The little temple in the woods, Jeju, South Korea
Chonja-am temple is worth the trek
Story and photos by Marcie Miller
The Yeongshil hermitage rests in the late afternoon light | Credit: Marcie Miller
Looking for a truly unique Buddhist temple experience? Then take a hike. Really. Chonja-am temple is located 1,200 meters above sea level, at the foot of Pollae oreum, and is accessed by foot only from the Yeongsil trail lower parking lot.
After about a 20 minute leisurely uphill stroll through the open forest, the temple suddenly pops out of the trees, an imposing structure built and decorated in the classic Chosun period style.
The peaceful temple in the woods is a hermitage, occupied by a sole monk who is tasked with living there for “1,000 days of prayer.” In all that time Seon monk Ji-hong Sunim will not leave the temple grounds. He arrived in October and spends his days in various forms of meditation, but heartily welcomes guests.
|Monk Ji-hong (left) chats over tea with Ko Young-ja
Photo courtesy: Ko Young-ja
On a recent trip a group of nine visitors trod the snow-covered trail to reach the temple, where the grey-clad monk greeted them with a steaming pot of tea. Over many, many cups of tea he talked, through interpreter Ko Young-ja, about his life as a monk, and imparted bits of Buddhist teachings.
While mindfully pouring tea he told the guests of the five foods that should be avoided, as they stimulate desire (garlic was among them), and that thoughts can affect you negatively, even if they are not expressed.
The serene site consists of the main temple, a smaller building in the same style that serves as the reception house and several utilitarian buildings such as the dining room.
Chonja-am is listed as Jeju Monument No. 43, and is also the site of Jeju Tangible Cultural Asset No. 17, the Se-jon-sa-ri-top stupa.
The stone stupa, set on an octagonal base, is a remnant of the original temple, which was built in the late Koryo or earlier Chosun period, in the late 14th century. It is thought to be the site of the first Buddhist temple on Jeju-do.
The temple site fell into disuse until the early 1990s, when excavation work uncovered remnants of the original building foundation, shards of pottery and the stupa. The current buildings were built on the original site.
|Intricate patterns adorn the structure
Credit: Marcie Miller
Visitors are free to walk around the grounds, breathe in the fresh mountain air and sip cold spring water while feeling worldly tensions fall away. It’s also possible to take a peek into the temple, but be considerate of the dedicated worshippers who have made the trek to meditate and pay homage to the Buddha. Absolutely no flash photography in the temple!
It may be possible in the near future for visitors to stay overnight on the site and partake in Buddhist ceremonies, but those plans have not been finalized. When they are we will post it on Jeju Life.
To get to Chonja-am temple from Jeju-si take the 1139 road from Nohyeong rotary and turn off at the road for Mt. Halla’s Yeongsil trail. The temple is labeled “Jonjaam” on the Jeju-do tourist map. Park in the lot at the entrance booth. The trail is on the left side of the parking lot, opposite the toilets.