2010 Travel Diary #30: Daewonsa – early morning prayers and sutra painting

Friday 7 May. I wake up at 3 o’clock. My body seems to be ready for early morning prayers even though I hadn’t signed up for them. I wanted to hear those moktaks and chants again, so I crawl into my clothes and stumble out to the main temple courtyard to wait for the prayers to start.


I am rewarded not only with the moktaks and chants, but the main temple bell as well. I sit listening for half an hour, before returning to my room to catch a couple more hours of sleep before breakfast.

Breakfast is pretty similar to supper the previous evening: rice and vegetable side dishes with a rich variety of tastes. I could eat this for every meal, without any problem.

Daewonsa - store of kimchi, doenjang and gochujang
Daewonsa's store of kimchi, doenjang and gochujang

Our next appointment is sutra-painting. Again, we meet in the car park to go to the side chapel meant for use by temple-stayers. Two tables are laid out with black paper and gold paint blocks. Yoseph and I are to do the painting, while Morgan is on translation and camera duty.

Sagyeong (사경) is the practice of copying sutras by hand. In the olden days, it was the only way to disseminate sutras and the Buddha’s teaching among the populace. After printing was developed, people came to regard Sagyeong as a virtuous deed. The practice continued and is now recognised as a form of religious discipline.


We take our seats on the floor and await further instruction. The black paper is faintly marked with an intricate tracery of lines which depict a seated Bodhisattva. We are to paint over these delicate lines with the gold paint and the brush provided. The exercise is in patience, concentration, but because it does not require too much brainpower it is also intended as an aid to meditation, to help you focus on yourself.

The only thing I can focus on is that there’s an awfully large number of lines to paint, and they’re very fiddly, and the driver is coming in an hour’s time to take us away. I wonder where I’m supposed to start, and decide on the eyes.

Restoring the temple paintings at Haeinsa
Restoring the temple paintings at Haeinsa

With hindsight, I realise that was a bit of a faux pas. I later thought back to my visit to Haeinsa the previous year, when a lot of the external temple paintings were being restored. All the paintings were pretty much finished, apart from the Buddha’s faces. The faces and eyes are always the last to be painted.

Never mind. I carry on. The brush seems too thick, the paint seems too dry, and I’m never going to finish it in time.

“Slow down. Relax. Enjoy yourself,” was the constant message from Neunghae Sunim. I try, but I’m torn between wanting to do a good job and wanting to finish it off. Neunghae realises that she’s not going to get me to relax unless she starts helping me out with the picture. I’m amazed by her dexterity, by the smoothness and delicacy of her lines, and by her unhurried execution. I enjoy listening to the musical sound of her voice as she chats and laughs with Morgan. She is totally relaxed, unselfconscious, and helps me to unbend as well.

Sutra painting with Neunghae

I ask her about life in the temple: how cut off from the world are they? Do they listen to the news? Apparently it depends. Some of the monks focus on meditation and on their inner lives. These monks don’t follow the news. Other monks go out into the world, or try to introduce people to Buddhism. In order to engage with the world, they need to know what’s happening in it. So yes, they do follow the news.

With Neunghae’s help, the painting is soon finished, and she then embellishes it with an inscription. Yoseph is not far behind.

I’d forgotten that we were due to have more tea before setting off on our travels again. We return to the room at the corner of the courtyard where we had drunk tea the previous evening. There is a large glass bowl of yellow tea with a lotus flower floating in it. On the table is more fruit, and dark green rice cakes made that very morning by the senior monk herself.

We are joined for tea by our local guide and by my local friend Kyung-sook, who has done so much to introduce me to Korean culture. We talk about the history of Daewonsa. Originally built in 548 CE, damaged in the Imjin War, destroyed by fire in 1914, rebuilt in 1917 only to be burned down again in the partisan struggles which preceded the Korean War and rebuilt years later through the dedication of a woman who used to be a banker.

I learn that Park Chan-soo, whose sculpture is currently on display in the Cultural Centre in London, and who is helping to oversee the rebuilding of Gwanghwamun, and who is an advisor to the Bucheon Intangible Cultural Heritage Expo (clearly an important figure in Korean culture), used to live at Daewonsa.

Bangwang-tap pagoda, national treasure number 1112
Bangwang-tap pagoda, national treasure number 1112

The temple is a special place, in a beautiful and peaceful location. Before leaving, we have the opportunity to explore the grounds more fully. We see the storage area where the big earthenware jars of kimchi, home-made soy sauce and bean paste are carefully arranged and labelled. We are shown the ancient Bangwang-tap pagoda, national treasure number 1112, and savour to the last the atmosphere of the place in the warm morning sun.

Neunghae tell us that our stay has been too short. She is, of course, right.

Further reading:

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