Finding enlightenment in Korea

Beyond the hypercapitalism of Seoul, Buddhism, shamanism and ancient Chinese philosophies remain a key part of South Korea's psyche.

By Mark Stratton
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:15 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 12:20 BST

It's 4am. I'm sweating for England; my abs, knees, and thighs scream STOP as I kowtow for the 50th (or is it 60th?) time in sync with the monk's monotone mantra. There's still some way to go to absolve myself of 108 earthly 'sufferings and delusions' to satisfy the golden Buddha icon and his celestial cohort of bodhisattvas, staring back at me from the lotus-flower altar.

My early morning prostrations at the sacred Haeinsa Temple and monastery leave me no nearer enlightenment. Yet during the following hour's Zen meditation, as I shuffle from cross-legged lotus position to spreadeagled cramp-driven agony, I realise I'm seeing a very different South Korea to what I'd expected.

Korea certainly possessed the high-tech veneer I'd imagined: modern, urbanised, and industrialised. Heading towards Haeinsa, I'd flown into its second-largest city, Busan, where a dense forest of skyscrapers — home to 3.6 million Koreans — thrusts skywards, consuming every square inch of flatland between mountain and ocean.

Yet within two hours of leaving Busan, I began to discover this fast-evolving nation — 70% of which is mountain wilderness — cherishes its cultural heritage and reveres nature. With my guide, Song Mi-Sook, we'd driven to Gayasan — one of 20 national parks. The forests here shelter the ninth-century Haeinsa Temple, one of the country's many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It reflects Korea's historical affiliation with Buddhism — although mythology and shamanism also remain a force in a society still underpinned by a thousand years of Confucianism, a Chinese ethical and philosophical system.

From just £16, travellers can hunker down for the night in the temple — something I didn't want to miss out on. Entering Haeinsa is akin to walking onto the set of a Korean historical soap opera: a genre that's gone global in recent years as part of a resurgence in South Korean pop culture, known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. At the end of a long stone staircase, I pass through an entrance gateway adorned with sword-wielding demons, positioned there to ward off evil spirits. Beyond this, grey-and-red-robed monks move around a courtyard of prayer halls whose tubular-tiled stone roofs have eaves resembling Pippi Longstocking's pigtails in outline.

Thousands of coloured paper lanterns, strung up in celebration of Buddha's 2,556th birthday, flutter in the breeze. Above this courtyard is Haeinsa's crowning glory: the Tripitaka Koreana, a 81,258-strong collection of hand-carved wooden printing blocks. This national treasure was carved between 1236 and 1251 and is the most complete Buddhist doctrinal text in existence. "The woodblocks have 52 million Chinese characters and would take 30 years to read," says Mi-Sook.

I don't have that long — I've joined 80 Korean and foreign students for an austere yet thought-provoking stay. As we dine in silent rows in the refectory, wearing our baggy charcoal-grey uniforms, I feel vaguely like a prisoner — a feeling that's heightened when our smiling monk tutor, Seo-Gong, instructs us how to walk respectfully (cha-soo requires clasped hands and measured steps). Yet life feels comforting here — like being enveloped inside a big Buddha womb, devoid of worldly stresses and with nothing to do except nurture your inner self. "Listen to your clear mind," is Seo-Gong's mantra.

After induction and supper, we join the monks for the evening ceremony inside the mural-adorned Daejeokwangjeon Prayer Hall, which houses their giant golden Buddha. We're instructed in rudimentary meditation and watch monks drumming a car-sized buk drum to a decidedly rock 'n' roll tempo in a lantern-lit courtyard.

These drums don't sound so good the following morning, however, when they beat out the 3am wake-up call. In cold forest air, my sleep-deprived thoughts are malevolently unenlightened as we then traipse in a charcoal-grey line into the Daejeokwangjeon for the day's first ceremony, before the much-anticipated (and dreaded) 108 prostrations begin.

"Every bow will banish 108 sufferings and delusions," says the still-smiling Seo-Gong. Everything from faithlessness and furtiveness to torment and tyranny, he explains. There are no discounts for previous good character, so with palms pressed together, I bow, sink to my knees, press my head to the floor, and squat upright… ad nauseam. Bikram yoga seems positively sluggish by comparison, and I briefly entertain the idea that only a hot bath will banish my immediate earthly sufferings. Yet as my sensory perception fragments around swirling glimpses of Buddha and the monk's hypnotic mantra, I experience an adrenalin-fuelled energy surge during the 45 minutes it takes me to complete my prostrations. I feel alive and elated when I finish.

Seo-Gong speaks afterwards about a Haeinsa monk who prostrated 3,000 times each day. Masochist, I think, lapsing back into the earthly sin of cynicism.

Golden dynasty

Buddhism was introduced during the Silla Dynasty that ruled the Korean peninsula from 57BC-935. For a thousand years, Silla's capital was Gyeongju, an hour's drive from Haeinsa in North Gyeongsan Province. The magnificence of ancient Gyeongju's leftovers ensures it's one of Korea's most-visited cities.

First priority, however, after Haeinsa's unfussy vegetarian food, is a tasty lunch. I'd completely fallen for Korean cuisine, having only previously encountered such complex flavours and subtle finesse in Japan. Mi-Sook knew a family restaurant in a 19th-century courtyard in old Gyeongju's backstreets, where diners eat off shin-high tables. Centred on the ubiquitous soya bean miso-style soup, sticky rice and fermented vegetable kimchi (often made with daikon radish), our table soon bows under numerous side dishes featuring exotic ingredients such as fried bracken, acorn cakes and bellflower roots, alongside more familiar seafood, beef and pork.

Fully sated, we set about exploring Gyeongju. Dubbed the 'museum without walls', it was said in the eighth century to possess 'as many temples as stars, and as many pagodas as a flock of wild geese'. We visit the seventh-century Cheomseongdae astronomy observatory — East Asia's oldest — and a sublimely unblemished eighth-century statue of Buddha in Seokguram Grotto that's claimed to be the finest of its type in Korea.

But it is its 23 grass-covered royal tumuli that tantalise my imagination. These mounds of earth and stone, the size of two-storey buildings, remind me of Wiltshire's Bronze Age barrows. Most of them have been looted, but in 1974 an excavation opened Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb) to reveal a treasure hoard comparable in scale and magnificence to some pharaonic discoveries. We descend deep into the sixth-century tumulus' underground chamber, where an unnamed king was once buried head-to-toe in gold. Today, replicas of his priceless grave jewellery are on display, including a 5lb jade-encrusted gold crown. Among the 11,000 items originally found were exquisite motifs of a mythical horse called Cheonma — from which the chamber gets its name — and, more sinisterly, skeletons of young women thought to have been courtiers sacrificed for the king in shamanistic rituals.

Today, shamanism — minus human sacrifices — flourishes in old Gyeongju town, where practitioners' homes are marked with long bamboo poles. "People go to them to discover their future or past life, or to see if they're compatible to marry," explains Mi-Sook.

Confucianism also still has a significant impact on the Korean psyche. Confucius' doctrine guided Korean state philosophy during the later Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It instilled traits in modern Koreans such as family loyalty, keeping up appearances, modesty, and respect for seniority. "Age is very important," Mi-Sook tells me. "With younger people I can be more relaxed but with older people I must be more formal and respectful."

Typical of the Joseon Confucian era were 'in-law villages', dominated by elite clans of an educated yangban (aristocracy). Some of these remain remarkably well-preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of them is Yangdong, 10 miles from Gyeongju.

Even 500 years after its inception, Yangdong's two founding clans, Yi and Son, own most of the 160 houses that stand here today. Moseying through the village's nebulous lanes, hemmed in by centuries-old high-walled courtyards, transplants me into the Middle Ages. Within these walls, buildings bearing broad wooden porches and bowed, tiled roofs are segregated into separate male and female quarters. "Confucianism created a strict ordered society that was repressive for women," says Mi-Sook as we walk around a 16th-century property called Muncheomdang (translating as 'without disgrace'). "Women covered their faces and remained in the inner courtyard all their life. They would play on seesaws to see over the walls."

The compounds also possess secretive inner shrines barred by triptych gateways — the middle of the three doors reserved for ghosts. The shamanistic tradition of ancestral worship (jerye) is still prominent today in Korea.

Mi-Sook tells me families traditionally honour four generations of deceased relatives on the premise they owe their ancestors a debt for their existence. Feasts are laid out for the dead on auspicious days — such as Chuseok (harvest festival). "The feast used to always be at midnight but nowadays, with work, people often hold the ceremonies earlier so they can go to bed," she explains.

Down a hill, the servant class of the yangban lived close to the rice paddies in thatched adobe homes resembling idyllic country cottages. Nearby, we meet Mrs Yi, a direct yangban descendent, at her restaurant, where she's busy preparing taffy: a traditional confectionery made from fermented rice and malt. She plaits the hot, congealing gloop into rope-like strands before cutting it into bite-size chunks, adhesive enough to extract fillings.

"Our village became wealthy from rice during the Joseon era, so we invested in education and produced many great scholars. The men just studied and the women did everything," says Mrs Yi. "We still do." She explains Yangdong is in decline despite its UNESCO status: "Many occupants are elderly because the children have left for the cities. Growing rice is hard work."

Volcanic wonders

Offshore from Busan lies Jeju Island. In 2011, a global internet poll crowned it one of the world's seven greatest natural wonders, alongside more famous sites such as Brazil's Iguaçu Falls. The accolade recognised the 45 mile-wide island's quirky landforms, which emanate from an immense central volcano, Hallasan, the highest peak in South Korea, at 6,398ft. Jeju is also soaked in mythology and possesses some very special women.

"Because of our volcanic scenery and culture, we feel very different and a little isolated from the mainland," says Kim In-shoo, another guide, who meets me at Jeju Airport amid thick sea fog. "We're the Hawaii of Korea," she adds.

Jeju is a geological playground: rampantly fertile with dark basalt rock formations pimpled by craters and 368 parasitic volcanoes. We head underground to hike through one of the world's largest lava tubes (over four miles long) at Manjanggul; visit Jungmun's fantasy coastal plain of hexagonal basalt columns — similar to Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway; and join crowds ascending hydro-volcano Seongsan Ilchulbong's perfectly spherical cone, jutting out into the Pacific.

Below Seongsan Ilchulbong, on the black sand beach, is a shellfish stall whose vendors are famous across Korea: haenyeo women divers. Three of them, all 60-ish, are selling shellfish platters of turban shells and abalone (the latter is part of a delicious local dish called abalone rice-porridge). On no more than 12 days each month (a strictly enforced rule), these Amazonian oldies don wetsuits and free-dive to depths of around 65ft, typically staying underwater for two minutes on one breath to harvest shellfish and sea vegetables such as umukasari (a mauve kelp). Originating as a means to supplement the family income, the haenyeo tradition dates back several millennia on Jeju, although its future is in peril. "There are 5,000 haenyeo left," explains In-Shoo, "but this tradition is declining because few women under 35 now dive."

The Haenyeo Museum, nearby at Hado-ri, is dedicated to these fearless females. It exhibits their pre-wetsuit cotton galot tunics and shorts and explains their brave opposition to the most recent Japanese occupation of Korea, from 1910-45. Displays also highlight haenyeo ceremonial rituals, performed to appease Jeju's sea gods. These are still enacted at village shrines, known as dangs. Elsewhere, Jeju's most overtly worshipped spirit deities, known as 'grandfathers', are represented in almost every village as avuncular, basalt-carved figures. Possessing phallic-shaped heads, their role is to ward off evil spirits.

With such spectacular volcanic scenery, it's no surprise hiking is Jeju's premier outdoor activity; not least within UNESCO World Heritage Site Mt Hallasan National Park. Trekking around the multiple peaks of Mt Balkaesan, we admire billowing forests of fragrant red pine and oaks, where local mythology remains as fertile as the flora. On the Yeongsil Trail is a craggy slope of weathered lava pinnacles known as the 500 Arhats. In-Shoo tells me islanders believe these are petrified sons, turned to stone in grief after learning they'd eaten their mother, who'd accidentally fallen into the soup pot while making their dinner.

Jeju's otherwordly topography inspires such fantasies. Near Witseoreum Plateau, we hike through a forest of stunted, yet green tumok trees freakishly intermingled with the ashen, centuries-old skeletons of deadtumoks.

Upon returning from Gyeongju, my journey ends in Seoul. Even within this frenetic megacity of 11 million people, opportunities exist to get beneath the skin of Seoul's commercialisation, courtesy of some enterprising accommodation options.

Booked online, my first night is spent just north of Jongno-gu district on the tranquil hillside of Bukchon Hanok Village, an almost perfectly preserved enclave of tiny traditional single-storey 18th- and 19th-century houses called hanoks, with rooms often divided by Japanese-style sliding screens. From here, I enjoy Bukchon's yesteryear ambience, mostly lost in a labyrinth of lanes, home to galleries, arty cafes, and workshops that keep ancient crafts alive such as knife making and lacquer ware. At one stage, the exotic twanging of zithers from a music class floods the alleyways with sounds from a bygone era.

The following evening I sample the Korean Tourism Office's homestay programme: an economical and sociable insight into Korean homes with English-speaking hosts.

Yu Myeong-Hee, a child psychologist, and her son, Woo, prove gracious hosts. They take me to eat at Gwangjang Market; we join patrons raucously imbibing cloudy makgeolli rice wine around food stalls where woks sizzle and delicacies like pigs' trotters are barbecuing. We settle for bindaeduk pancakes, filled with mung beans and garlic and dipped in soy sauce.

Amid the Central Business District's gleaming glass edifices, appetising tradition is once again wedded to South Korea's fast-paced future.


Getting there

Asiana Airlines and British Airways fly from Heathrow to Seoul Incheon International Airport, while Korean Airlines has flights from Heathrow and Gatwick. http//
Average flight time: 12h.

Getting around

Korail's rail network is widespread and trains can be booked online up to one month in advance, including high-speed KTX services. Gyeongju to Seoul takes just over two hours by KTX and costs from £23 one-way. 

Jeju Island is well served by internal flights (Asiana Airlines, Korean Air, and Jeju Air) from Seoul's domestic Gimpo Airport, with fares from as little as £25 each way booked in advance.
Seoul's subway system is extensive, with single-journey tickets costing from around 65p, while rail transfers between Seoul Station and Seoul Incheon International Airport start from £2.50.

When to go

The most settled period of warm weather is September-November, with Jeju Province offering the warmest year-round temperatures. Winter sports enthusiasts will want to consider the skiing season from November-March.

Need to know

Visas: Not required by UK citizens for stays of 90 days or less.

Currency: Won (KRW). £1 = 1,813 won.

Health: No vaccinations are required for travel throughout the country and medical facilities are generally of a high standard.

International dial code: 00 82. (Seoul: 00 82 2).

Time: GMT +9.

More info

How to do it

H.I.S Europe provides tailor-made 11-night Korean itineraries offering visits to Seoul, Jeju, Gyeongju and Haeinsa, with half-board accommodation provided, along with all domestic flights, transfers and guides, from £1,505, based on two sharing.

Regent Holidays' 11-day Classic South Korea Group Tour starts from £1,850 per person and includes Gyeongju, a temple-stay, Seoul, and Mt Sorak National Park, on a B&B basis, with domestic transfers and guides.

Koreastay is the Korean Tourism Organization's (KTO) certified homestay programme. Reservations can be made before travelling or at tourist offices in Seoul. Costs around £25 a night. 

For temple stays and hanok accommodation:

Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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