‘The beginning of hope’YANGYANG county,
In the spring, forest fires are almost as common as coal in mountainous Gangwon province. But the fires that struck Yangyang county on April 5, Korea’s Arbor Day, were a shock even for people who’d lived here a long time.
Not only did the fires destroy nearly 445 acres of woods and 41 houses in the county, but they gutted Naksan Temple, one of Korea’s most historic Buddhist sites, whose history dates back more than a millennium.
“There is nothing in the world to describe the horror as the fire engulfed the temple buildings. We just stood there, helpless,” remembers one of the temple’s resident monks. “There was no way to stop the rapidly spreading fire, because in a matter of 20 minutes, the temple was caught up in the uncontrollable blaze.”
“It’s such a shame,” said Baek Jong-dae, 60, who came all the way from Suwon, Gyeonggi province, last week with his wife and son to pay respects. “I come here every year with my family, but I can’t believe my eyes. I wonder if [the temple] could ever recover at all.”
Over the course of its history, which dates back to the seventh century, Naksan Temple had been burned down and rebuilt a number of times, mostly because of wars. But last month’s fire, which incinerated nearly 80 percent of the temple grounds, was the worst natural disaster it had ever experienced. Nearly 90 percent of the surrounding forest was burned to a crisp, killing numerous ancient trees.
“It would take more than a hundred years to recover from the losses from this fire,” said the temple’s head monk, Venerable Jeong-yeom. Nevertheless, the temple’s monks are beginning work on just that task.
The smell of burned pine and sap is almost tangible when one enters the temple grounds through the side gate. The surrounding woods are home to pine trees that are centuries old. Many of these now have soot-black trunks, and their needles are a muddy shade of yellow. “They have to be cut down, because they are all dead,” Jeong-yeom said sadly.
On the temple grounds, some grass and tiny plants have sprouted amid the ruins. The trunks of some trees have been wrapped in plastic; these are receiving what the monks refer to as “arbor therapy.”
Apart from the burned trees, the damage to the temple grounds isn’t immediately obvious. The wreckage from the temple buildings has been stacked neatly, along with some charred tree trunks. A woman prays in front of bare ground where a temple building once stood. Some temporary buildings have been set up to be used for office space.
The number of visitors is down by only a third, according to the monks. Some Buddhists come to pay homage; other people are curious to see what’s left from the fire. Some people still come to the temple for the overnight stays it offers visitors.
On Wednesday of last week, students from Baekseok Middle School in Yangju, Gyeonggi province, were visiting as part of a school trip to nearby Mount Seorak. The temple was decorated with lanterns for the Buddha’s Birthday festivities. Some students posed for pictures in front of empty spaces where historic buildings had once been.
“It’s a shame,” says Lee Ki-bun, 75, a non-Buddhist who stopped by on a trip to nearby Naksan beach. “But it seems like they are recovering.”
Recovery efforts are still at the early planning stages, said Jeong-yeom. “News reports came out that the government was going to pay for the reconstruction of the temple, but that is far from the truth,” the head monk said. “We will have to rely mostly on individual contributions from the public.”
In fact, the Yangyang county government pledged a billion won ($1 million) to help rebuild, but the monks turned it down. Instead, they will rely on funding from volunteers and from their order.
The total restoration cost for the temple and the natural surroundings is estimated at 30 billion won, Jeong-yeom said. So far, he said, the temple has raised 30 to 40 percent of that amount.
Most of the buildings in Naksan Temple were built right after the Korean War. The seven-story pagoda and some of the statues of Buddha, which survived the fire, are centuries old. The pagoda, built in the year 671, still stands in front of the rubble of what had been the main sanctuary.
“Buildings can be rebuilt, but the recovery of the natural environment could take more than 150 years,” said Jeong-yeom. A teahouse has been hastily renovated as a residential area for visitors; the monks have moved to the youth hostel near the entrance of the temple.
A shrine known as Hongryeonam, perched on a cliff near the sea, was untouched by the fire, though the hillside and cliff nearby were blackened. “It’s by the grace of Buddha that the shrine is intact,” said Jeong-yeom. The view of the sea from the shrine is a peaceful one, save for the humming sounds chants coming from speakers nearby.
On the day of the fire, the head monk ordered all artifacts and treasures that could be moved taken to an underground shelter. “The wind was blowing fast, and although the local authorities told us the fire was out, I was apprehensive about it,” said Jeong-yeom.
Sure enough, the blaze soon reignited. Twenty-one buildings, including the main sanctuary, were scorched. “It wasn’t just a strong wind, it was a ‘crazy gale’ that engulfed us with smoke,” said Jeong-yeom.
Volunteers and leaders of other religious communities flocked to the temple after the fire to help clean up the ashes and debris, said Jeong-yeom. Perhaps the worst loss to the temple was its ancient bell, which was created in 1469 by order of King Yejong to honor his father, the late King Sejo.
“This is a turning point and the beginning of hope for us. From scratch, we will rebuild the temple and make it better,” says Jeong-yeom. “Naksan Temple has survived for 1,400 years, and we hope it will continue to exist for our descendants for many years to come.”
by Choi Jie-ho