The Pine Forest of Yongjusa Temple
Infused with the Filial Piety of King Jeongjo
Chun Yeong-woo | Forest Scientist
The Pines Lining the Approach to Yongjusa are like the Compassionate Hands of Parents
The approach to Yongjusa cuts through a pine forest that exudes warmth and affection. Unlike the pine tree-lined approaches to other temples nestled in the foothills of large mountains, I can walk to the temple compound along this path without stopping to rest. I pass the Gate of Four Heavenly Kings and continue along the path to the “Three-Bay Gate,” a gate unique to Yongjusa. The forest is neither a barrier that divides the sacred from the mundane nor a site of purification where visitors shed the dirt of the secular world. Rather it feels like I’m walking through a realm of intimacy and warmth; the atmosphere is comforting and familiar. It is as if the compassionate hands of my parents are reassuring me.
Yongjusa was established by King Jeongjo to guard the royal tomb of his father, Crown Prince Sado, when he moved the grave from its original location on Mt. Baebongsan in Yangju, Gyeonggi-do, to Yungneung on Mt. Hwasan. Thus, Yongjusa is a memorial to the love and filial piety of King Jeongjo toward his father.
As a forest scientist, what most piques my interest is the story, still passed down at the temple, that the pine trees at Yongjusa and around the royal tombs have notbeen damaged by pine caterpillars, supposedly due to the rage of King Jeongjo. The story says that one summer day, after paying his respects and walking around his father’s tomb, called Yungneung, King Jeongjo spotted a pine caterpillar nibbling on some pine needles. Regarding even this trivial creature as being disrespectful toward his father, who had been put to death based on slanderous remarks from certain government ministers, the king became enraged and crushed the caterpillar between his teeth. This bizarre act by the king motivated his attendants to rush into the forest and remove all the pine caterpillars in the forest.
This act of King Jeongjo in defense of his father’s honor is also reflected in his instructions to an official to plant pine trees to cover the area from Jijidae Pass in Suwon to the old pine forest near the tomb, for which the king himself donated 1,000 nyang of money. By planting so many pine trees around the tomb, the king wanted to preserve the sanctity and life force around his father’s tomb on Mt. Hwasan, and also to provide the city of Hwaseong with robust energy, a city he designed and commanded to be built and which he controlled.
Having heard this story, I can no longer look casually at the old crooked pines around Yongjusa Temple; instead I see them as a living heritage given by a king in mourning for his father.
Yongjusa, a Living Witness to King Jeongjo’s Filial Piety
King Jeongjo made the decision to establish Yongjusa Temple after hearing Ven. Bogyeong teach the Parental Benevolence Sutra, a sutra encouraging everyone to repay the ten great kindnesses one receives from their parents. It is only natural then that the Filial Piety Museum at Yongjusa displays the printing woodblocks for the Parental Benevolence Sutra, a gift from King Jeongjo. Yongjusa’s website explains the content of the Parental Benevolence Sutra as follows.
“Buddhism says that one receives ten types of kindnesses from their parents. First, the kindness of bearing and protecting the unborn child; second, the kindness of enduring the pain of childbirth; third, the kindness of feeling relief after the child is born; fourth, the kindness of feeding the child the best food and eating substandard food themselves; fifth, the kindness of providing the child with clean dry bedding; sixth, the kindness of nursing the child; seventh, the kindness of keeping the child clean; eighth, the kindness of worrying when the child goes on a long journey; ninth, the kindness to dare to do bad things to provide for the child; and tenth, the kindness to love with compassion till the end.”
There is more evidence to support Yongjusa’s reputation as the “Temple of Filial Piety.” After passing through the Three-Bay Gate, which is architecturally unique among temples, one sees Cheonboru Pavilion. On a plaque affixed to one of its pillars is the following verse, an expression of parental kindness.
A 100-year-old mother / worries about her 80-year-old son.
When does such love and kindness end? / Only after she passes away.
The Trees and I Are One
Another subject of interest for me, as a student of trees and forests, is the boxwood tree said to have been planted by King Jeongjo. Situated left of the stairs leading to the Main Buddha Hall, this boxwood tree is withered and dead now, much to my disappointment. It is sad for me to see it die after having flourished for over 200 years, especially since it had been touched by the hand of King Jeongjo.
Looking at the boxwood tree, a legacy from King Jeongjo, it occurs to me that those who want to commemorate parental kindness and reconnect with their parents’ memory in May, a month of flowering and rebirth, should visit temples their parents frequented. This idea originates from the thought that old trees at a temple most likely watched over our parents when they visited a temple. Perhaps our parents looked at the trees with loving eyes or even sat under them to rest. The trees grew, nourished by the carbon dioxide our parents exhaled, and the oxygen they provide is breathed in by us as we walk around the temple. It is one way for us to reclaim a part of our parents’ essence on some esoteric level.
My argument that spending a few hours around these old trees is a way of reconnecting with our parents is based on this simple truth. It is based on my awareness that the trees and I are one; we are not separate entities. When this awareness becomes deep enough, and when I extend it to all other life forms, I may reach the realization that all things in this universe are interconnected like the threads in a tapestry.
Ven. Wolju, a former president of the Jogye Order, said something very similar: “The Buddha taught that both sentient beings, like humans and animals, and insentient beings, like rocks or soil, have Buddha nature. Thus, Buddhism regards both sentient and insentient beings as one life. In other words, the myriad of phenomena and all things are one.”
I asked Ven. Jeongho, abbot of Yongjusa, about the relationship between Yongjusa Temple and the Yunggeonneung Tombs from today’s perspective. He said that because the tombs are protected as a cultural heritage, Yongjusa should move away from its traditional role of protecting the tombs and concentrate more on educating the public about filial piety. He wants to guide the temple to become a living education center for filial piety culture. I was also glad to hear that he is trying to persuade the Gyeonggi-do provincial government to build a filial piety cultural center instead of the Korea Land & Housing Corporation’s plan to build a large housing complex in the zone between Yongjusa and the Yunggeonneung Tombs, which would completely disregard the 200-year-old relationship between them. I offer a fervent prayer that King Jeongjo’s foresight to move his father’s grave to Mt. Hwasan may assist the abbot’s aspiration to revive Yongjusa as a cradle of filial piety.
Chun Yeong-woo received his Ph.D. in forest biology from Iowa State University and is currently a professor at the School of Forest Resources, Kookmin University. As his alias “Dr. Pine” suggests, he wants to educate the public on the value and beauty of Korea’s indigenous pine trees, which are gradually vanishing. In February 2004, he organized the Pine Breeze Society, along with other people involved in culture and art, and has operated the “pine tree love campaign” since then. His Korean publications include Forests and Korean Culture and Indigenous Pine Trees Koreans Must Know.