Monument, containing historical records,

was erected by Preceptor Tan-gi (1681). Its turtle shape is unusual.


▲ A scroll painting of the mountain spirit at the Three Sages Shrine

(produced in 1921). The pine trees and the tiger were

drawn in an old style as in folk paintings.


▲ Sitting Buddhas of the three ages. Sakyamuni Buddha symbolizes the present
Buddha; Medicine Buddha, the past Buddha; and Amitabha Buddha, the future Buddha.


Although sheltered in the dark camellia forest, these monks’ stupas might be the most content of all monks’ stupas. Adorned by falling flowers for two or three months in the winter, when most things hibernate, they could not appear more luxurious. At old temples throughout the country there are always monk’s stupa sites, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there are any monks’ stupas more  cherished by visitors than those of Baengnyeon-sa. Probably not, because the camellia forest, where red flowers bloom from midwinter to early spring, attracts countless visitors.

The “Tea Friendship” of Zen Master
Hyejang and the Great Scholar Dasan

Before anything else, the expansive tea plantation near the lower boundary of the camellia forest caught my eye as I visited Baengnyeon-sa for the first time in six years. Through the social intercourse between Zen Master Hyejang (1772~1811) of Baengnyeon-sa and Dasan Jeong Yak-yong (1762~ 1836), the tea in this town, especially that of Baengnyeon-sa’s tea plantation, has been well known for the past 200 years.


▲ Baengnyeon-sa’s camellia forest and pagoda


▲ Baengnyeon-sa’s tea plantation, located downhill
from the camellia forest

There is a story about how Jeong Yak-yong came to have the pen name “Dasan” (meaning “tea mountain”). It is said that the name was bestowed on him by the local villagers who didn’t know what else to call the exiled Jeong Yakyong, and so they came to call him “Dasan,” he being the teacher who lived on Mt. Mandeok-san where there were many tea plants. The most famous story among many about Baengnyeon-sa’s tea plants is related to the poem “Geolmyeongso,” the poem in which Dasan beseeched Hyejang to send him some tea. Geolmyeongso is a poetic letter written in the winter of 1805 in which Dasan told Hyejang how much he loved tea and earnestly asked the Zen Master to send him some. It is known as a classic among tea enthusiasts.



“Nowadays, longing for tea, I drink tea as medicine. … When the morning sun is about to shine, or when drifting clouds form in the blue sky, or when I just awaken from an afternoon nap, or when the bright moon throws a full light  on the surface of a brook, I think it would be a good time to drink tea. Boiling tea water flies up like small beads or blowing snow, and it is as if the aroma of tea flutters. … Now as I have been sick, I want to convey my wish to beg for tea. … Please consider my deep yearning and do me the favor of giving me some tea.”

Likewise, Baengnyeon-sa and tea are inseparably connected. Where did Baengnyeon-sa’s tea come from? One piece of Baengnyeon-sa lore says that tea plants once grew in the camellia forest. Ven. Ildam, who is now in charge of the temple’s general affairs, says that twenty years ago tea plants grew alongside the camphor trees and silver magnolias, but regrettably, they have all recently disappeared. That’s why Baengnyeon-sa looks after the tea plantation and runs the Baengnyeon Tea House to promote tea culture.

One Pine Forest that Offers Insight into
Joseon Dynasty Forestry Management

From a dendrologist’s standpoint, I cannot overlook Baengnyeon-sa’s pine forest. That is because Baengnyeon-sa’s pine forest is a living environment that gives us a sense of the forestry system of 200 years ago in the Joseon Dynasty, as described in Dasan Jeong Yak-yong’s poem “A Buddhist Monk Uprooting Pine Trees.” I cannot present it here in its entirety, but here is a portion of it:

“On Seongneum-bong Peak, west of Baengnyeon-sa, a certain monk was walking here and there uprooting all the young pine seedlings. When he was asked why he was doing that, he said he had been assigned to guard the pine forest that stretched from the naval base up to Baengnyeon-sa against tree poachers. One day, a policeman from the naval base accused him of stealing some pine trees, even though they were actually knocked down by the wind. After a great deal of hardship and laying out a lot of money, he was exonerated. Now he was digging up all the young pine trees on and around Mt. Mandeok-san lest he should be falsely charged again.”

Dasan’s poem also mentions the fact that Mt. Mandeok-san was off limits to logging by commoners as national policy. It was managed by the naval base, and the quality pine trees there supplied lumber for ship-building. So we can see that in the early 1800s, the government still had a policy of preserving pine trees.

Where did the quality native pine trees of Mt. Mandeok-san disappear to? They disappeared due to indiscriminate lumbering, disease and insects, and the uncontrolled spread of broad-leaved trees. There are a few old-growth pine trees left in the pine forest near Haewol-ru Pavilion, located at the summit of the hill facing Dasan’s Chodang (thatched cottage). In such a manner, old temple forests change over the years. Even forests cannot escape the fate  inherent in the proposition, “There is nothing that does not change.”

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