Haeinsa Temple: The Home of the Tripitaka Koreana
Visiting a temple in South Korea is a great way to learn more about Korean culture, local Buddhism, and the history of the peninsula. At the same time, a visit to a Korean temple also clears your mind and enhances your overall inner zen. Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon is one of Korea’s most famous temples as it houses the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of 81,258 wooden printing blocks with Buddhist texts from the 13th century.
How to get to Haeinsa Temple
- Address: 122 Haeinsa-gil, Gaya-myeon, Hapcheon-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do
- Operating hours: 6:00 AM – 8:30 PM, daily
- Admission: free
Haeinsa is located about 70 kilometers west of Daegu in Gayasan National Park, South Gyeongsang Province. There are many convenient ways to travel to Haeinsa Temple.
By bus: First, head to Daegu. Then, take a direct bus from Seobu Bus Stop to Haeinsa Temple. This trip takes approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. You can also take a 40-minute direct bus from Goryeong Intercity bus stop (Goryeong-gun southwest of Daegu) to Haeinsa Temple.
By car: There is free parking available right at the temple entrance. It’s a very scenic drive into the mountains.
History of Haeinsa Temple
Haeinsa (해인사, 海印寺 – literally “Temple of the Ocean Mudra”) is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Seon Buddhism. The temple is situated in Gayasan National Park of South Gyeongsang Province.
Haeinsa is most renowned for housing the Tripitaka Koreana since 1398. These Eighty-Thousand Tripitaka consist of the entirety of Buddhist Scriptures carved onto 81,350 wooden printing blocks. This makes Haeinsa a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhist followers all around the world.
Additionally, Haeinsa is one of the so-called “Three Jewels Temples”, or the three principal Buddhist temples in Korea. It is also one of the last remaining centers for the Seon (선, 禪) practice, which is the Korean counterpart of Zen in Japan.
Templestay Program at Haeinsa Temple
What you’ll see at Haeinsa Temple
The temple grounds at Haeinsa are laid out on three levels: lower courtyard, upper courtyard, and the Tripitaka Koreana library at the top.
According to various ancient records, the temple’s layout resembles a sailing ship, which has a special meaning in Buddhism.
Just like all Korean temples, Haeinsa Temple has an entrance gate symbolizing your journey to Buddhism. After a short walk through the gate, you’ll reach the Four Heavenly Kings Gate, another common feature of temples in Korea.
First Level of Haeinsa Temple
Walk up a set of stairs from the entrance path and you’ll reach the first level of Haeinsa Temple passing through the gate of non-duality, called Bullimun.
This first level has about a dozen halls, some of which house temple offices, as well as monk quarters. The center of the first level also features a Buddhist labyrinth called Haeindo.
The building facing Bullimun at the other end of the first level is a temple café, shop, and book store. Having commercial businesses inside a building part of a temple is something I had not seen at another temple before – but hey, why not?
This labyrinth is based on a diagram created by the early Silla Korean scholar-monk Uisang (625-702). This diagram in turn is a visual interpretation of his poem “the Song of Dharma Nature (Beopseongge)”, which he wrote during his time in Tang Dynasty China. This poem is based on a Buddhist philosophy consisting of 210 characters arranged in 30 lines, with 7 characters in each line.
The labyrinth, just like the diagram of the poem, is arranged around the Buddhist swastika, a symbol of auspiciousness.
In the central courtyard of Haeinsa Temple, you can take a spiritual walk around the labyrinth. Visitors should complete the maze while chanting the Song of Dharma Nature (the lyrics are available at the temple in both Korean and English).
The labyrinth also begins and ends at the same spot, which symbolizes that the world is one of singularity.
This type of pavilion is another essential feature of any temple in Korea. It contains the traditional four instruments called “samul”. These four instruments represent the different groups of beings in the universe.
The large bell (beomjong) stands for beings who live on earth, the big drum (beopgo) stands for beings in heaven and hell, the wooden fish (mokeo) stands for all beings in the water, and the cloud gong (unpan) stands for all the beings in the sky.
Two monks play these instruments twice every day.
Second Level of Haeinsa Temple
You can reach the second level of the temple complex via stairs both to the right and left of the temple café building. Now, you’re at the main temple square looking directly at the main hall Daejeokgwangjeon.
Main Hall Daejeokgwangjeon
This hall is also called Hall of Great Tranquility and Light. Resting on the main altar inside of Daejeokgwang-jeon is a centralized statue of the Buddha of Cosmic Energy.
The outside walls of this hall are adorned with the Eight Scenes from the Historical Buddha’s Life.
The monks residing at Haeinsa Temple meet here for prayer in the early morning and evening before bedtime to chant together.
In front of the main hall, you’ll notice a stone pagoda to the right. It’s three-story-tall and called Birotap.
The purpose of pagodas like these is to house Buddhist relics including sutras and images of the Buddha. This particular pagoda at Heainsa Temple enshrines statues of the Buddha, typical for pagodas of the Shilla time. Directly in front of the pagoda, a flat stone lies on the ground allowing visitors to bow to Buddha.
To the left side, you will find a call called Daebirojeon. Inside this hall, a set of wooden twin Buddha statues is housed that have hidden treasures in their abdomen.
You can spot the statues by their unique pose: the index finger of the left hand is clasped by the right hand. This pose symbolizes the union of wisdom and predicament.
These two states are the oldest wooden images of their kind in Korea dating back to the 9th century.
Tripitaka Koreana 팔만 대장경
The third level of the Haeinsa temple complex houses its most prized possession: the Tripitaka Koreana. The word “Tripiṭaka” comes from Sanskrit and means “Triple Basket”. It’s the traditional term for ancient collections of sacred Buddhist scriptures.
The hall where the printed blocks are stored is called Janggyeonggak and consists of two long, connected rectangular buildings.
The buildings and their precious content are both a national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even though the exact construction date of the hall is uncertain, records show that the site was renovated in the 1480s.
What’s interesting is that the foundation of the hall consists of layers of salt, charcoal, lime, and sand, used to reduce the humidity that would destroy the holy woodblocks. The building also faces southwest to prevent direct sunlight from entering, which would also damage the treasure.
Precise craftsmanship of the storage shelves, as well as the doors and windows, allow for good ventilation. This advanced construction has helped to preserve all of the over 80,000 blocks over the centuries.
The woodblocks were created in the 13th century. The Goryeo people of the time carefully carved Buddhist scriptures onto these wooden blocks in hopes to fend off foreign invaders from Mongolia.
This makes these wooden blocks the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist literature in Hanja script. All 81,258 contain no known errors in the 52,330,152 characters in over 1496 titles and 6568 volumes.
The Tripitaka Koreana on Public Display
The collection of the over 80,000 sacred woodblocks has been off-limits to the public for centuries. However, since June of 2021, visitors will be able to see the collection with their own eyes for the first time.
Every Saturday and Sunday at 10 AM and 2 PM, a small group of visitors is allowed to see the world heritage treasure.
How to book
To book a visit, you must head to the temple’s website (haeinsa.or.kr) and click the banner saying “Reservation for pilgrimage to see Palman Daejanggyeong” in Korean. Bookings are available until noon every Monday.
Visitors are designated on a first-come, first-served basis. Those selected will receive notifications via text messages on their cell phones on the afternoon of the day they made reservations.
Each time slot can accommodate 10-20 visitors, with a limit of one reservation per person. Young children are not allowed.
Each tour lasts between 40 and 50 minutes.
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