It’s occasionally said by foreign visitors to Korea that once
you’ve seen one Korean Buddhist temple, you’ve seen them all.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 —
http://80000.or.kr — that you should look at before your visit.
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
One of the most popular — and rewarding — programs for foreign
residents and visitors to Korea is a stay at a Buddhist temple.
(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
For more information on the temple stay program, call
(02) 2011-1972. Programs cost about 50,000—80,000 won.
Written and photographed by Robert
The article courtesy of Seoul magazine