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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

South Korea: Haein Templestay

November 19th, 2010 · No Comments

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On my visit to South Korea I set off to Haeinsa — the Haein Temple — for the experience in Korea that I had most looked forward to, albeit with no little trepidation. In the event everything took place with remarkable smoothness, although the logistics of getting there were daunting for a foreigner who knew only two words of Korean — kimchi and what sounds like “nay” but means yes.

First, I had to get to the city closest to the temple, Daegu. With a population of more than 2.5 million people, Daegu has a convenient airport with a direct connection from my previous Korean outing, Jeju Island. I spent the night at the Daegu Grand Hotel, which is indeed grand with a room rate to match (the equivalent of about $170 per night). And this was on my own tab, since i-SENS covered only the first half of my trip expenses plus my flight back home.

Then, from the hotel I took a taxi across town to the Daegu Express Bus Terminal. There I located a bus that took me to a short walk from the temple.

I got to the temple a bit early. That gave me almost an hour to walk around the temple grounds and take photographs in the sun. That was fortunate, because we had rain and fog the next day.

The Labyrinth on the Temple Grounds

The Labyrinth on the Temple Grounds

Click on the picture above to enlarge

I went to the temple with the barest necessities, sort of like the monks do. I left my suitcase at the front desk of Daegu’s Grand Hotel and took only my camera and my laptop case. In the latter I took two bottles of water, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a change of socks, some supplements, and little else.

The Templestay program is the best way to stay in Korea’s ancient temples. After beginning in 2002, this program which gives visitors an authentic taste of Korea’s Buddhist temples, now includes 40 of them. But like my Frommer’s South Korea guidebook says, “as overnight at Haeinsa is truly special.”
That book captures my actual experience in a nutshell so well that I reproduce most of it here:

“For two days and one night you’ll get a rare glimpse into monastic life. You’ll be provide with a simple grey monk’s outfit and be served vegetarian meals. You’ll get a brief lecture on temple etiquette (how to sit, how to behave at meals, how to drink tea, and how to behave during meditation). At 6 p.m. the drum and gong are struck for about 10 minutes. At 3 a.m. is an early morning service and meditation with another ringing of the drum and gong for 10 minutes, followed by a service in the Daejeok Gwanjeon [the Variocana or Cosmic Buddha Hall]. The service is followed by a one-hour meditation in the assembly hall. You take a morning stroll with the monks, enjoy conversation and tea with them, and view the Tripitaka Koreana. Bring an open mind and be ready to spend a lot of time sitting cross-legged on the floor.”

Haein is Korea’s most celebrated temple. Two monks from China built it beginning in the year 802, an unimaginably long time ago for an American. Nowadays 500 monks live and work and meditate here.

Seeing the Tripitaka Koreana was the second major reason why I wanted to visit the Haein Temple. On the morning that a monk led us on a tour of the temple, he didn’t fail to take us to the four buildings that store the Tripitaka Koreana, the oldest engraved wooden block characters in the world. I even bought a copy of one of the 81,340 pages of the canon from a vendor with whom I could communicate only the price.

Some of the 81,340 Wooden Blocks of the Tripitaka Koreana

Some of the 81,340 Wooden Blocks of the Tripitaka Koreana

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Not until I returned home did I learn which page I brought back with me. I found out by asking the people on the mailing list for the Insight meditation group that I belong to. I sent them this photograph of the page that I had framed as soon as I got back to Boulder and asked if anyone could read Chinese.

The Print of One Block of the Tripitaka Koreana

The Print of One Block of the Tripitaka Koreana

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Two people contacted me. Both said that this is the Heart Sutra. One of them, Ling Chan, told me that she had memorized it when she lived in China and has carried it with her for years. According to a Wikipedia article, the Heart Sutra is “very popular among Mahāyāna Buddhists both for its brevity and depth of meaning.”

In Chinese it is 260 characters. Ling Chan says that my print contains the entire Heart Sutra and that it is Xuanzang’s translation from the original Sanskrit, which has since been lost. His translation remains the standard throughout East Asia. Xuanzang, who lived from about 602 C.E. to 664 C.E., was a famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator. He is most famous for his 17-year overland trip to India and back in order to obtain the sutras.

The conclusion of the Heart Sutra is the mantra, “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha,” which Edward Conze translated as “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!” During my years of Arica practice in the 1970s, I must have chanted this mantra hundreds if not thousands of time. I don’t think that I ever knew that it comes to us from the Heart Sutra.

This little print that I got at the temple pleases me so much on so many levels. It is a symbol of my Buddhism hanging in my living room where I already had symbols of Christianity — The Holy Bible — Judaism — The Tanakh — Islam — The Qur’an — and the Unitarian Universalist Church — a chalice. It reminds me of my wonderful visit to the Haein Temple. As a worker in words, I love having a print that comes from blocks engraved long before Gutenberg “invented” printing. Through it I also recall my Arica years and my favorite mantra.

The Tripitaka Koreana collects the three parts of Buddhist canon — “tripitaka” is the Sanskrit word for “three baskets” — that 30 monks spent 16 years carving onto the printing blocks starting in 1236. Moved to Haeinsa in 1398, where the four buildings of the Janggyeong Panjeon, the depository for the Tripitaka Koreana, now house the blocks, it is the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist canon in Hanja script. It has no known errors in the 52,382,960 characters that are organized in more than 1,496 titles and 6,568 volumes.

A “national treasure of Korea,” the Tripitaka Koreana earned a UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site. The Tripitaka Koreana is one of the “most important and most complete corpus of Buddhist doctrinal texts in the world.” Because of its accuracy, it is the basis of the Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese versions of the Tripitaka.

The Tripitaka Koreana survived Japanese invasions, several fires, and a near-bombing during the Korean war. One of the Templestay participants, a young man who said to call him simply “J,” told me that the Korean government honored the Korean pilot who refused to bomb the Haein Temple during the Korean war for his refusal to obey orders. Korea now regards him as a national hero.

The third reason why I wanted to visit the Haein Temple was that it is situated in a mountain park where the leaves are now changing color to brilliant yellows and reds. I captured some images of the views that I cherish.

The View from the Temple in Fog and Rain

The View from the Temple in Fog and Rain

Click on the picture above to enlarge

The Templestay program in which I participated was exceptionally small. Only six of us took part.

Our Templestay Group plus the Two in a Freestyle Program

Our Templestay Group plus the Two in a Freestyle Program

Click on the picture above to enlarge

J is a young man from Seoul who just graduated from the University of Toronto and who will start working at a bank in Korea in a few days. His parents are Buddhists, and although he isn’t, he wanted to check it out.

The other four participants were all members of one family. The mother pronounces here name as “Sunni,” and she is 43 but looked a lot younger to me. She came with her husband and two boys, ages 9 and 12. Since only Sunni’s family, J, and I took part in this Templestay program we got a bonus — private bedrooms and bathrooms. J and I each had one of the two rooms in the men’s dorm while Sunni’s family slept in another room, presumably the women’s dorm.

Two other women joined us for the tea ceremony on Saturday and the tour of the temple buildings led by a monk. Christine, a Scot who was the only other Westerner I saw at the temple, was in “a freestyle program” together with her Korean woman friend, also named Sunni. Christine had lived in Korean for several years when her late husband was building ships in the country. A woman in her 50s or 60s, Christine and I shared notes on Korea as only foreigners can do.

Aside from Christine and me, all the others at the temple were Korean. But I was the only practicing Buddhist, although I align myself most closely with the less ritualistic Theravada school. Theravada is the oldest surviving Buddhist school and is the predominant school in Sri Lanka and most of continental Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. With more than 100 million Theravada Buddhists worldwide, in recent years it has taken root in the West. Most of the 20 million Buddhists in Korea are of the Seon school. But unlike religions — Buddhism is more of a culture or way of life — the different schools of Buddhism lack the fierce internal rivalries of religions like Islam — think of the battles in Iraq between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis — and the antipathy between Catholics and Protestants, or between Christians and Jews, for that matter.

I greatly enjoyed my Templestay and all the people I met. This was the experience that I most looked forward to on my visit to Korea. But ahead of time I had no little trepidation with two concerns about my comfort.

I knew that Koreans sleep on the floor. But I took that literally. In fact, they had mattresses — albeit only about 1″ thick. Since the particticular Templestay program in which I took part had so few participants, I grabbed two mattresses. That was enough, with a blanket underneath and a comforter over me and my head on a quite firm pillow. The room was warm — almost too warm. The floor was particicularly warm, heated in typical Korean style with hot water coursing through pipes below. The result in any case was a good solid night of sleep, albeit one that lasted only from lights out at 9 p.m. to a gentle wakeup tap at 3 a.m. The day’s activities started with a 3:15 a.m. ceremony where two monks alternated beating a drum that was much larger than I had ever seen before.

The other concern that I had before arriving at the temple was the discomfort that I knew was in store for me by sitting on the floor for hours. At home I sit on my meditation bench resting on my zabuton, and at the sangha most of us use chairs. But sitting in the half-lotus position used throughout Asia was not as difficult as I imagined it would be. I had assumed that the program would be in strict Zen-style, where the monks reportedly beat anyone who fails to sit up straight. Seon is after all the Korean name for the Zen school of Buddhism. Yet the program leaders and monks were completely tolerant of my posture.

Physically the most demanding ceremony was doing 108 fast prostrations. Young-Hee in fact told me when we started, “If you are uncomfortable, you can sit down.” In fact, sitting — necessarily on the floor or a thin cushion (much thinner than the zafus that we use in the States) — was the last thing I wanted to do. I did all the prostrations, which did leave me short of breath as I struggled to keep up. In fact, I participated fully in all the programs and ceremonies at the temple.

The hour of meditation was for me the most powerful hour of the Templestay program. I felt completely peaceful.

The most moving ceremony was chanting with the monks in a hall that had exceptional acoustics. I made sure to buy the CD of the chants at the gift shop after the program finished and have played it again and again to remind me of this wonderful experience.

The Oldest Golden Buddha in Korea

The Oldest Golden Buddha in Korea

Click on the picture above to enlarge

I even ate well, finishing everything that I took from the buffet table at every meal. Almost everything was both new to me and appetizing. Strangely, the soup was too bland. I especially liked some bean sprouts and what was probably a root vegetable like sweet potato. The kimchi was excellent and not as highly spiced as I found elsewhere, perhaps not to enflame the monks’ appetites.

I reluctantly departed this wonderful place at noon. When I walked down from the temple to the road, my luck held. The rain had nearly stopped, and just as I arrived at the bus stop so too did the bus to Daegu.

Then, back in the city for dinner after a 12-hour fast, I rewarded my diligence by treating myself to a dinner of oxtail soup with fresh ginger at the hotel’s Korean restaurant. The best — as well as the most convenient — restaurants in Korea are generally in its five-star hotels, and my meal was indeed exceptional. While it was a quite different from the many meals of oxtail soup that I enjoyed when I lived in Germany from 1956 to 1958, it was just as good in its own way. And the elegance of the restaurant contrasted nicely with the simplicity of temple life.


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