Weekend Zen in Jogyesan Regional Park, South Korea
A weekend of relaxation and contemplation is just 3 hours away on the KTX high speed Jeolla line from Seoul to Suncheon. This two day itinerary is zero stress! Buy your train ticket, hop on at Seoul Station, sit back and enjoy the 200 mph ride to South Jeolla Province. We're headed to Jogyesan Regional Park, just outside the friendly little city of Suncheon. Activities include deeply inhaling the sweet smell of pine, listening to the entrancing sway of bamboo, sipping green tea, and embracing silence.
Day 1: Seonam Temple (서남사)
We took this trip in early April, just as spring was budding but before the crowds flock to see full blooms. The temperature was mild. We disembarked at Suncheon Station and hailed a taxi. Driving through Suncheon is delightful! The charming city is a little old-fashioned, but clean and spacious, with colorful parks and a friendly feel. Our driver chatted the entire 50 minute drive to the entrance of Seonam Temple in Jogyesan Park. We arrived at the thousand year old temple (built around AD 800) just after 1:00 p.m. After paying a small $2 fee, the park guide escorted us along the dirt road to the temple, providing a steady flow of useful commentary.
The first striking feature of this temple is the Seungseon stone bridge (승선교), which was built in 1713. The reflection of the arch in the water forms a full circle. With Gangseonru Pavilion (강선루) framed within and a dragon head protruding from the arch apex, it's a stunning view. Continuing along the trail, past the pavilion, multiple streams on either side fill the air with the harmonious sound of rushing water. By the time we arrive at Samindang (삼인당) pond, stress has leapt into the streams and flows towards some distant bay. With its oval shape and the round evergreen island in the middle, Samindang represents Buddhist ideals "Everything changes and there is no being. When people realize it, they enter nirvana."
The dirt path from the park entrance to Ilju Gate (일주문) is about one mile. As we pass through the gate, we are supposed to dismiss our worldly desires as we enter Seonamsa. Fun fact and point of contemplation: Seonam Temple belongs to the Taego Order of Buddhism, which permits monks to marry. This is in contrast to the Jogye Order, which requires monks to be celibate. Which is correct? <Answer: "Just like that.">
We shared the temple with just a handful of hikers, a few temple-stay guests, and several monks. There was no reason to hurry, so we took our time exploring each hall. We sat at the feet of the ten judges, closed our eyes in quiet appreciation in the great hall, lit an incense stick, explored the hall of eight pictures depicting the stages of Buddha's life, and absorbed the tranquil sound of a monk chanting in rhythm with his wooden moktak.
Just after 5:00 p.m., we were about to leave when we were treated to an unexpected concert. The meaning behind the "awakening call" is described here. Spectacular!
With the sun setting and the air becoming cooler, we walked back down the dirt road to the little tourist village near the entrance gate. One inn was receiving guests in the off-season. The owner of the Garden Inn (초원장 식당) cooked us a hot meal and we retired for the evening in our cedar-lined room with the warm cozy bed.
Taxi vs. City Bus: The taxi fare from Suncheon to the Seonam Template entrance (50 minute drive) was about $30, which I thought was reasonable until the park guide told us the Suncheon city bus was just $2 per person. We took the local bus on our return trip from Jogye Park, which took about 1.5 hours due to the number of stops. Your choice!
Day 2: Suncheon Wild Tea House, Bulil Am, and Songgwang Temple
Beopjeong Sunim Quote: "There are four inherent attributes to tea: peace, respect, purity, and quiet. In drinking tea, these qualities should be cultivated in the drinker. Drinking tea gladdens the mind. The taste of the tea is the taste of the universe, because it is produced entirely through natural sunlight, water, wind, clouds, and air."
The Seonam area of Jogyesan Park has miles of wild tea fields, with plants that are hundreds of years old. The monks in the region tend to and harvest the leaves, which have a sweet, strong fragrance. Suncheon Wild Tea house is an experiential museum, just a short walk along the dirt road beyond the park entrance area. The morning air was cool and carried the quiet rustle of pine trees and swaying bamboo. Entering the complex, we spent a few minutes playing traditional folk games outside and then wandered into the main courtyard. Upon entering the tea house, a Buddhist nun allowed us to choose our own table. A monk was seated at a nearby table with two guests, softly chatting.
A woman entered with a serving tray and arranged a variety of white bowls, saucers, and other items on the table. Then she began explaining how to make green tea. Prior to this experience, I had never been a raving fan of green tea; I thought the taste was rather bitter. After learning the proper way to make green tea, I developed a whole new appreciation.
The key to a smooth, mellow, fragrant taste is water temperature. Heat the water to just 140 degrees (rather than boiling). Scoop a generous amount of leaves into a small teapot, pour the hot water over the leaves, and then immediately pour into small heated tea cups, a little at a time in each cup to ensure the taste is evenly distributed as the flavor continues to infuse the water. Empty the contents of the tea pot and then sip the warm tea slowly. After enjoying the cup of tea, start the process all over again with a fresh batch of tea leaves. Preparing the tea is a bit of a ritual and we enjoyed serving each other in a thoughtful, slow manner, nibbling tiny pressed honey cakes.
Monks, nuns, and other attendants operate the tea house. There is a gift shop on premise and a kitchen where they dry and roast fresh leaves and make tea cookies. Our guided tea tasting was about $10/per person.
We called a taxi to pick us up at the entrance and drove about 30 minutes to the region's other famous temple Songgwangsa, or "Spreading Pine Temple". Another option is to hike the approximately 6 mile distance between the two temples. Similar to the entrance of Seonamsa, there is a little tourist village at Songgwangsa, with shops, restaurants, and the local bus depot. We paid another small entrance fee and began walking along the dirt road towards the temple. Rather than walking straight to the temple, we took a sharp left (and UP, very much UP). The wide road became a narrow path through a bamboo forest.
The path led to Bulil Am, the hermitage of Beopjeong Sunim (법정수님 1932-2010). Beopjeong Sunim wrote dozens of books and was most famous for his teachings on non-possession. "The goal of humanity must not be to affluently possess, but to abundantly exist." This self-sustaining retreat on the top of a mountain has become my "mental happy place" - when I need a moment to calm a racing mind or temper a strong emotion, I picture Bulil Am. In early April, we had this place of solitude all to ourselves, with the exception of a couple of monks. Signs remind visitors to speak quietly (if at all). * Peaceful. *
With minds emptied and clear, we continued along the bamboo forest trail about another quarter mile to Songgwang Temple. Songgwangsa is considered one of three "jewels" of Korean Buddhism. Founded in 867, it remains one of the oldest active Zen teaching and Son meditation centers in Korea. The temple complex and buildings are spacious, accommodating the scores of foreigners who come here to experience and practice Zen living. Indeed, there is a large wooden bowl the size of a small boat with a sign boasting that the temple needed to carve a container this large to capture all the rice donations from visitors in its heyday. Monks here are of the Jogye Order, in contrast to the monks of Seonamsa's Taego Order... the bragging rice bowl hints at the competition between the two sects!
The striking feature of this temple (in my humble opinion) is the panel paintings on the buildings, which are particularly well-drawn and depict well-known and meaningful Buddhist stories, such as the story of Wonhyo and the skull and an eight-series panel on the steps to Enlightenment. There are two theories of how to attain enlightenment in Korean Buddhism. Chinul Sunim, an early founder of Songgwangsa, believed the path to enlightenment was gradual and attained through disciplined practice depicted on these panels (read right to left). Contrast this with the teachings of Songch'ol Sunim of Haein Temple, who believed in an "abrupt awakening". Again, I ask "Which is correct?" <Answer: "Just like that.">
After a few hours of exploring the temple, we caught the local city bus to the train depot in Suncheon. About an hour into our return trip to Seoul, we hopped off the train in Jeonju to have bibimbap (비빔밥) for dinner. Jeonju bibimbap is famous for having nine to fifteen different mountain vegetables in its mixed rice dish, with an emphasis on yin and yang principles for harmony and visual appearance. It is delicious and worth the stop, when passing through! We caught a later train and returned to Seoul around 9:00 in the evening, feeling physically, spiritually, and mentally full.