Posted by: rbbadger | November 8, 2009


Recently, I paid a visit to Haeinsa, one of Korea’s Three Jewel temples.  The three jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the Dharma which is the teaching of the Buddha, and the Sangha which is the community of Buddhists.  Haeinsa is the temple devoted to the Dharma.  It is very famous, owing to the fact that it has one of the greatest treasures of Korean printing, the Tripitaka Koreana.  This collection of the complete Mahayana scriptures is carved in classical Chinese onto woodblocks and dates back to the thirteenth century.  You are still allowed to visit the building which houses these woodblocks, but they are very, very careful with them.  They have since been digitised and put onto CD-ROM.  Additionally, translations have been into modern Korean from them as well.  Haeinsa is also a teaching temple and there were quite a few young monks about.  It is home to one of the Buddhist seminaries for young monks.

Unlike Jogyesa, which I posted photos of quite a while ago, Haeinsa is in an out-of-the way location and it involves a bit of hiking just in order to reach it.  After climbing up hill for about a kilometre or so, you come across the first gate.  Iljimun or the one-pillar gate marks the leaving behind of the secular world and the entrance into the realm of the Buddha.


As you approach the second gate, there is a very interesting historical relic.  According to temple lore, this tree was planted by the founders of Haeinsa in the eighth century.  Nothing of the original buildings remain, as wood buildings are not the most permanent.

Ancient tree

Next, one must pass through the four guardians gate.  There are paintings of four scary-looking guardians inside.  As the story goes, these guardians protected the Buddha as he left his father’s house and began his life as a mendicant.

Four heavenly kings gate

Near the Four Guardians Gate, you find a shrine dedicated to the Mountain Spirit, one of the many gods of Korean shamanism.  Shamanism and Korean Buddhism have had a rather peaceful co-existence.  Shrines to various shamanic deities are common in Korean temple complexes.  However, as Professor Robert Buswell, a former monk in Korea states, the monks never chant in those buildings as they do in the various Buddha and Bodhisattva halls.

Mount spirit shrine

Finally, we come to the Nirvana gate which leads to the temple complex proper.  There are thirty-three steps from the one-pillar gate to the temple complex.  The steps are quite steep indeed.

Nirvana gate

As befits its role as a teaching temple, Haeinsa participates in a programme sponsored by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism known as Templestay.  In this program, interested people can spend a weekend (or longer) living the life of a Korean Buddhist monk or nun.  Also, some laypeople who are undergoing periods of strict practice will sometimes make retreats at the temple for longer periods.  They often dress in the grey hanbok of a monk as well.  Haeinsa is currently building a new Templestay building.  For the roofing, they are going to tile it in the traditional fashion.  A common fundraising technique among temples in Korea is to allow donors to buy a tile on which their name is written.  Temples also make some income by selling lanterns, which are then hung from the ceiling of the main Buddha hall with the names and prayers of the donors.  Korean monks do not beg, as Thai or Cambodian monks do. 

Fund raising tiles

Haeinsa has a large information centre and gift shop.  Sadly, they don’t seem to have much in the way of postcards, so this will have to suffice.

Haeinsa Information Gate

Before the main chanting periods which take place in the very early morning hours and in the afternoon, a monk will play the four percussion instruments in the bellfry.  These are meant to awake all living things to the teaching of the Buddha.  The drum, cloud-shaped gong, bell, and wooden fish are the instruments. 

Massive drum

Fish, cloud gong, and bell

Finally, we come to the main Buddha hall.  It is decorated with scenes from the Buddha’s life.  Generally, the temples do not want you take photos of the interior, though sometimes permission is granted.  As you can see in this photo, I ended up getting a photo of a young monk.  The younger monks were engaged in some construction work.  However, they still retain their monastic dress. 

Main Buddha hall

Scenes from the life of the Buddha

As is customary, Buddhist temples in Korea and China tend not to be just one building.  Rather, they are complexes of buildings.  In your larger temples, such as Bulguksa in Gyeongju, you will see all sorts of halls each dedicated to a various Buddha or Bodhisattva.  The little boy in the picture here was earlier very enthusiastically taking part in the bowing and chanting in the main hall. 

Small hall

Buddha's life

Finally, we come to the thing which Haeinsa is best known for, the Tripitaka Pavillion.  While you can visit inside the pavillion, you are not allowed to take any photos.  It is remarkable that these woodblocks have lasted as long as they have.  They date back to the thirteenth century.  This temple is located in South Gyeongsang Province which originally was a part of the Shilla Kingdom.  The Shilla Kingdom was profoundly influenced by Buddhism.  It is therefore no surprise that many of the most important Buddhist temples and monuments are located in the Gyeongsang Provinces.

Tripitaka pavilion



  1. fascinating. i’m glad you get to see so many cool things and i’m SO glad you take such fantastic pictures! 🙂

  2. Did you bow and chant? Just kidding! 🙂

  3. During Korean War, the Haeinsa was almost being destroyed by bombing. Since the North Korean guerillas hid themselves at the temple, Korean air force ordered pilots to bomb the temple in 1951.

    However, the head pilot commanded his men not to bomb it to save the national treasure. He was summoned to military trial because of he refused to follow the order. He died during a military operation against North Korea in 1954. Haeinsa commemorates him every year.

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