Tall, spindly trees shade the wide footpaths. Beside the elevated trail, the gentle Seonamsacheon stream flows down from the peak of Mt. Jogye. Centuries-old landmarks are dotted around the woodlands that stretch through the western end of Suncheon’s northern Seungjumyeon district. This is the Mt. Jogyesan Provincial Park. Two Buddhist temples, located on either side of the territory, call the park home. After checking into our accommodations, we headed off to visit Seonamsa, a quiet temple in the forest.
Built on the flatlands underneath Mt. Jogye, the Buddhist temple was first established in 529 for the Taego Order. It is now recognized as one of the head monasteries for this Korean branch of Buddhism. First named Biroam, it wasn’t until the mid-ninth century that the temple was dubbed Seonamsa. Doseon, an influential monk who lived through the fall of the Silla Dynasty, expanded the temple grounds in 861. In the 19th century, the complex was rebuilt after facing damage from the Japanese invasion and a large-scale fire. Many monks used Seonamsa as a place to live out all facets of a traditional life. Here they studiously applied their monastic education, cultivated a tea farm, and cared for apricot trees around the temple grounds that have called Seonamsa home for the past six centuries.
The trail leading towards Seonamsa, the more traditional and simplistically styled of the two Buddhist temples inside the park, offers a series of landmarks that have harmonized with the beauty of the natural environment for hundreds of years. Here are Five Reasons to Follow the Seonamsa Temple Trail:
Traditional Flavours in Soothing Tea
In a similar fashion to Seonamsa Temple, a low wall of clay brick and tile surrounds the perimeter of the Traditional Wild Tea Centre. The Centre is divided into two levels. On the ground floor lies the exhibit hall, where visitors can discover the history of tea, tea pottery, the tea-making process, and the particulars of Suncheon tea. It is here that we taste-tested some of the locally sourced teas. Each had a sharp, distinctive taste, and I finished the testing with a purchase of a packet of dried tealeaves gathered from Mohusil’s mountains and fields. Upstairs, the Tea Ceremonies take place on low tables and soft cushions on the dark wooden balcony. Low railings surround the space, giving an uninterrupted view of the Hanok buildings and surrounding mountains. Tea cookie tastings are a smart accompaniment to the traditional tea ceremony, giving visitors a rounded view of the tastes and traditions that have persevered.
An Otherworldly Bridge
Its name meaning “The Ascending Immortals”, Seungseon Bridge was a passion project for Monk Hoan. Beginning work on the Joseon Era Bridge in 1713, Monk Hoan completed construction in six years. Blending in neatly with the surrounding stream and wispy trees, Seungseon is considered one of Korea’s most picturesque bridges. The stream’s natural bedrock is used as the bridge’s foundation. Trapezoid-shaped stoned have been stacked atop each other with little interest in aesthetics. The walkway was paved with mud and grass. Below it, a sculpted dragon’s head sits underneath the midsection. Following the principles of pungsu-jiri-seol, the dragon’s head faces upstream to ward off evil spirits. Legend claims that removing the head will collapse the bridge. The arch of the bridge offers a clear view of Gangseon pavilion. With its timeless look, Seungseon Bridge is often used as a filming site for movies and television shows.
A Charming Little Pond
A quaint oval shape holds a small island in the middle. The island teems with vegetation, and the pond’s surrounding waters are covered in lily pads. Seonamsa Samindang, “The Pond of the Three Marks”, was created by monk Doseon in 862, a year after his work on the temple. It rests at the foot of the pathway that veers off from the main trail and leads visitors to the temple complex. This pond design is unique to Seonamsa temple. A plaque sits before the pond. On it this Buddhist ideal is carved – “Everything changes and there is no being. When people realize it, they enter nirvana.”
The first gate of Seonamsa temple, the low walls that make up its perimeter are an architectural feature unique for typical Buddhist temple construction. It is known as the “One Pillar Gate”, as its side profile creates the illusion of the gate standing on a single pillar. This *symbolizes the one true path of enlightenment that supports the world. As the border between the Buddhist temple and a human’s worldly life, Iljumun Gate symbolizes ritual purification. A fire consumed the original gate, which was restored in 1540. The Qing invasion of Joseon led to another reconstruction in 1719.
Located in the centre of the temple complex, in Wontongjeon Hall a statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy poses gracefully, giving a serene smile to her worshippers. Built in 1660, this section dedicated to the goddess differs from its counterparts at other Korean Buddhist temples because of its unique design. In Seonamsa, the Wontongjoen Hall has three sections that come together to form a “T” – a large front area with two side sections.
“Wongtong” signifies “juwon-yuntong”, meaning “the truth is omnipresent and passes through everything.” Perhaps King Jeongjo (1752 – 1800) was seeking this truth when he asked Seonamsa’s High Priest Nuram to help pray for a male heir. Nuram dutifully set about his task, spending 100 days praying for the king to receive a son. His prayers were answered, and Prince Sunjo was born. To show his appreciation, the king gifted the temple with a simple and elegant tablet written in his own elegant script.
Whether wanting to enjoy a peaceful stroll, or take in the ancient architecture and the craft of tea making, the trail to Seonamsa Temple is a .