by Paul Beirne
About 25 years ago, give or take, when I was residing in Seoul, South Korea, I had the opportunity to play host to two German priests who were on their way home from missionary work in Indonesia. They were in Seoul for a day and a half, and they had just one simple request: “Show us Korea” they said. “We want to see it all!” At least they had the grace to laugh!
We departed early on a brisk autumn morning on our quest to see Korea and were soon driving up a winding path lined with Cherry Blossom trees to the gates of Haeinsa Temple, located on Mt. Gaya, deep in the mountain ranges of Gyeongsan Province, two hours south of Seoul. I parked the car and, in the crisp mountain air, we three pilgrims walked through pavilion gates guarded on either side by wooden replicas of two fierce mythical warriors and into the temple grounds Legend has it that Haeinsa temple was founded in CE 802 by two monks, Hon. Suneung and Hon. Ijeong, who were returning to Korea from in China. (The name “Haeinsa” originates from the expression Haeinsammae Hwaeomgyeong –‘the enlightened world of Buddha and our naturally undefiled mind’.)
Walking slowly through the magnificent grand sanctuary with its three-story stone pagoda and ancient temple buildings, I lead my companions to the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of Buddhist texts in Chinese characters engraved on 81,258 woodblocks between 1237 and 1248, and housed in a wooden pavilion which has, since the 15th Century, protected and preserved what is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. We walked reverently through rows and rows of hanging wooden blocks, perhaps imbibing by osmosis some ancient wisdom contained therein.
From there we wandered, together and alone, through the expanse of the temple grounds. My companions, to put it mildly, were in awe of all that surrounded them, and sat for a long time in the clear mountain sunlight, just looking. We ate a simple repast with the monks, and about mid-afternoon I mentioned to them that, as there was much more to see of Korea, we should be leaving soon.
My companions simultaneously shook their heads, and one of them said, “No, Paul, we want to stay here.” The other said, “Look how the colours of the temple mirror the colours of the trees and autumn leaves—golden yellow, bright red, burnt orange–and even the temple roof mimics the colour of tree bark. Look how the buildings are in complete harmony with all that surrounds them. We don’t need to see the rest of Korea. We are experiencing it all now.”
In the gloaming, we joined a Buddhist temple ritual that is both solemn and spectacular. The monks gathered around a giant bell hanging in a pavilion to the side of the temple which overlooked a deep ravine. A thick wooden pole hung from the roof of the pavilion to rest on the edge of the bell. Taking their cue from the dying rays of the sun, two monks separated from the group and began to swing the pole, striking the bell with increasing force. The booming voice of the bell grew in volume until one could not only hear, but feel the sound vibrations as they echoed through us, though the temple and across the mountains and valleys. In the distance, other temple bells pealed in harmony, farewelling sunlight and welcoming the night.
We drove home to Seoul in silence, and retired to our rooms as soon as we arrived. My companions left the following morning. “Thank you for showing us Korea”, they said as we shook hands.
There was no more they needed to say.