After a chilly night of what I think was slightly below freezing temperatures, I awoke slightly disoriented on a stream bank. The sun had just come up and was reaching through leaves in full foliage colors. I hadn’t been able to see the trees in the dark and did not realize that we had arrived in the mountains in peak Fall season.
Wesley and I ate a breakfast of bread and water, and looked around. There turned out to be a legitimate campsite across the road that was completely vacant. There wasn’t even a sign of a caretaker. The occasional car rushed past on the road on some errand. We wandered the rest of the way down the mountain through Haeinsa town and and started making our way to the temple. There were a few town residents out eating breakfast or getting their shop ready for the day. They gave a friendly and slightly confused smile and stared as we walked down the road.
We got to the base of the temple and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a flea market. The temple rush hadn’t started yet so all the merchants very enthusiastically pushed free samples our way. We tried a variety of foods including rice vinegar and homemade green tea. A group of Korean temple goers wanted their picture taken with us so we humored them. Eventually we pushed on past the mecca of commerce and up a path lined with colorful lanterns. Things got quieter as we neared the temple and the people thinned out. This quiet would soon be shattered by busloads of tourists and pilgrims. But for now it was peaceful. I walked down a path past a mirrored pyramid and looked at some buildings. Wesley said it was like Rivendale. I turned around and saw the first big group of the day leading droves of companions making their way to the entrance. We decided to hurry up before it got more crowded.
We found the entrance – a long straight path up a few stairs and through a few sets of arches. The second arch led into a courtyard where people peddled around. To the left was a giant drum under a roof where a monk performed a fast-paced routine with arms tracing patterns around the drumhead. The ground was all dirt and had countless footprints.
We saw a sign for Templestay and followed it down some stairs eventually coming to a room where we checked in for the night. We followed a lady who spoke no Korean who brought us to our room and then immediately brought us to lunch. We had a silent meal of soup and rice and kimchi and a few other vegetarian side dishes. At four, our Templestay program started. We met the monk who would be working with us and practiced bowing and then had dinner. There were about 10 of us total and the men and women slept in different rooms. Our sleeping room was a giant hall with sauna climate and mats to put down on the floor.
Following dinner, we had some down time. When the sun started to set we made our way to the courtyard. The tourists had left for the day and peace had returned to Haeinsa. We walked to the giant drum and stood quietly in a line. Monks took turns performing quick-handed solos on the drums with wooden sticks that seemed effortless. To switch performers, a monk would approach the drum and sync up with the beat before the other monk stepped off and sat down. From there we went to a shrine with three enormous golden statues of the Buddha. We did three bows and then listened as one monk began chanting with the accompaniment of a woodblock. The chant erupted as the other monks joined in creating a thunderous chorus. Outside the night was completely quiet. It was hypnotizing and was the most moving experience during my time in the temple.
From there we marched in a line to a room where we sat on cushions on the floor. They served us tea and we talked with the monk who taught us to bow. He spoke no English but we had a few translators. People asked him mostly about specific problems and the monk pointed out that the conversation was becoming cyclical, that people needed to become aware of their inner-mind. Most of the specifics of the conversation were lost in translation.
After an hour and a half of tea, we went to our room and went to sleep on our mats anticipating a three in the morning wake-up.