The Ecology of Korean Buddhist Temples │ Korean Nutmeg Forest at Baegyangsa Temple Cultivated with Love for the People __ Chun Yeong-woo

Korean Nutmeg Forest at Baegyangsa Temple,
Cultivated with Love for the People

Chun Yeong-woo | Dendrologist

Baegyangsa Temple seen from Baekhak peak

The dignity of a temple is represented not only by its preservation of cultural heritages and the residence of eminent monks, but also by its cultivation of natural heritages. In particular, the vegetation around a temple can be considered “living cultural heritage” as they console and heal our hearts with the scents and colors of their flowers and leaves. However, today’s superficial world doesn’t readily allow us to see with a cultured eye or leisurely calm to appreciate the precious value of these living cultural heritages as our ancestors.

A Habitat Cultivated by Human Effort

At Baegyangsa Temple the most treasured trees are the “Gobulmae (Ancient Buddha Plum),” Asian fringe trees and white oaks. Since most of Baegyangsa’s cherished cultural heritages were lost in the ravages of war, these trees, as well as the bija tree or Korean nutmeg (T. nucifera) forest, are a natural heritage that silently attests to the temple’s stature.

In terms of vegetation, the foremost pride of Baegyangsa Temple is its Korean nutmeg forest that is home to over 5,000 trees, a unique sight to behold.

Baegyangsa’s nutmeg trees are said to have been first planted by National Preceptor Gakjin at the end of the Goryeo era. He also contributed greatly to the temple’s third reconstruction. Thus, the nutmeg trees growing in the Baegyangsa temple compound and on the slopes of Mt. Naejangsan cannot be considered purely natural; they were cultivated by human effort.

Bija trees or Korean nutmeg trees grow at various temples along the coastal area of southwestern Korea, including Baegyangsa and Naejangsa Temples. Other nutmeg forests are the Bijarim Forest at Geumtapsa Temple in Goheung (Natural Monument No. 239) and Bijarim Forest at Borimsa Temple in Jangheung. This forest has 239 nutmeg trees over 100 years old that provide a “forest bathing trail” to visitors. “Forest bathing trail” is a term used in Korea that implies one can cleanse themselves by taking a walk in the forest. There are also nutmeg trees at Seonunsa Temple in Gochang, Bulgapsa Temple in Yeonggwang, Guamsa Temple ruins on Jindo Island and Baengnyeonsa Temple in Gangjin.

Nutmeg, a Natural Intestinal Parasiticide 

What is the relationship between temples and nutmeg trees? The answer might be found in the medicinal value of nutmeg. Nutmeg is a very effective anti-parasitic medicine which is mentioned in at least one prescription from the Joseon era. The prescription says to take seven nutmeg kernels a day for seven days. In the case of Baegyangsa, it opened its nutmeg forest to local farmers until the 1970s so they could make money selling it as an anti-parasitic cure, a story still passed on today.

Vegetation and bija trees covering the forest floor behind Gobul Seon Center

Nutmeg was regarded as a special product even long ago. The Goryeosa (History of the Goryeo Dynasty) records that the state of Tamna (today’s Jeju Island) offered a tribute payment of nutmeg to the royal court, and the Sejong sillok jiriji (Geographical Appendix to the Annals of King Sejong) records that nutmeg and wooden planks were included in the tribute from Jeju. In addition, a Chinese poem by Dasan tells the story of Baengnyeonsa Temple which was ordered to harvest nutmeg and offer them to a local government office. From this we can tell that the royal court of Joseon Dynasty had temples grow nutmeg trees to secure a parasiticide, and the traces of these forest are still found at some coastal temples.

1. Gobulmae (“Ancient Buddha Plum”; Natural Monument No. 486) blossoms at the corner of Uhwaru Pavilion
2. A 700-year-old white oak tree near Banwol Bridge resembles a baobab tree
3. Asian fringe trees fully blossomed in white by the pond in front of Ssanggyeru Pavilion. Legend says it originated from the staff of National Preceptor Gakjin.

Of the many stories related to Baegyangsa, one is the proverb saying “Mountains are represented by Mt. Naejangsan and temples by Baegyangsa.” In the Honam region of southwest Korea, there may be many grounds to think of Baegyangsa as the foremost temple and Mt. Naejangsan as the foremost mountain. However, the primary reason is probably that Naejangsa Temple was once a branch temple of Baegyangsa which is also supported by Naejangsan National Park.

Buddha’s Teaching from a Tree and Temple Forests

The scenic beauty of Baegyangsa is often condensed in the phrase, “Baegyangsa in spring, Naejangsan in fall.” Considering that up to 30,000 tourists a day swarm to Naejangsan every year to enjoy the fall foliage, touting “Baegyangsa in spring” may sound a little off the mark. However, it is still said by many because the spring scenery at Baegyangsa is considered no less beautiful than its fall scenery.

To enjoy the distinctive beauty of Baegyangsa in spring, I visited the temple in early April when the “Gobulmae” tree was in peak bloom, and again in mid-May when the Asian fringe trees opened their blossoms. Designated Natural Monument No. 486, Gobulmae is a 300-year-old plum tree with magenta blossoms. Due to its brilliant petals and subtle fragrance, it has been loved and admired for centuries. Originally it stood in the front courtyard of the old Baegyangsa site, 100 m north of its current location, but it was moved when the temple was relocated in 1863. I once circled and admired that old plum tree for half a day next to Uhwaru Pavilion, the pavilion taking its name from an event in the Buddha’s life wherein flower petals rained down upon him as he taught. I can never forget the tree’s gentle fragrance that day.

I had a similar experience watching the Asian fringe tree blooming by the pond in front of Ssanggyeru Pavilion. Its tens of thousands of pure white blossoms all blooming together seemed to cleanse my mind, and I felt immensely grateful to be there and enjoy such beauty by tuning in to the natural world. The Asian fringe tree is called “ipam-namu” in Korean, a name describing how its small white flowers cover the whole tree, resembling a mound of steamed rice in a bowl. One legend says this particular Asian fringe tree grew from the staff of National Preceptor Gakjin when he stuck it into the ground. I wonder if its name reflects the desire of tree-worshipping commoners who longed to fill their stomachs just by looking at the tree’s flowers.

I rediscover clarity of mind and generosity of heart from absorbing the fragrance and colors radiated by trees and forests. Isn’t that the world of happiness we want to pursue? That is why I contend that even a tree or a patch of forest cared for by a temple is equivalent to the Buddha’s teachings that lead us toward a life of clarity and fragrance.

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