- Travel Topics
with comments in bold by Vicky
The passage of time has been kind on Haeinsa. Despite having been built in 802 AD, the temple colors shine, seemingly as bright as they did when they were first built (due to several renovations). Walking on the grounds is a trip back in time, when Korean Buddhism was only a few centuries old, having been brought over from China. For any skeptics doubting the power of this temple, it is notable to mention how the temple avoided a near-bombing during the Korean War, when a pilot disobeyed orders because he remembered that the temple held priceless treasures.
“The temple stay will be 60,000 KRW”, the lady at the information desk added.
I fumbled around for the bills. Vicky and I had taken out 100,000 KRW just yesterday, did we really go through it already?
“So what is the schedule for today?” Vicky stalled, seeing that I was counting 100 KRW coins and that we might be cutting it close.
I managed to scrape together 59,000 KRW – we’d need a small discount if this was going to happen. I asked Buddha for a bit of kindness.
Yet again, we were out of money. (I was mortified). This left us potentially stranded, in the mountains, with a boatload of American dollars but no way out (we were going to need to buy a bus ticket back to the city). As far as I could tell we had four options:
- Get money from the one bank in town, hopefully it would take our foreign cards – no guarantee.
- Buy the bus tickets with our credit card, hopefully they would accept it – no guarantee.
- Beg the temple stay to give us a discount, such that we could buy our tickets back into town – no guarantee.
- Kidnap two monks, steal their robes, impersonate them, hijack a car, and drive back into town.
With a lot of options up in the air, we wasted no time – first to kidnap two monks err I mean to the bus station.
The old lady looked up from her wooden desk, pencil in hand, eagerly awaiting our order. Credit cards had no business in this place – we decided to come back in another 20 years.
Down an option, we headed to the bank. I was beginning to really sweat having to go back to the temple stay and explain to a group of Buddhist monks how we were planning on spending the night and eating their food on a rather large discount. I heard they don’t look too kindly on freeloaders.
When we finally made it to the bank, the only one in town as far as I could tell, we saw the option we needed to see – “overseas card”.
This was a sign that we were good to go.
Clearly, we hadn’t learned our lesson, but next time, next time it’s going to be different (I blame Dave for this one yet again)!
As for now, we were free to enjoy our temple stay.
What is a Temple Stay?
I don’t want you to think that Vicky and I have fallen victim to some extreme sect of Buddhism, shaved our heads, and renounced our former lives. A temple stay is in many ways very touristy, and the only qualifications are paying 30,000 KRW (about $28) and there being an opening.
However, despite it being somewhat touristy, it does offer a unique perspective into the daily lives of the monks and the temple ceremonies that normal visitation hours don’t provide. You are allowed to partake in the morning rituals and evening ceremonies, as well as have breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the vicinity of the monks. Therefore, Vicky and I jumped at the opportunity to take one night out of our normal city adventures in exchange for the peaceful solitude of a Buddhist temple, hidden deep in the mountains of South Korea.
Haeinsa offers various programs, with the lightest commitment being the free style program. This essentially allows you to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the monks and partake in some of the rituals. In your spare time, you can explore the temple grounds and/or go for a hike in the mountains. Vicky and I opted for this program since we like flexibility. As far as we could tell, we were welcome to join in on all of the activities of the regular program at will. The key difference was that the regular program, which was going on simultaneously, was occupied by a large tour group of Germans, therefore, most everything was catered to them and as a result, translated into German (bummer).
Oh, and we didn’t get cool monk clothes like they did (double bummer).
What Do You Do?
The program seems to be about 50/50, do what the monks do, and learn about the temple. Here is the schedule. In bold is what Vicky and I took part in (note: We could have taken part in more, but it would have resulted in us having to listen to German and/or Korean the whole time).
1st day (pm)
3:30 – 4:30 Registration
4:30 – 5:30 Temple Manners (we peeked into the room where the Germans were shown how to bow and pray properly)
5:40 – 6:10 Temple Dinner
6:10 – 7:00 Evening Service
7:00 – 8:30 Tea Time With A Monk
8:30 – 9:00 Ready For Sleep
9:00 Lights Out
3:00 – 3:20 Wake Up & Wash
3:20 – 4:00 Dawn Service
4:00 – 6:10 108 Prostrations & Zen Practice
6:10 – 7:20 Temple Breakfast
7:20 – 9:30 Temple Tour
11:20 Temple Lunch
As you can see, the life of a Buddhist monk is not for just anyone. These guys are up at 3am, everyday. Vicky and I, however, just took part in the evening services of day 1 as well as the dining.
In our off time we explored the temple grounds and nearby monasteries. We had made a friend, a Buddhist woman in her 60s, who was volunteering at the temple and consequently offered to take us around for 4 hrs in the morning after breakfast. It’s always fantastic to have a local guide you, since they aren’t shy about entering rooms and touching items.
I really think the biggest part we missed out on was day 2, the dawn service and the 108 prostrations/zen practice, however, without the proper attire as well as not officially being part of the regular program, I think we both felt it would be a bit awkward to crash. In all honesty though, I’m not sure anyone would have given us a second look.
(As for temple dining the monks always eat vegan. With dinner, breakfast and lunch we got a pretty good feel for the dining options and can say there isn’t much variety. Rice and a simple soup is present at every meal, along with an assortment of pickled or fermented Korean kimchi veggies. Sometimes beans or what resembles marinated prunes is also available. Though the food was pretty good and we even got to see the female monks preparing the kimchi by hand the next day, the lack of variety must be difficult).
For what it’s worth, I can say that the evening ceremony is quite the experience. Hearing a monk bang on an extremely loud drum is something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Actually banging isn’t the word, they really play it, and as someone who has spent a little bit of time learning the drums, I can say quite skillfully.
I really enjoyed it.
The evening ceremony itself involves the entire community gathering in the main hall and chanting to a statue of Buddha. Like regular program participants, Vicky and I were allowed to stand side by side with the monks and bow with them as they chant. Not as easy as it sounds (in fact, a monk had to come over to us and tell us we were facing the wrong way). Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m doing it the justice it deserves, but definitely it was extremely interesting and quite unforgettable.
Haeinsa’s Templestay Program
From the site: https://www.haeinsa.or.kr
Haeinsa offers a standard two- day Templestay program, a two day freestyle program, and a five day/four night training program in the summer. The standard program is called Live Like the Wind and Water, then Leave Your Body! , and features monastic formal meals, Seon Meditation, and a variety of programs that allow for a deeper feeling for the teachings of Buddhism. Participants in Haeinsa’s program can have the unforgettable experiences of hearing the sound of the throbbing Dharma drum pierce the crisp, clear, early morning air, and visiting the mountain hermitages above the temple, where many great old monks, such as Ven. Seongcheol stayed.
- You need to arrive at the temple at least by 5PM.
- You are able to have temple dinner and temple breakfast.
- You can also attend the evening and early morning ceremony.
- You can use the rest of time any way you like.