A dedicated traveller, teacher, dreamer, and lover with an unquenchable thirst for expedition. I've got two calloused feet that take me anywhere and everywhere I need to be.
I have always struggled with understanding Korean culture. It’s so modern, so devilishly superficial and so desperately trying to be Western that I’ve always viewed it with an hint of skepticism. I’ve learned a lot in my two years here; how strong confucian beliefs still dictate tradition, and how hard Koreans have fought over the past few generations to build their country. I’ve visited countless temples. But it all just confuses me even more.
Korean identity is slipping into this irreversible pattern, it’s at such a pivotal tipping point. I can see that it’s happening, and maybe that’s why I struggle with understanding it….because it seems that the country as a whole it letting it get away.
But this weekend I was slapped boldly in the face with a side of Korea that is still so potently cultural and traditional I’m now being forced to reinterpret everything I’ve thought about this place. It’s not leaving everything behind. You just have to know where to find the “other” Korea.
A group of friends decided to break up the mundane and head for a temple retreat high in the mountains. Haeinsa Monastery and Temple, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and nestled in a deep a rocky valley at the base of Guyasan Mountain, in the national park of the same name. It is a preeminent Buddhist site for Korea, and not only for the striking natural beauty of it’s surroundings but for housing the Tripitaka Koreana, the entire collection of Korean Buddhist scriptures dating back a thousand years. It is a sprawling complex of temples, hermitages, halls and classes surrounded by a strongly flowing creek of crisp snow melt and spring water. The sounds of the water and deep and chilly shadows cast by the mountains set our scene as we checked in.
One of the first things we learned in our time there was that harmony between man and nature is a main principle of Buddhism, and this proved true for me by the end. The serenity and seclusion of the temple itself was effortlessly and organically reflected in the beauty of the various ceremonies and moments of solitude we experienced throughout the weekend. No doubt choosing this location wasn’t an accident.
Visiting a temple is a humble enough experience to have in and out of itself. However, becoming an active member of the temple community was beyond enlightening. We were able to witness, and participate in the evening ceremonies, which included the best drum solo I’ve ever heard. The Dharma Drum is played three times a day, to wake up all living things so they can make an offering to Buddha. It was a mystical tune, dark and furious especially as it echoed throughout the courtyard, the monks robes dancing mystically.
Sitting amongst monks, and actually prostrating literally beside them was both intimidating and comforting. Buddhism, although it is an organized(ish) religion with do’s and don’ts (ish) it is so much more of an inclusive approach to belief than anything I’ve experienced in my life with religion. I was able to feel that energy in the main hall that night…and again at 3 o’clock in the morning.
We were in the hands of monks, and as such we lived how they lived. Living in the now, with no past, or no future. If we were walking, we were focused on walking, if we were eating, we were focused on the food, our hands, and the chop sticks. They also wake up at an obscene hour. Standing in the dark, with the stars above, and hearing a bell echo throughout the valley before most of my friends had even gone to sleep was a wow moment I’ll not soon forget, albeit it was behind foggy eyes.
The experience was a total change of pace. I think to say it was relaxing would be completely unfair. It was a challenge of dedication, mental toughness and physical adjustment. The only talking that was (supposed) to be happening was our own inner dialogue. Forgetting your physical-self, and weighing your shortcomings, words, and actions and their affects on other people and other living things is a heavy conversation to have with yourself. Eating the most bland food in Korea in silence was tricky at first, but after I got over the dried mushrooms and mountain leaves, I enjoyed it. It was hard to sit half-lotus for an hour counting your breaths. Doing 108 prostrations, formal bows, to alleviate the 108 afflictions of Buddhism made my knees age an extra seventeen years. But it was all worth it, in every single aspect.
I left Haeinsa with a clear mind, feeling refreshed in a way I wasn’t expecting to. I’m not planning on converting to Buddhism, or making it to temple once a week, but it has most certainly made me more aware of how much….stuff… there is in and around our lives that don’t help us in anyway, and I don’t mean only literally. We carry so much weight that we don’t need, and I definitely want to make an effort to rid myself of some of that.
But more importantly, I also left Haeinsa with a renewed vigour for Korea. It helped my forget about my struggles with understanding this place and it’s people. It’s not only Buddhism that is telling me to be in the ‘now’, but it took the time in the temple to really just accept it. It’s okay that Korea is surging ahead without looking back. It’s okay I don’t understand the culture of today. Because, in those mountainside temples where they have been preserving a Korea of old for hundreds of years, I guess they’ll keep doing it for more to come.
Traveller’s Note: For any waygookan in Korea, a temple stay is a must! Not only to stay with monks, but to experience a Korea few do anymore, and to give your mind a break from the insanity of the city.
Haeinsa is an easily accessible temple from all major bus hubs throughout Korea. From Daegu, the buses leave every forty minutes from Seobu Bus Terminal, and take 1.5 hours, for 6,600W. The temple stay can be reserved online, although paid in cash on arrival for 60,000W.