After spending a year living in Kuji, Japan, Stian and I spent two weeks traveling in Korea before returning to the United States. We spent fourteen days in the most oppressive humidity imaginable: walking all over Seoul, hiking in national parks, risking our lives on buses which the drivers seemed to have mistaken for sports cars, and visiting world heritage site after world heritage site and temple after temple.
A few days before the end of our trip, we detoured from the standard tourist route to make a stop at Haeinsa Temple. Haeinsa, or Reflections on a Calm Sea, Temple is famous for housing the 81,258 carved woodblocks of the Korean Tripitaka. Th e woodblocks were carved in the mid 13th century, and have been housed at Haeinsa since the late 14th century. Th e temple is located halfway up Mt. Gayasan in the middle of South Korea. Th e woodblocks have been preserved for hundreds of years in two depositories built above the rest of the temple complex and tucked against the northeast side of the mountain. The woodblocks have survived fires and pillaging that have devastated the rest of the temple buildings at various periods in history. And, in more modern times, a former President of Korea commissioned a new modern, climate-controlled storage facility to be built to house the blocks. Th e few test blocks that were placed in the facility quickly began to mildew.
All this background information about Haeinsa had fascinated me. And, what appealed to me even more was the Lonely Planet’s description of the monks at Haeinsa chanting the morning service.
Stian and I left Gyeongju on the earliest bus possible in order to arrive at Haeinsa by the late morning service. (We would, of course, miss the 3 a.m. service.)
The journey to Haeinsa seemed interminable. At dawn we donned our packs and ran across town to the bus station in Gyeongju. After 90 minutes on a fish-scented bus, we arrived in Daegu. We left our packs at the only remaining lockers at the central bus terminal, ran through the rain to the subway station, navigated Daegu’s subway, and ended up at the Eastern Daegu bus terminal just in time to catch the bus to Haeinsa Temple. The bus’s final destination was not actually the temple, and, although the Lonely Planet Guide had told us which bus to take, the guidebook had been somewhat less clear about where to get off. At every stop we struggled to compare the Hangeul on the signs with the Hangeul in our guidebook. And, each time we thought we were there, the bus driver sent us back to our seats. In the end, the driver dumped us in the middle of a small village, in the pouring rain, with no temple in sight.
As luck would have it, the only other remaining passenger on our bus invited us to share her cab. Her grey clothing indicated that she had some connection to the temple, and, indeed, that’s where she was heading. We arrived at the temple just at the time that the second of the two morning services was supposed to be ending.
The sounds of the monks chanting filled the entire temple compound, and I started swiftly walking toward the music, ignoring all of English signage and tourist information on my way in. I climbed the steps to the worship hall, and peered in the front doors. The building was amazingly full. Hundreds of people were already packed inside, and many more were still entering when I arrived. I wanted to go in and get a better look at the monks and to listen to their chanting. I was just trying to make up my mind about whether it would be appropriate for me to enter, when a young Korean woman with competent English said to me, “Please, you should come inside.” Moments later, I had stacked my shoes and umbrella outside the door and was following the woman into the temple.
The primary image and altar were located in the center of the building. People doing prostrations surrounded the image on all fours sides of the temple. My host led me over to a stack of cushions behind the image, and we each took one, put them on the ground, and started doing prostrations along with the chanting. Our pillows were positioned next to a huge sound system or recording system sparkling with dozens of red and green lights. I was just thinking about our unfortunate placement (and the fact that I hadn’t yet been able to catch a glimpse of the chanting monks), when my host went to speak with a woman who appeared to be one of the primary temple assistants. The temple assistant led us through the crowd of people, and found us a spot in front of the image.
I spent twenty minutes absorbing the sights and sounds. The people (mostly middle-aged women) surrounding me were clad in grey pants of every imaginable shade and fabric. Everyone was prostrating at his or her own pace. There seemed to be certain points in the chanting when everyone prostrated together. At other times, some of the practitioners rested while others continued to prostrate. At various times during the practice, my host had tears streaming down her face. The monks were clad in robes of grey and brown. Three of them were up at the altar beating on the wooden hand drum and singing into the microphone.
After twenty minutes or so, I began to lose interest in the newness of the experience, and I started to wonder when the service would be ending. According to my guidebook, it was supposed to have ended long before this. I thought of Stian outside wandering in the temple grounds, and hoped that he wouldn’t have already gone to look at the woodblocks by the time I got out of the main worship hall.
Eventually more monks started wandering into the hall. Ten or twelve of them were seated on cushions in front of the front door. The chanting ended, and one of the monks began to give what I assumed to be a Dharma talk. After he spoke for about ten minutes, my host leaned over to me and said, “Once a week there is a special ceremony for people who have died.” So apparently, the morning service was over, and now I was in here for a memorial service.
The memorial service seemed to proceed in much the same manner as the morning service. We recited something that I am fairly sure was the Heart Sutra in Korean. We did more prostrations. We recited something that had a lot of a word sounding like “Namu Abitafu”. During this chanting, row by row, the people in the temple began to make their way to an altar on the right side of the hall. I watched them and noticed that they were carrying money, and I figured that this is how they take up a collection in Korean temples. I started thinking about the huge number of people sitting in this temple, and I realized that this collection business would take at least another half hour. I turned to look behind me out the open front doors, and I located Stian sitting on the porch of another building across the courtyard. I thought about the woodblocks that I had yet to see. I wished that I didn’t have such a “good” seat right in front of the altar. If I had stayed by the side doors, I would have been able to sneak out. I wondered how we would ever get a taxi back to the spot where our bus dropped us off two hours before.
Finally, my host turned to me and said, “Okay, it’s our turn. Please come.” So we jumped in line and made our way up to the side altar. As we approached the altar, I could see numerous vases of flowers and three photographs resting on top. When we were within several feet of the altar, my host turned to me again. “That picture over there—that’s my boy.”
She turned back toward the altar and I waited for her words to sink in. I looked more closely at the photograph—a boy of no more than seven years old standing in a field and smiling. Her boy. Her son. Her son was dead. Recently dead. And she had taken time and effort to speak English with me, to welcome me, a tourist really, into this ceremony.
I suddenly felt like I had been snatched out of ordinary life and dropped down in the middle of a turbulent ocean of pain. Or maybe more like I had been woken up out of a dream that had let me temporarily forget that I am swimming in this ocean. I could see how life doesn’t stop for death, but I wanted to be able to stop it, to rewind it, to erase this woman’s suffering…and my suffering.
Of course, there is only the here and now. After the ceremony was over, the woman told me about the years she had spent studying in Rochester. She told me about her son who had died the week before. She told me about her current life—her life at the temple where she will live for a month while she is praying for her son.
And, when I left Haeinsa, I didn’t mind that I hadn’t had time to see the woodblocks.