My guidebook said that Haeinsa was a popular day trip from Daegu. This counts as perhaps the greatest understatement ever committed to paper and published as literature, fact or fiction. I arrived by bus at 9am, a journey that took me through a rural landscape of agricultural fields and concrete houses. By the time I’d checked into a hotel and found my way back to the main street there were 17 tour buses in the car park. Every one of them carrying troops of day-trippers clad in outdoor gear.
I should have planned better, it was the weekend and Haeinsa is one of Korea’s most famous temples, containing one of Buddhism’s most treasured items. It was bound to be popular. Sitting majestically on the wooded slopes of Mount Gaya, so called because it’s shaped like a cow’s head, the temple is home to the Tripitaka Koreana, one of the most complete collections of Buddhist texts in the world. There are more than 80,000 of them, all carved into wooden blocks in the first half of the 13th Century.
Fire is an ever present threat, and the authorities don’t often let tourists close to the Tripitaka Koreana, but the blocks can be glimpsed through slatted (for ventilation) windows. If the traditional wooden building that they’re housed in seems a little low tech for such a treasure, that’s because 700 year-old preservation techniques proved to be superior to modern methods. A new storage facility was built in the 1970s, but tests showed that the wood blocks became mildewed, so back they went.
Still, it is something of a miracle that the Tripitaka has survived this long, the main building was burned during the Japanese invasion of 1592, and again in 1817. All the blocks survived, only to narrowly avoid being bombed by Allied planes during the Korean War. They escaped this fate because, even though North Korean troops were in the area, the pilot was Korean and refused to do it.
This bit of information made me look again at my map. Haeinsa is a long way south, only about about 50km from the coast. I had no idea that North Korea came so close to taking control of the whole country, but in September 1950 they controlled 90 percent of the peninsula before being driven back by Allied troops.
The Tripitaka Koreana is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and while I’m sure it’s impressive, the great joy of Haeinsa is to wander around its old buildings while observing Korean families at worship and play. The whole temple site is quite small, but despite the number of people it attracts you can still find corners of calm and tranquility.
The monastery is in the middle of the beautiful Gayasan National Park, and a lot of people had come equipped (perhaps over-equipped) for hiking – Korean’s seem to take the outdoors very seriously. I followed a group of people up the track towards the temple feeling decidedly underdressed, and wondering if I was going to have to hire some crampons and ropes to complete the journey. Despite the harsh gradient it turned out that it was possible to make the trip wearing jeans, even if the majority of people on the route were dressed for an ascent of Mt. Everest.