Waking up at three AM was something that I’ve never attempted. I’ve experienced it from the other angle and stayed up until three to see the most quiet part of the night. I’ve woken up at four to catch airplanes or buses. I’ve driven through the night in the middle of America watching the lines on the highway. However, waking up at three for the sake of starting my day was something foreign.
I was not groggy as I awoke – there was more of a pensiveness to the atmosphere as we all began to stir and roll up our mats and take turns in the bathroom and make for the door. Outside the moon still dominated the sky and as we convened in a courtyard we couldn’t help but stare up at it. We made our way in line to the drum and watched the monks and then went to the temple and listened to the monks chanting. The rituals were repeated but took on a whole new meaning in darkness of the very early morning. The routine had kicked in and I had come as close to immersion in temple life as I would during my stay there.
So we made our way to the tea room where we laid down mats in lines and faced forward at our guide and she put on a CD that took us through 108 bows. Backing a man’s voice was music that could have served as the soundtrack to Braveheart. The music wove it’s way through moments of intense adventure and tranquil lulls. After a while I stopped counting the bows and tried to focus only on the movements I was making. The bowing process becomes somewhat strenuous when repeated, and a few people had to stop and rest. After the bowing we meditated. I might have fallen asleep if it weren’t for the intense pain in my legs unused to being crossed for extended periods of time.
We had a delicious yet simple breakfast of rice, kimchi, and soup and pickled things and then went on a tour of the temple. We were shown a building that houses the Tripitaka Koreana. The building is carefully planned to provide the right conditions for almost thousand year old wooden printing blocks of the Buddhist scriptures.
After our tour the silence lifted and the Templestayers dispersed. Wesley and I were the only ones staying another night so I nodded goodbyes to the people I had not really spoken to. By this time it was mid-morning and I had been up for seven hours. I decided to take a nice long nap before lunch, unfolding my mat.
After lunch, Wesley and I took off toward town. We made our on the path and witnessed the full degree of tourism that occurs at the foot of Haeinsa. The flea market that had been empty the previous morning was bustling with school children and tour groups and people in costumes. It was a shock after spending nearly 24 hours in almost complete silence. We quickly made our way through saying hello to curious school children eager to try out their English on us.
After a little searching we found the trail head that we were looking for and began to make up way up toward the summit of Namsan Jeilbong. There were a few hikers who smiled or tried a little English. The path was well marked and maintained and took us fairly quickly to the summit using metal stairs where the rocks became too steep to be safe. We took in the view and continued on a steep descent down the other side not quite knowing where it would end up.
The trail meandered to a small temple at the base of the mountain with a garden full of greenery. I smiled at a lady as she made her way past us to do some harvesting. The path continued to a town with distant noises of cows and dogs and the occasional car. We saw a festival in the distance and walked in its direction hoping it would bring us to a road that would loop back to Haeinsa. We had slightly misjudged time and distance and the day was wearing on.
A van sped around the corner and came to an abrupt stop. “Haeinsa?” the driver said. We nodded and he motioned for us to get in. The man drove with a confidence a person can only have in their hometown roads. He cut the s-shapes right down the middle and honked at anything or anyone that was encroaching on his path. His foot slammed on the gas for straightaways and flexed precisely on the brake for corners. We soon found ourselves in Haeinsa town. The driver handed us a card for a nearby hotel, smiled, and took off up the road probably rushing to get back for dinner.
We trudged up the hill, set our packs down in our room, caught dinner and made our way outside to view the temple at night. The lanterns that lined the path had been illuminated and the atmosphere was one of quiet festivity. I heard the drumming and chanting from a distance – this time slightly muffled and enchanting, and night had returned to Haeinsa.