Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple: The Forgotten Sacrifices of Buddhist Monks by the Korean Catholics
By Emi Hayakawa, BTN Korea, Published on the Buddhist Channel, Dec 7, 2021
Gwangju, South Korea -- Currently at the Cheonjinam memorial site located in Toechon-myeon Village in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province) a large statue of the Virgin Mary stands at the entrance, with the inscription “The Statue of Virgin Mary for World Peace,” by Pope John Paul II, and the grand tombs of five Catholic martyrs exalted where the Buddhist dharma hall of Cheonjinam hermitage once stood.
The information board that explains the origin and history of Cheonjinam to the public only states that this is the birthplace of Catholicism in Korea, that great Confucian scholars extensively studied Catholicism at this site.
There is no trace or inclusion of the Buddhist monks that were ruthlessly executed for treason to protect the group of young Catholic scholars, nor the mention of the Buddhist temple complex which was burnt down as it was labeled as an illegal site of anti-governmental ideologies.
Even the original Chinese character of Cheonjinam Hermitage, which portrays “hermitage” (庵) has been mis-recorded to (菴), which means “shrine.”
Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple, the ancient Buddhist hermitage and temple now exists only in historical documents and ancient maps of the mid-Joseon Dynasty.
Sowing the Seeds of Korean Catholicism in the Joseon Dynasty
Catholicism was first introduced in the 17th century during the turbulent religious environment and was often referred to as Western Studies, “Seohak.”
To the Joseon government and the orthodox Neo-Confucians, Catholic doctrines appeared to be rooted towards the individual rather than the community, and if Catholicism continued to spread, the government feared that the people would turn their backs on their parents, their ancestors, their communities, their society, and their government to seek personal salvation which outright challenged the Joseon royalty.
Despite the turbulent atmosphere, young Catholic scholars continued to sow the seeds for Korean Catholicism. Joseon intellectuals and scholars debated Catholic doctrines and further propagated Catholicism in Buddhist temples and associated hermitages under a conference called the Kanghakhoe academic seminar group. They gathered secretly, avoiding the eyes of the government. Furthermore, a group of scholars from the southeastern suburbs of current Seoul organized their Kanghakhoe academic seminar group at Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple, a Buddhist temple in Toechon-myeon Village in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province)
The Seed of Korean Catholicism is Sowed within the Rich Soil of Korean Buddhism
In virtue of the Buddha Dharma, the monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple shared their place of practice for the Kanghakhoe academic seminar group to take place. Despite the grave danger and great risk to their own lives and the temple itself, the monks opened their hearts and embraced these devoted and faithful Seohak intellectuals. Dasan Jeong Yakyong (1762-1836), one of the great intellects of the late Joseon Dynasty, also attended the Kanghakhoe academic seminar group at Cheonjinam Hermitage in 1779 and composed various poems of himself and his brothers frequenting Cheonjinam Hermitage.
In a poem from the text, “Saseok” (寺夕) Evenings of the Temple written in 1797, states,
The rocks steadily surround the temple
And incense and Buddhist sutras are all embedded deep within
And they lay their heads to sleep as the incense burn out into the night
This poem serves as refute to the recent Catholic claim that "Cheonjinam Hermitage had already been in ruins by 1779," and at the same time shows the friendship between Dasan Jeong Yakyong, his brothers, and the Buddhist monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage.
The Bodhicitta (菩提) Path – Empathetic Altruism of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple Sangha
Bodhicitta is a core concept of Mahayana Buddhism, meaning the compassionate aspiration to reach enlightenment for the benefit of others. It is the enlightened mind that purely aspires for the well-being of other sentient beings, without expectation of receiving rewards. Its trademark is a strong commitment to profound compassion or love for others.
It's not passive — it's not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering.
The seed Korean Catholicism of began to take root and sprout at Cheonjinam Hermitage with the protection of Korean Buddhism. However, while the Korean Catholic community, including Dasan Jeong Yakyong, devotedly organized Kanghakhoe academic seminar group and expanded their studies at Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa temple, the Joseon government also began full-fledged persecution of Catholics.
In 1801, King Sunjo, the 23rd king of the Joseon Dynasty, implemented a policy where Catholicism was conceptualized as an evil learning, or “sahak” (邪學) and prohibited Catholic religious practices. The edict began the Shinyu persecution of 1801, where government pushed ahead with the nationwide persecution of Catholicism and many Catholics were ruthlessly executed. According to the Annals of Sunjo, “Sunjosilok” states,
監司、守令, 仔細曉諭, 使爲邪學者, 飜然改革, 不爲邪學者, 惕然懲戒, 無負我先王位育之豐功盛烈。 而如是嚴禁之後, 猶有不悛之類, 當以逆律從事。
The former king always said that if orthodox learning was illuminated then evil learning (sahak/邪學) would disappear on its own. But, as we have heard, this so-called evil learning, which is the same as it always has been, has spread from the capitol to the provinces of Kyŏnggi and Honam, and its adherents grow daily in number. As for a person being a person, it is a matter of morality (illyun/人倫). As for a country being a country, it is a matter of civilization (kyohwa/敎化). This so-called evil learning is without father and king, destroys morality, interferes with the spread of civilization (kyohwa), and causes people to degenerate into barbarians, birds, and beasts (ijŏk kŭmsu/夷狄禽獸). And so the foolish people are infected with these errors (chŏmyŏm kwaeo/漸染詿誤) and led astray. If a child fell into a well, how could we not take pity on it and be heartbroken?11 Local officials, carefully admonish your people. Those who are followers of evil learning will reform in an instant, and those who are not will fearfully rectify their lives. In this way, the abundant merit built up by our former king will not be diminished. If, now that evil learning has been strictly forbidden, there is still a gang of people who do not mend their ways, then it is right to treat them as rebels (yŏgnyul/逆律)….
- 《Annals of the Sunjo》Volume 2, 1st year of King Sunjo (1801), Decided on January10th, Article 1
At the conclusion of the Shinyu Persecution, over 300 Catholics and those who protected the Catholic community were charged as the enemy of the state and beheaded. Dasan Jeong Yakyong and many Joseon intellects who accepted the Catholic faith were interrogated with torture and sent into exile further away into the very remote areas of the province.
The Cheonjinam Hermitage and the Jueosa Temple sangha, who have compassionately embraced and protected the Catholic scholars during the nationwide persecution, were taken in as prisoners for treason and presumably executed alongside the captured Catholics.
Cheonjinam hermitage and Jueosa temple set on fire and cast aside for destruction.
The Shinyu Persecution was not only a persecution of Catholics, but consequently the persecution of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple that protected the Catholic community.
The Forgotten Buddhist Roots of Korean Catholicism
The Buddhist temple complex of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple, where the essence of Bodicitta was practiced, had been burnt to ashes and blown away completely by the winds of time.
The nameless Buddhist monks that compassionately embraced the Catholic scholars executed in a crowd for Catholic protection forces, as “chunjugyo bihosaeryuk” and deemed as enemy of the state.
And now, in present time Korea, the very existence of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple and the sacrificed lives of monks that protected the Catholic scholars is completely disregarded, distorted and being hidden by the Catholic community that they protected.
All mentions of the monks and remains of the site almost wiped away from history, but fortunately a small fragment remains in Dasan Jeong Yakyon’s compilations of Analects of Dasan (Dasanmunjib), the Journal of the Royal Secretariat (Seungjeongwon ilgi), written by the Royal Secretariats of the Joseon Dynasty, and ancient maps of the mid Joseon era.
In 1818, Dasan Jeong Yakyong, who was tortured by Shinyu Persecution and exiled to the provinces, returned to his hometown of Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do after 18 years of exile. In 1827, Dasan Jeong Yakyong (at age 66) composed a poem about Cheonjinam Hermitage, where he participated in the Kanghakhoe academic seminar group, in his poetry compilation, Cheonjinseoyojib.
In this poem, he descriptively narrates his return to the site of Cheonjinam Hermitage after 30 years, where the hermitage has been burned down and destroyed.
I can’t recall the past as it is blurry
The water flows out of the rotting container
And broken pieces of roof tiles scattered across the hill
Dasan Jeong Yakyong, who was sincerely grateful to the monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple for hiding them, continued to write during his exile. Dasan’s most famous text, “Admonitions on Governing the People,” (Mongmin Simseo), completed in 1818, contains his core ideologies. This epic text reflects the pure intentions of the young Catholic scholars that pursued their search of truth for a society that is comfortable for all people of Joseon, and the compassionate and altruistic spirit of Korean Buddhism that continued to pray for the end of suffering for the people, despite the strong policy of “Sungyooukbul” that lasted 500 years.
Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple: The Site of Religious Harmony
In August 2021, Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do signed an agreement with the Catholic Diocese of Suwon to create a Catholic pilgrimage route from Cheonjinam Hermitage to Namhansanseong Fortress. The purpose of this project was expressed to honor the Korean Catholic martyrs along with the regional characteristics as the birthplace of Korean Catholicism.
There were no mentions regarding the sacrificed lives of the monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage. Furthermore, the historical value of Namhansanseong Fortress, built and defended by Buddhist soldier-monks and a symbol of National Protection Buddhism was also disregarded.
Moreover, the Catholic Diocese of Suwon announced a new cathedral that will represent Korean Catholicism, is set to be constructed at the Cheonjinam hermitage site aimed to be completed by 2079 in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Catholicism in Korea.
The traces of the nameless monks that had been persecuted and executed; Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple that were burned down and destroyed for protecting the Catholic community is being erased one by one by the Catholic community.
Even the Buddhist stupa which remained at the Jueosa temple site until recently, was moved to the Jeoldusan Memorial Hall managed by the Korean Catholic community.
Only after receiving strong criticism from the Korean Buddhist community, the Korean Catholic community formally apologized and declared a reexamination to the project. However, the Cheonjinam Hermitage Holy Land project has been in progress for more than 40 years by the Korean Catholic Diocese of Suwon.
The Korean Catholic community must coexist with Korean Buddhism and acknowledge and honor the sacrifices of the monks and Korean Buddhism. To do so, they should restore and preserve Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple in its original form.
It should be clarified to the World that Cheonjinam Hermitage is the cornerstone of religious harmony between Korean Buddhism and Korean Catholicism.
Thus, the Korean Catholic community’s holy land project should precede with the “Restoration of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple,” and the “Reproduction of the Lecture Scene of Young Catholic Scholars such as Jeong Yak-yong.”
The Korean Catholic community should acknowledge this important piece of history and show sincere homage, respect, and appreciation to Korean Buddhism.
Korean Catholicism should continue the union and harmony for peace of mankind, the basic spirit of all religions. Furthermore, they should not forget the spirit of bodhicitta, loving kindness, and compassion that the Buddhist monks sacrificed their lives for.
In this way, the Korean Catholic community should portray Cheonjinam Hermitage as the pilgrimage site of authentic union and harmony and to present the pathway for all World religions towards religious harmony and peace that is still unprecedented today.