When I announced to my friends my decision to go to a Buddhist Temple, alone, overnight, on my birthday, I was more surprised that they weren’t surprised. I guess they’re just used to me at this point. 2020 has been an incredibly mixed bag for me. Some things have been absolutely wonderful, and others have been terrible. As one friend put it, “You need to scrub off the first half of 2020.” So, a Korean templestay was in order!

A Bit About Haeinsa

A view of a temple building in the rain with misty gray mountains outlined in the back. In the foreground is a stone monument and a wooden structure from which many multicolored lanterns hang.
Despite the rain the temple is beyond beautiful

I chose Haeinsa Temple for my Korean templestay. It’s one of the two most famous temples in Korea, and one of the three most important to the Korean Buddhist practice. Haeinsa houses the Triptika Koreana, around 81,000 wooden blocks transcribing the Buddhist canon. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is generally not possible to glimpse these wooden blocks without doing a special program with the temple. Haeinsa is also one of the “Three Jewel” temples of Korea, with each temple representing an important facet of Korean Buddhism. Haeinsa represents the Buddhist Teachings. In other words, I was reasonably certain my experience would be “legit.”

Getting There

Getting to Haeinsa took some doing. I’d say it’s my most ambitious trip yet, and I’ve been to over 25 places in Korea so far. I first had to take a train to Daegu, the site of the massive Covid outbreak just a few months ago. Luckily, through careful management, the case numbers (at the time) were low across Korea. I stayed overnight in Daegu and prompty fell in love with its random grand churches and adorable hanok cafes. I headed to Haeinsa in the morning.

Although taking the bus to Haeinsa is meant to be simple – i.e. get on the bus – it isn’t. I had made the erroneous assumption that not that many people would be heading to Haeinsa at 1:20 on a Saturday. I was very wrong. It turns out that there is another popular stop on the way, which meant my bus was full. By the time the next bus rolled in at 2PM, I was already stressed about being late for the 3-4PM check-in. I was ready to learn about meditation.

When I arrived there was a torrential downpour that began only as soon as I stepped off the bus. Have I mentioned I’m infamous for getting lost? I could get lose myself going in a straight line. When I “hiked” Arther’s Seat in Edinburgh, one of the easiest hikes ever, I managed to get lost three times. The Google Timeline image is hilarious.

So, yeah. I got lost. Most shockingly, I actually managed to make it pretty far before the not-so-helpful pictures the temple sent (directions written in Korean despite having signed up for the English program) ran out. I had made it to the One-Pillar-Gate, an inside joke among Buddhists because when you view it from the side it…looks like one pillar 😛 But I was able to call the English guide and she came and helped me find my way!

The Experience

Day 1

They provided me, the one foreign guest, with a near full time translator. I have never felt so helpless nor so important all at the same time. She was incredibly helpful, and it was through her that I could pepper my questions about everything related to Buddhism ever.

But now the real fun began. The whole afternoon and morning were chock-full of activities. The vegetarian food was shockingly delicious – from a person who loves meat. It just goes further to prove my theory that if vegetables would just be cooked in interesting ways, I’d probably eat them more often.

After dinner I spent 20 minutes mesmerized by giant drums and ringing gongs to send the message of Buddhism out to even the animals in the air and sea. Then, the proper bow I’d learned earlier would come in handy for the 108 prostrations. Clack. Bow, string a bead, stand up quickly, clack, repeat. Clack. Repeat. Repeat another 106 times until you have a string of prayer beads and your body aches. Surprisingly meditative, your mind kinda shorts out after awhile. Now it’s the perfect time to stumble home and pass out – tomorrow is an early day.

Day 2

Wakeup time is 4 am, ready for a slog through the mud to the morning ceremony in the temple proper. Incense, chanting, reflection, bowing. Three buddha figures face us. They’ve passed out the instructions for chanting and I cling to the one line I can read.

Then, meditation. It was somewhat funny that as soon as we’d all sat down the Monk left. Apparently she’d done enough of that in her life already! Despite having been the only other person in the room to have tried meditation before (? or at least I was the only one to respond), I believe I struggled the most. My brain continually wandered, and I couldn’t seem to let go or to focus on a single thing. I honestly think it was too early for coherent thought patterns!

Then we went on a lovely walk through the temple grounds. Because it was so incredibly foggy (check out that title photo!) our monk decided it would be pointless to go to see the little temples. Instead she took us through a normally restricted area to see a shrine and chat.

Finally, we had teatime with our monk – which was delicious. Haeinsa actually employs its own tea master. So it’s one of the only places to reliably get great tea in Korea! We could ask the monk any questions we had, and she tried to get to know some of us. When it was revealed that I was a traveler she asked where I was going next – at the time I was planning for Tongdosa. As soon as I mentioned it, she laughed! Immidiately she asked all the Korean’s in the room why Tongdosa and Songgwangsa (along with Haeinsa) were special temples. No one could answer! She told them the foreigner knew more than they did 😛

And then it was time to pack up and head home, but what a wonderful experience it was.

The Cost and Experience

Obviously overall I had a fantastic time. I will stay it was very tiring, however. For someone working a fulltime job to then go do this rather intense weekend, it was a lot. I am so glad I did it, but I think I would opt for a Freestyle program when I do it again.

The program I did was IN Haeinsa Korean templestay. It cost 100,000krw, or around 86USD. If you opt for the freestyle program it is only 70,000krw. It doesn’t include anything guided, and essentially pays for the night in the temple, food, and the ability to join in chanting and prayer sessions.

A wood decorated room with six small mats with small pillows on top of each other set across from each other on the floor.
The beautiful meditation room which smelled of cedar

The Accommodation

I was shocked to learn just how nice the accommodation for the Korean templestay is. Air-conditioning, heated floors in winter, a wet bath that isn’t faulty, and nice clean/reasonably soft beds. The room was a cross between a traditional housing unit and a modern apartment. The doors were double layered with wood with a sliding screen, perfect to enjoy the….torrential downpour in the evening. But really, the rain was actually lovely at night, lulling me to sleep with the sound of the nearby waterfall.

The interior of a korean templestay room with two bunkbeds on either side of the room with a closed door leading to a bathroom.
I needed to dry my pants on the ladder – I was soaked!

Conclusion

I had a fantastic time, and Haeinsa is gorgeous. If you’re wanting to join a Korean templestay program, I highly recommend coming to Haeinsa. It’s my favorite temple that I’ve been to in Korea, so far. It’s not too confusing to get to if you’re coming from Seoul, Busan, or Daegu.

I’ve been traveling Korea for over a year now! Check out my other posts on living in Korea:

How to Teach English in Korea

Gyeongju Travel Guide: Korea’s Pyramids

Seoul Travel Guide: The Real City that Never Sleeps

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