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Reflections in a Calm Sea : Haeinsa Temple

It’s occasionally said by foreign visitors to Korea that once you’ve seen one Korean Buddhist temple, you’ve seen them all.
This writer — who has spent the better part of the last decade bumming from one temple to the next — does not subscribe to that particular point of view. Spend enough time hanging around Buddhist temples, and you’ll begin to appreciate the unique beauty each one possesses. That being said, some temples are uniquely unique. Haeinsa Temple is one of them.

Located deep in the mountains of Hapcheon County in southeast Korea — emphasis on the word deep — Haeinsa Temple is one of Korea’s three largest Buddhist monasteries, one of the “Three Jewels,” as Korean Buddhists prefer to call them. A UNSECO World Heritage Site, the compound is home to the Tripitaka Koreana — the Palman Daejanggyeong in Korean — a 13th century collection of woodblock carvings of the Buddhist scriptures and the oldest and most complete edition of the Buddhist canon in Chinese characters. For centuries, the monastery has been the scholastic center of Korean Buddhism, preserving the traditional of scriptural studies through the generations.

Like most major temples in Korea, Haeinsa offers adventurous visitors an opportunity to experience temple life through “temple stay” programs that give you the opportunity to rediscover beauty... both inside and out.


On the Road

Most trips to Haeinsa Temple begin in Daegu, the economic hub of the province of Gyeongsangbuk-do and a bustling industrial city of over 1 million souls. Thanks to the KTX express train, the city is less two hours away from Seoul, making day-trips to this beautiful part of the country much more practical. From Dong Daegu Station (where the KTX drops you off), take Daegu Subway Line 1 to Seongdangmot Station, where you’ll find the Daegu Seobu Bus Terminal. From there, take the direct bus to Haeinsa Temple — there are frequent departures throughout the day.
For those — including this writer — who reside in Seoul, countryside bus rides are just as important as the destinations themselves. They’re a means to reconnect with the beauty that is Korea. Look out the window at the steep mountain valleys dotted by picturesque villages, and you’ll remember why you first fell in love with this country. The trip from Daegu to Haeinsa takes about one and a half hours.


The Ascent

From where the bus drops you off, it’s a 30-minute walk to the monastery, which is located on the lower slopes of dramatic Mt. Gayasan, one of Korea’s most beautiful national parks and a prime hiking locale.
Walking along the path to a Buddhist temple is somewhat like Zen meditation itself. Rather than focus on the destination, you need to focus on what you’re doing. The walk prepares you for entry into the holy precincts. Surrounded by lush forests and rushing mountain streams, the cares of the secular world fade away. Stop for a moment and take it all in. Maybe dip your hand in the crystal water of the stream.
Just before you reach the monastery compound itself, you’ll pass through several gates. The first of these gates, the Iljumun, signifies that you are about to enter the world of the Buddha.


Temple of the Smooth Sea

Haeinsa Temple, which means “Temple of Reflection on a Smooth Sea,” takes its name from a passage in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which compares the wisdom of the Buddha to a calm sea. When the mind — like the sea — is freed from the waves of worldly desire, it will perfectly reflect existence as it truly is.
Haeinsa is, as Korean Buddhist temples go, a massive complex, and a truly remarkable feat of landscaping, architecture and engineering. Some of the complex is off-limits to visitors; Haeinsa is, after all, a functioning Buddhist monastery with a large community of Buddhist monks. The central courtyard of the temple is dominated by the imposing Daejeokgwangjeon, the main Dharma Hall which, in contrast to most other Korean temples, is dedicated to the Vairocana Buddha, the universal aspect of the historical Buddha who lived in India in 400 BC and a symbol of the doctrine of emptiness. 

The complex is gorgeously terraced, with higher terraces offering superb views of the temple and the surrounding mountains. It’s remarkably calming to stare out at the sea of curved Korean tile roofs, their lines harmonizing seamlessly with the verdant undulating hills beyond.
One rarely hopes for rain while on the road, but Haeinsa is one place where the experience is actually enhanced by a little precipitation. When it rains, the mist hangs in the surrounding hills and forests, giving the monastery a romantic and other-worldly aspect.


Palman Daejanggyeong

In the temple’s rear courtyard, located above the Daejeokgwangjeon (quite unusual for a Korean Buddhist temple, where tradition places the main Dharma Hall highest), is the astounding Janggyeong Panjeon, the four halls preserving the Tripitaka Koreana and a miracle of medieval Korean science and engineering.
The Tripitaka Koreana was carved in the middle of the 13th century as a way of seeking the Buddha’s help against the invading Mongols. It didn’t work — the Mongols spent several years ravaging the country before the Korean court finally surrendered — but Korean royal piety did result in the most complete collection of Buddhist texts anywhere in the Far East. In 1398, the collection was moved to its current location in Haeinsa; the halls in which they are now stored are believed to date to the late 15th century.

Woodblocks, naturally, are subject to the elements, and are particularly tricky to preserve. Yet the Janggyeong Panjeon — which miraculously managed to survive several disasters that destroyed the rest of the temple complex — has done a perfect job in preserving this most important Korean cultural treasure. Its builders utilized nature and creative architectural techniques to create a space where humidity is kept at ideal levels for preserving the woodblocks. Its location blocks damp winds from the south and cold winds from the north. Its slatted windows — which are sized differently in the north and south halls — ventilate the halls, while its materials absorb excess humidity in the hot summer and retain humidity during the dry winter.

Not even modern technology has bested the Janggyeong Panjeon — when the woodblocks were moved to a newly built modern storage facility in 1970, they developed mildew, and were promptly returned to their original storage location. If you’d like to learn more about the Tripitaka Koreans, Haeinsa runs a wonderful website — — that you should look at before your visit.
While you’re in the hall, be sure to gaze out the oval-shaped entrance to the southern hall — it’s the Korean sense of aesthetics at its best.


Temple Stay

One of the most popular — and rewarding — programs for foreign residents and visitors to Korea is a stay at a Buddhist temple.
These (usually) overnight programs, run by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, give you a unique insight into the life of a Buddhist monk. They also give you an opportunity, if only for a short time, to escape the daily grind and appreciate the beauty of living.

Haeinsa is one of many temples that opens its door to temple stay guests. Typically, you will eat with the monks, participate in Zen meditation, engage in traditional crafts, and participate in morning and evening Buddhist chanting and bowing ceremonies known as yebul, or Homage to the Buddha. You really need to be an early riser for this — the morning yebul takes place before sunrise, usually about 4am.
For more information on the temple stay program, call (02) 2011-1972. Programs cost about 50,000—80,000 won.

[Find out more!]
Haeinsa Temple Stay
Palman Daejanggyeong Festival

Written and photographed by  Robert Koehler
The article courtesy of Seoul magazine

Date 05/19/2008

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