A number of old Korean peasants get on the bus. They are wearing polyester dresses with floral patterns, and their shopping bags smell of fish and garlic. A huge radish tumbles out of one of the bags and rolls around the bus. The morning bus from Daegu is not particularly crowded, but on leaving the highway to tackle smaller roads into the mountains and towards UNESCO-designated Haein-sa Temple, it fills up. The peasants, the bags, the fish and the vegetable – they all get off at another village, and after a short while we pass the Tripitaka Theme Park (hmmm – an amusement park built around Buddhist sutras?) and finally stop at a large but modern temple gate of Haein-sa Temple. A man gets on the bus to sell tickets to the passengers, or at least the tourists travelling on the bus, although we do not understand what they are for: For Haein-sa Temple? For the Gayasan National Park? Whatever, as everyone is buying one and at 3000 Won (about 2.30 €) they are not overly expensive, we pay up.
A few minutes later (and still further up in the mountains), the bus lets us off at the entrance to the temple precincts, from where a footpath leads to a modern museum building. And another 20 minutes’ walk then brings us to the Haein-sa Temple itself.
The stump of a tree near the entrance gate has been planted in 802, at the establishment of Haein-sa Temple. Most buildings and facilities in the front part of the temple are much newer reconstructions, however – we pass a number of accommodation facilities for pilgrims and lay visitors on a “temple-stay” programme also open to tourists, a larger gate housing the souvenir shop and a shop for devotional objects where visitors can also pay for prayers and other religious services.
Stairs then lead up to the main courtyard with the prayer hall and an old stone pagoda dating from the founding time of the temple during the Unified Silla Period (668–935). A few elderly women are walking anti-clockwise around the stone monument. The main hall behind is temporarily closed, with preparations under way for some religious celebration. No problem for us: it is a relatively new building – last refurbished in the 1970s – and the main reason for coming all this way is the plain wooden building further up the hill – the depository hall of the temple.
The depository hall, Janggyeong Panjeon, is indeed just an old storage room. Built in the 15th century, it houses around 80,000 woodblocks which are even older: print matrixes for 80,000 pages of Buddhist texts, all very accurately executed in Chinese characters (back then, Chinese ideographs were the only writing used in Korea) without any known error. This enormous body of text, commonly called the Tripitaka Koreana, includes many more related texts, stories and commentaries than the standard Buddhist canon of Sutras (Tripitaka). They were carved in the 13th century when Korea was faced with Mongol attacks, perhaps as a sort of spiritual defence measure against likely destruction. It is utterly astonishing that this huge old library has survived the ages intact.
To our disappointment, however, it is not possible for tourists to enter the storage rooms or even go near them – when we visited Haein-sa Temple on our Korea travels over 20 years ago, we remember, there was at least a small area open to visitors. We were so impressed back then that we have always wanted to come back. But alas, the only glimpse we can get of the woodblocks is from several meters away through an open, but latticed window.
When we pass the stone pagoda on our way back, another group of elderly women is debating the proper direction of the circumambulation – they end up walking clockwise around the pagoda. And in the museum down at the road, we can at least admire a replica of the woodblock storage shelves.
Is Haein-sa Temple worth visiting?
Yes, it is. Although you cannot see the old woodblocks close-up, it is a worthwhile daytrip out there. If you are interested in Korean Buddhism their overnight programs are in English and easy to arrange (Templestay Korea). The hilly surroundings are pleasant and the atmosphere with all the pilgrims is authentic.
How to get to the Haein-sa -Temple
Haein-sa is an easy day trip (or a longish half-day trip) from Daegu.
Daegu is a major city and transport hub in the centre of South Korea. From the Western Bus Station of Daegu (Seobu Intercity Bus Terminal, 서부 시외버스 터미널, reachable by metro) there are regular intercity buses to Haein-sa (about every 40 minutes) which take 1.5 hours. From the bus stop it’s a pleasant 20 minute walk through the National Park, slightly uphill but on good broad paths. There are several cafés and small restaurants in and around the temple.
***All expenses for our trip were paid and organised by ourselves and we did not receive any funding or sponsoring.***