Getting Upclose and Personal with Buddha

I have a great idea – let’s go stay in a Temple – Vegan meals, you sleep on the floor, you get woken up at 3:00 am by drums to pray with the Monks, there’s 108 bows (from standing to full prostration) to Buddha to perform, followed by an hour of no fidgeting, no moving, meditation. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

You really have to wonder what I’m thinking some days!


Fortunately, the Intrepid Traveler is a good sport – and willing to take a chance on these insane ideas of mine. So among our other plans for South Korea – we included a 2 day and 1 night stay at one of South Korea’s most famous monasteries – Haein-sa.

A couple of things you should know – the difference between a ‘Temple’ and a ‘Monastery’ is not what you might think. A ‘Temple’ is just a place of worship, a ‘Monastery’ contains not only a ‘Temple’, but also a school for Monks and a meditation center. Haein-sa has all that and more – it is also home to the Tripitaka Koreana – the oldest set of wooden printing blocks of the entire writings of Buddha in the world. This makes Haein-sa a double UNESCO world heritage site. It was saved from bombing during the Korean War because the US asked Korean fighter pilots to bomb it – and they recognized the value of the site – and dropped their bombs on the other side of the mountain.

Bottom line – it’s famous.

It’s also hard to get to. I guess that figures. So Jill and I get on an express bus out of Gyeongju for Daegu, switch to a local bus in Daegu for Haein-sa – and find ourselves packed in tight with fellow worshipers heading up the winding mountain road. The drive alone is a religious experience – of the ‘Oh Man – missed that one – Yikes – missed that one’ variety. Narrow roads, steep inclines, and buses passing buses for most of the 2 hour trip. Eventually we arrive at the ‘Lion’s Gate’ – the official entrance to the site. The bus continues up past 2 different parking areas, eventually dropping us at the ‘end of the line’ – and the beginning of a 1 km hike up to the main temple.

Haein-sa looks like I think a Buddhist temple should look. It’s isolated, it’s green, there are winding mediation paths everywhere, and there’s a wonderful mountain stream running over giant rocks to our left. It’s stunning. And crowded. And steep. And while we could stuff Jill’s suitcase into a locker at Daegu, mine didn’t fit – so she’s got her overnight stuff in a backpack – I’ve got mine in my backpack – and I’m dragging my suitcase. Not going to be fun.

Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers. On the bus a lovely young lady on her way to the Temple to pray had been telling us where we should get off – and when she realized that we had this suitcase to drag up hill – for a very long km – she pushed me aside and grabbed the handle. Jill made it about 1/3 of the way before I took her backpack off and added it to the suitcase – harder on our young friend but a lot easier on Jill. We walk slowly up to the main entrance to the Monastery – and then up 108 steps to the temple grounds. Our friend finds the Temple Stay office for us – and wishes us health on the rest of our trip. We wish her success with her prayers.


At the Temple Stay office, our charming hostess checked us in, gave us our temple uniform, and escorted to our cozy room for 15. We collapse. It’s cool, and we’re wiped – and there’s a long night ahead.


During our stay – we must follow the temple time-table – and we must wear our temple uniform of baggy grey pants and an over wrap. The good news – everyone looks a bit funny, and no one sticks out. Plus we are clearly identified as Temple Stay participants – which gives us access to Temple dining, and a front row seat (well – kneel really) at services at 3:00 am.

Our fellow participants are a mixed group – about 40% are Korean – the other 60% have English as the common language, Australian, Brits, Americans and surprisingly at least 6 Canadians. The biggest single group is a cluster of English Teachers in private schools here in Korea – mostly pre-k, kindergarten, and up to 2nd grade. They share a website so they can meet up with each other to avoid feelings of isolation. And they decided that a Temple Stay would be a good cultural experience..

First up – Temple manners. We remove our shoes to enter the practice hall – and the Monk chosen to lead our group takes us to task for being sloppy and disorganized. Do it again – and get it right this time. Who knew that taking off shoes had rules?

Shoes removed to his satisfaction, we now must learn to bow. Silly me – thought I knew that. Nope. Turns out you must do this a special way as well. It’s feet close together (that makes it harder according to our teacher), knees to the prayer mat, hands to the mat, head touching right above your eyes, hands up and cupped – held level with your ears like you are lifting Buddha to heaven, hands down, then push forward, then push back and up to standing. Repeat. and Repeat. The third of the set includes a hapjang (palms together, fingers pointed towards your eyes).

Then we learn the proper position for mediation. There is standing mediation, walking meditation, and sitting mediation. Our teacher focuses on walking and sitting. Learning to sit isn’t that easy either. You have to have both knees touching the ground while one foot supports you and the other is folded on top. And your back must be straight. We will be doing an hour of this – and if we fall asleep – we will be struck with a stick – which the assistant demonstrates on the Monk. Ouch.

By the way – our Monk doesn’t speak English – so he speaks Korean and our hostess translates. But watching him move is intriguing, he is so graceful and elegant and efficient. No wasted gestures. Quite beautiful in fact.


It is now time for temple dinner. We’ve been warned to be silent during dinner – in fact our Monk has challenged us not to make idle chatter while we are at the Temple, and also been told not to make any comments about the food. We must be grateful to be fed. Well – I was grateful, but also glad that Jill and I had smuggled in some pastries from Paris Baguette. Monks don’t eat well. Even for Vegans.

After dinner, it’s time to put our temple manners to the test. We line up in 2 columns (Koreans do everything in 2 columns – just saying) and walk slowly with our hands clasped in front of us to the drum pagoda. There are 5 different kinds of instruments, a large (twice the size of a man) drum, a wooden fish drum (see pictures), a cloud shaped gong, and a huge bell. All will be played by the Monks before prayers are started.

After listening to them, we proceed up 4 flights of stairs – no banisters, very steep – to the main temple, and take our prayer mats and places to the right front. There are already a fair number of participants – all further to the back than us.

The Monks (about 8) silently join us – and the lead Monk starts the service by striking a wooden gourd. We bow in time with the others – hum along with the sung prayer, bow a few more times in unison, and then are excused.

It is now time for what I think is the highlight of the day – something called ‘Tea with a Monk’. There are about 32 of us in total – and we gather in a circle – and are invited to ask our Monk any questions we want. Some are pretty banal – the number of Monks in the temple (it varies – from a dozen to 200 when there is a full retreat), why our Monk became a Monk (He prayed for guidance for 2 years before making the choice), but some are really important.


One gal asks what we should be thinking about when we meditate – and that leads to a long discussion about meditation in general. Our Monk suggests that we focus on our breathing – and ask ourselves – who knows that we are breathing?

Another gal confesses that she doesn’t think she is worth much – and the Monk takes her to task – You must rid yourself of these thoughts, you must accept who you are – your past made you this way – it is the current and the future that you can change.

In general, the Korean participants ask the more meaningful questions, but the Monk rephrase them to be applicable to all. I keep thinking of the Jewish Mantra – “This too Shall Pass”.

At the end of what becomes a very emotional and for some ‘weepy’ session, we are excused to go to bed. End of a long, but oh so interesting day.

Signing off in silence – The soup lady and the intrepid Traveler.

3 thoughts on “Getting Upclose and Personal with Buddha

  1. I am so tired right now I can’t imagine 108 stairs to climb, but I would do it if I had the chance. A great experience to have for memories.

  2. Jill, sitting here in my comfy chair, exhausted after reading this adventure. Soup Lady descriptions are so vivid. Excellent

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