Haeinsa Temple and its old woodblock print matrixes

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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 Haeinsa 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 Haeinsa 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 Haeinsa 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.

Into the temple precincts

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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 Haeinsa Temple itself.

The stump of a tree near the entrance gate has been planted in 802, at the establishment of Haeinsa Temple. Most buildings and facilities in the front part of the temple are much newer reconstructions, however. For instance, we pass a number of accommodation facilities for pilgrims and lay visitors on a “temple-stay” programme also open to tourists. Then there is a larger gate housing the souvenir shop and a shop for devotional objects where visitors can also pay for prayers and other religious services.

A stone pagoda from the Unified Silla Period

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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.

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The woodblock prints at Haeinsa

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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 without any known error. Back then, Chinese ideographs were the only writing used in Korea. 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 this was meant as a sort of spiritual defence measure against likely destruction. It is utterly astonishing that this huge old library has survived the ages intact.

Off-limits treasures at the Haeinsa Temple

To our disappointment, however, it is not possible for tourists to enter the storage rooms or even go near them – when we visited Haeinsa 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.

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When we pass the stone pagoda on our way back, another group of elderly women is debating the proper direction of the circumambulation. When we look again they have ended 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.

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Is Haeinsa Temple worth visiting?

Yes, it is. Although you cannot see the old woodblocks close-up, it is a worthwhile daytrip out there. If you have an interest in Korean Buddhism – or in East Asian Buddhist temples in general, the visit is quite rewarding. Their overnight programs are in English and rather easy to arrange (Templestay Korea). The hilly surroundings are pleasant and the atmosphere with all the pilgrims is authentic.

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How to get to the Haeinsa Temple

Haeinsa is an easy day trip (or a longish half-day trip) from Daegu. We went there on a short detour between a visit to Gyeongju and Gongju. In spite of their similar names, Gyeongju is famous for tombs and gold crowns from the Silla period (6th century). On the other hand, Gongju was one capital of the rival Baekje state!

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. About every 40 minutes a bus goes to Haeinsa and takes 1.5 hours. From the bus stop it’s a pleasant 20 minute walk through the National Park. The walk is slightly uphill but on good broad paths. There are several cafés and small restaurants in and around the temple.

***All expenses for our trip we paid and organised ourselves. We did not receive any funding or sponsoring.***

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  1. Haeinsa Temple, with those woodblock prints and mountains in the backdrop, looks terrific. Such rich and fascinating history. Great to know that they have a program about Korean Buddhism in English.

  2. The temple look alluring. Certainly a very interesting place to visit. Your surprise that there is an amusement park nearby is so…European, I think. Because in Asia, I was also often surprised by some ‘combos’ – like the shooting ranch next to the Cu Chu tunnel memorial. No one would do that in Europe. I have the impression that the Asian mentality is less rigid in a certain way. Anyway, I love your vivid tales – and I’m looking very much forward to visiting Korea.

    1. I still haven’t been to Korea, so it’s really nice to see it through your blog. I love the description of the morning bus to Daegu. As a history buff, I’m happy to read about UNESCO-designated Haeinsa Temple. I can understand your astonishment when someone just boards the bus and asks you to get an extra ticket! I’ll stone pagoda of 7th-10th C, I’d totally totally love to see that. Thanks for the info that the wooden blocks cannot be seen up & close. But I can understand the need to keep them away from tourists to protect them.

      1. The Haeinsa Temple was one of the most impressive sights in South Korea. It is beautifully situated within a National Park surrounded by mountains.

  3. Haeinsa Temple sounds like such a beautiful temple to visit, away from the beaten path. I like the way you got there, on that bus full of locals coming from the market. Shame you can’t enter the storage room to see the ancient woodblocks, the main attraction of the temple. I guess it is to protect them from tourists, as they are so old. A glimpse of them through the window still must be quite impressive to see.

  4. I’ve actually wanted to travel to South Korea for a long time. I love Haeinsa Temple’s stunning, vibrant architecture! I was curious about the history of this building. The skill involved in creating woodblock prints is totally incredible and astonishing. A selfie with the magnificent stone pagoda is something else I want to do.

  5. Oh boo! I’d be disappointed that the blocks are closed off, too. They seem so interesting to see, but I guess it’s better than not being able to see them at all. It looks like such a lovely place!

  6. Happy to know that it is still worth visiting and the programs are in English. It is a bit of a challenge to find authentic experiences nowadays where many have gone commercial. We’ll definitely consider this should we have a chance to visit. Thank you for sharing this detailed post. Very helpful for first-time visitors like us.

    1. Dear Clarice, thanks for your comment. I am sure you will enjoy a visit to the Haeinsa Temple. We would stay overnight, if we have the chance to return.

  7. How fascinating to see the woodblocks on a visit to the Haeinsa Temple. What a vast store of information all in one place. Indeed amazing that is has survived. I understand keeping visitors back but I am sure it would be interesting to get a closer look. Good to know it is manageable as a day trip. And worthwhile to visit even without a close up look at the woodblocks.

  8. I do not have much knowledge about religions in Korea, and I do not know that there are people who believe in Buddhism. It is nice to know that and know about their culture. I find it educational and entertaining. Too bad you could not see the old woodblocks up close. It would have been better, but at least you got to see it.

  9. What a shame that you couldn’t fully access the woodblocks and storage rooms. I hope that this changes in future. I can only imagine how fascinating it was when you got a glimpse of them last time. I bet this was still a great trip to see architecture with such history.

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