After a long bus ride through the Korean countryside we arrived at our destination, or so we thought. “It’s just a short hike. We can walk, yes?” said our tour guide. Everyone seemed up for it so off we went. But our “short” hike turned out to be a mile and a half straight up a road into the Gaya Mountain. As we hiked, we watched a constant stream of Japanese tourists going by us in taxis.
When we got to the temple, we found quite a path of steps leading into the main compound. And what steps: only about six inches deep, they were also each at least a foot high. You see, Koreans have this thing about steps: they believe that the higher up something is, the greater the power and status it holds. So breathing hard and soaking wet, we ascended through three gates.
My journey into Haein Temple in South Korea was part of a two-week study tour with 19 other public high school students. From June 20 to July 4, 2005, the 20 of us, along with three chaperones from the Pacific and Asian affairs Council (www.paachawaii.org), toured South Korea. The tour was made possible by a generous grant from the Freeman Foundation.
Haein Temple—or as the Koreans refer to it, Haeinsa—is home of the Tripitaka Koreana, the three major Buddhist canons carved on 80,000 wooden blocks about 750 years ago. The buildings were beautiful and the surrounding mountains were breathtaking. As we entered the compound we were greeted by temple matrons who had us put on these funny little gray outfits, then told us to walk everywhere in two lines.
In the lecture hall a monk greeted us and taught us how to “half bow” for our friends and the monks, but do “three big bows” to Buddha. We were then given free time to roam the grounds or shop at the temple store that was stocked with prayer bracelets, CDs of meditation music, incense and candles.
At dinner we had to eat everything put on our plates—they don’t waste anything—and we had to remain silent. The water we drank came from outdoor basins filled by mountain springs.
After dinner we went to the drum house, where four large drums hung from the ceiling. One large ox-skin drum wakes all animals with skin; the second was a brass bell that wakes the spirits of the dead; the third a cloud-shaped gong that wakes animals that fly; and the last was a wooden fish that wakes creatures underwater.
Five young monks took turns hitting the ox-skin drum for about 12 minutes, their faces inches from the drum’s surface. At times a single drummer sounded more like two or three. Growing up in Hawai’i, drumming always gives me a spiritual feeling.
Later we went back to the lecture hall where our Sun-Neem (monk) had tea with us and humorously answered our questions about Buddhism. He encouraged us to participate in the morning ceremony and go with him to meditation. Since it was now about 9 p.m., we all showered and went to bed so we could wake up for the 3 a.m. meditation. In Hawai’i time, that’s like going to bed at 4:30 p.m. and waking up at 11 p.m.
No one slept well because it was so hot—our beds sat on hard heated floors. In the morning we once again saw the drums and then headed to the service. For morning meditation we did 33 big bows—which is a great workout—and sat in contemplation for half an hour. When we were finished we met in the lecture hall to make prints of a Tripitika block. Then we took a walk up to a smaller temple holding the Saryra—gold pieces found in the ashes of a cremated body—of a recently deceased high priest.
When we were done we collected our things, gave back our little outfits and were given a few minutes to take pictures around the temple. Then we said our thanks and goodbyes to those who showed us around during our stay. We left Haeinsa feeling a little bit sweaty, but more spiritually refreshed than ever. MTW