Haeinsa Temple and the “Tripitaka Koreana,” South Korea

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The first time we went to Haeinsa temple was two days ago after we had just arrived in the Gayasan National park area.

We first went to get a hiking map of Gayasan National Park, and to make sure to find out where the hiking trail started.
We planned to hike Mount Gaya the next day.

It was nearly sunset when we arrived at Haeinsa Temple, but I was eager to see this wonderful temple which houses the whole scriptures of the Buddha, meticulously hand carved on well preserved wooden tablets.
This historical treasure is called the “Tripitaka Koreana.”

At sunset, the temple was almost empty of people, and the crimson wooden poles of the entrance gate glowed in deep red tones.

On this visit, we were too late to enter the depository buildings where the Tripitaka Koreana is held, so we decided to dedicate another day to tour this temple located on the slopes of mount Gayasan.

Mount Gaya, or like the locals pronounce it, with a deep click of the throat which sounds like “Mount Kaya,” is a stunning forested mountain with a succession of very rocky peaks.

The day before, we had climbed that mountain and it was a HARD and arduous climb over a rocky terrain.

At the gate of the Temple stood the four guardians of the North, South, East and West.
At this gate, the guardians were painted on the walls, instead of being sculpted from wood or stone, which are the norm.

A woman came up to me and offered me a sweet that was made from rice and chestnuts.
We had just had breakfast and a lot of tea in a nearby tea house, so I put the offering in my backpack to enjoy later.
It was a much welcomed hot day, after many cool days and a few rainy days.

Then we re-toured the Temple buildings, this time listening to the UNESCO commentary on my iPad as we walked around.

In the courtyard in front of the main hall, a maze symbol is laid in stone on the ground.
For the upcoming Buddha’s birthday, they had erected above the maze symbol, a maze made of lanterns.

This maze symbol was inspired by the Buddhist Swastika symbol, which symbolizes the path to the ‘Perfection Of Wisdom,’ or Enlightenment.

We were lucky to have the courtyard all to ourselves, and we walked into this maze of lanterns and followed the path.

At first, as we walked into the maze, and it felt as if we would be ending up in a dead end.
But as I turned the corner and saw that the path continued, I was reminded of the spiritual path, and how those who choose to walk it feel at first that it is just a maze of concepts that might end in a dead end… Yet as you continue on the path, things get easier and easier,….. the world starts to make sense and the path unfolds and unravels in front of you.

You start trusting the path…
As we walked the maze, I remembered the saying that:
“All those who seek the Truth, MUST find it.
It is a promise Guaranteed by God.
You simply CANNOT FAIL!”

We meditated in the Hall of the Scholars, and visited the large wooden depositories where the Tripitaka Koreana has been stored for more than 500 years.

The 80,000 Tripitaka tablets are made from cherry and pear wood harvested from the nearby mountainsides.

Once the trees were chopped down, they were allowed to rest where they fell for two years.
The wood was then boiled in salt water, and then allowed to dry in a well ventilated place for another two years.

After the characters were carved onto each tablet, they were smeared with a mixture of oil and charcoal.

They are stored in specially built wooden depositary buildings, which use very advanced design technology to preserve the tablets without mold or insect damage.

When a few tablets were transferred to an air-conditioned and climate controlled museum, they cracked or developed mold, which disappeared when they were brought back to their buildings at Haeinsa.

At the entrance to the main Temple grounds is a pavilion with a huge bronze bell, a gong made from a bronze plate, a large carved wooden fish gong, and a gigantic drum.

This pavilion is called “The sound of salvation,” because the sounds of the bell, gong, and drum are believed to save sentient beings who hear them, from the oceans of suffering and delusions.
The carved fish used to be much larger, but was reduced in size, because too many of the monks were hitting their heads while striking the gong!

The story of the origin of Haeinsa Temple date back to the Shilla Dynasty.
The wife of the Shilla king (about 1220 years ago) became very ill, and was not responding to the best healing remedies offered by the court physicians.

The king, who loved her very much, was distraught at the prospect of losing her, and consulted a venerated hermit who lived in the mountains of Gayasan.

He told the King to tie a string to the pear tree outside the palace, and to tie the other end to the big toe of the bedridden queen.

The king followed his directions, and almost immediately, the queen regained her health, while the pear tree shriveled and died.

Out of deepest gratitude, the king built a small temple to honor the hermit, which over the years expanded into the Haeinsa Temple Complex.

We bought two prayer bead bracelets made from the aromatic Juniper wood, and two grey monk style shirts, one for each of us.

We also bought two tablets printed on traditional korean paper, of the Tripitaka Koreana.

We visited twice a wonderful tea and coffee house just outside the first gate to the Temple.
In our morning visit, we had a honey bread set, which included thick bread and a fruit smoothie, actually a kind of jam with very little sugar that you spooned onto the bread – quite good!

My favorite was the green tea which was served on a ceremonial tray.
There were tiny cups and a tiny tea pot, a water thermos, a small clay strainer and a clay holding cup.

I had to pour hot water (exactly 85 degree) into the tiny tea pot, let it brew for exactly one minute and pour it through the strainer to the holding cup.
From the holding cup I would pour it into the tiny tea cups.
It all felt to me like those times when I was a kid playing with my friends, making an imaginary tea party with toy cups.

The tea was tender and delicious and this clay tea set was brilliant.

We ate dinner that night on the road near Haeinsa Temple.
It was at a vegetarian restaurant called Sansaui Achim (Mountain Temple’s Morning.)

This restaurant specializes in traditional temple food, made of wild vegetables and all fresh and natural seasonings.
The dishes are prepared by an old lady who speaks not a word of English, but she does have an English menu and more importantly, many years of cooking experience.

On our first visit to her place, we had a set menu feast with a lot of her offerings.
It included many delicious dishes and a medicinal wild herb salad, which was served with her medicinal lemon, horseradish herbal sauce.

That night, she cooked for us some wild mushrooms which we saw being sold all along the roads in this area.
The mushroom hot pot tasted like the very essence of the forest, and all the other dishes were also complex in flavor and simple at the same time.

Jules and I were happy to have had a relaxed day of strolling around the temple, having delicious teas and a nice conversation with the tea house owner who spoke good English and gave us some free drinks of the “Kings Brew,” which was made from a 1500 year old recipe.

We also met a Korean lady who lives in Miami, Florida, and travels all over the world.
She had come to Haeinsa for a Temple stay of three months, and she said she has been coming here every year for the past thirteen years.

I could see myself doing that also…
This area is very soothing and wholesome, if you come in a season that gets less tourists.

I feel sad to leave these quiet mountains, dotted with hermitages and temples, and to go down to the shores of the South Sea,……. but we must…. And tomorrow, we leave and our journey must continue….

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