London Korean Links

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The LKL Korea Trip 2009 pt 6: Haeinsa

Monday 20 July 2009

Haeinsa temple roof

The trip to Haeinsa is via Daegu. A quick tube journey to the inappropriately named Busan Central Bus Terminal – at the northernmost extremity of the Busan public transport system (Nopodong), and then the express bus to East Daegu station takes nearly two hours. Another tube to the Seobu bus terminal to catch the bus to Haeinsa (6,200 Won) which leaves every 20 minutes. Having left Busan at 9:40am, we get to Haeinsa at 1pm, ready for lunch. I am with Miss Baek, who was good enough to show me around Busan and Jejudo eight years ago. As we cruise the building at the bottom of the road which leads to the temple, an ajumma accosts us and tells us if we don’t like her food we don’t have to pay for it. Attracted by the deal we take her up on the offer.

Kim Ok Ja in her restaurant
Kim Ok Ja in her restaurant

We have struck gold.

Sancho berries (산초 열매)
Sancho berries (산초 열매)

Mrs Kim makes the dwenjang and the gochujang for the monks in the temple, a noble task. She also makes her own dongdongju, and two bowls of that wonderful drink made the afternoon appear very rosy. Her vegetarian temple food lunch (산채 한정식) with the complexity and diversity of the herbs and seasonings are enough to convert anyone to the vegetarian cause. She proudly tells us about her son, a Korean traditional musician who used to play gong in Kim Duck-soo’s Samulnori band. She sends us on our way with a free bottle of her own home-made Ohmicha (five-taste tea). I decline her kind offer of some free sancho berries (산초 열매) to take back to England. I’m too honest when it comes to going through customs.

We walk up the shaded path so typical of the approaches to Korean temples. Dragonflies are sporting, and we pass the stump of a zelkova tree planted in the ninth century. According to a nearby information board:

In the third year of King Aejang, the 40th king of the Shilla dynasty (802AD), when Queen Aejang’s incurable illness was completely cured by the prayer of both monks Suneung and Lijong, King Aejang contributed lots of temples, sermon halls and hermitages and thereby established Haeinsa in return for that favour. And in commemoration of this, the Gosamok (고사목) is said to have been planted. This zelkova tree had grown along with Haeinsa over a period of 1200 years, to wither and die in 1945, and now only the base of the trunk remains, showing the long history of Haeinsa

Haeinsa is a special place. It is far less crowded than Bulguksa. Rather than being 20 minutes ride from a favourite tourist destination (Kyongju), it’s 75 minutes from a place no-one goes to (Daegu). And it is a practising monastery whereas Bulguksa is an assembly of beautiful buildings. Haeinsa has a soul as well as what UNESCO calls “one of the most important and most complete corpus of Buddhist doctrinal texts in the world, and … also outstanding for the high aesthetic quality of its workmanship”: for at the rear of the temple complex is the depository for the Tripitaka Koreana. UNESCO continues:

The buildings in which the scriptures are housed are unique both in terms of their antiquity so far as this specialized type of structure is concerned, and also for the remarkably effective solutions developed in the 15th century to the problems posed by the need to preserve woodblocks against deterioration.

Tripitaka Koreana

Cameras are not allowed in the main courtyard area of the Tripitaka repository buildings, and you are unable to access the wooden blocks themselves (above), but you can peer through the slats in the ventilation windows to see row upon endless row of the texts: over 80,000 blocks.

As you walk back down through the temple complex, the constantly changing views of curved temple roofs against the mountains are inspiring. The temple is a place of peace and meditation, and it benefits from its relative inaccessibility. But it is a necessary and rewarding destination for a day trip.

We return to Busan the way we came, getting back at around 9:30. The raw eel and mountain strawberry spirit are said to be good for the “stamina”, but more interesting were the plum wine (설중매) and seafood stew (매운탕), which had some of the complex flavours of the temple’s herbs. Miss Baek’s friend, the talented potter and healer Lee Jin-gu, tells me I have too much salt in my body. I must be eating too much kimchi.

Haeinsa Temple is Historic Site #504 and Scenic Site #62. The Printing Woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana are National Treasure #32, and the Janggyeong panjeon Depositories that store them are national Treasure #52. Also in the depositores are the woodblocks for some miscellaneous Buddhist scriptures classified as National Treasure #206. sThe temple includes numerous stupas, statues and paintings classified as Treasures and a Needle Fir tree classified as Natural Monument #541


Index of the 2009 Travel Diary:

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