A very particular darkness envelops Guinsa at night. Arriving after sunset, one is greeted by a vast parking lot beside something smaller than a village—a splatter of homes and restaurants, maybe 30 in all, mostly closed up by 8 p.m. The temple complex itself lies one kilometer uphill, wedged within a valley surrounded by mountains on the eastern border of North Chungcheong, the landlocked province.
To find it, one must drive to the end of Guinsa Road, a dangerously narrow pavement that snakes along the side of a cliff from Highway 595, at least 30 minutes from any reasonably populated town. All this is to say that there is not very much light in the neighborhood after sunset, from either the road or faraway homes or distant highway; with the sun disappeared, the only illumination comes from the few street lamps strewn around the parking lot. The sleepy mini-town has already tucked into bed.
I slept in the spare room of a bungalow that an elderly couple rents out for 30,000 won, and awoke at 7:30 Sunday morning. There’s no real way-finding signage even in Korean language, but there were hordes of middle-aged and elderly Koreans to follow, so follow I did, for maybe 20 minutes. When we reached the entrance, the Four Heavenly Kings Gate, some stopped to bow, though most of us walked straight through it. We passed the next gate, passed the first building, passed the administrative hall… We continued for so long that it became quickly and embarrassingly evident to me that this lonesome temple complex was easily as intricate as the splatter of homes below, rife with gardens and statues and over two dozen individual buildings—and, most bizarrely of all, a swarm of thousands of Koreans.
Here’s what I knew going in: that Guinsa, created relatively recently in 1945, headquarters the distinctly Korean sect of Cheontae Buddhism and its roughly two million followers; that the temples are uniquely tall due to being surrounded by mountains; and that without a car, the easiest way to reach it is via trans-city bus from the nearest towns of Jecheon (~30km away) or Danyang (~15km). More importantly, however, here’s what I did not know: the Sunday I visited, January 29, 2012, happened to be the first Sunday after the Lunar New Year, i.e., one of Buddhism’s most celebrated and holiest days. This accounted for the unexpected 8,000 people scurrying throughout the area that weekend, among whom I was almost certainly and accidentally the only Westerner.
A sweet-faced girl in her 20s, an employee in the administrative building, clarified for me the specialness of the weekend. In the days following Lunar New Year, she said, thousands of Korean families drive up to the temple complex to pray, some staying as long as four or five days. Most sleep in the general lodge area (a wide jjimjilbang-like floor in the Cafeteria Hall building) and eat generic meals of rice, kimchi and soup served free of charge. There are well-worn hiking paths through the mountains, but most come just to pray.
“Do they pray all day?” I asked, incredulous.
“No, no,” the sweet-faced girl replied.
“Maybe… 10 hours a day?”
It’s worth clarifying that most families don’t stay longer than 24 hours. And some, like 27-year-old Hyeong-yeon, come less for the religious enlightenment than for the simple peace of mind. A soft-spoken physical therapist with braces whose English is barely better than my Korean (read: bad), I met Hyeong-yeon on the bus back that afternoon; he explained that he used to visit with his family every year since he was a child. When he moved out of his parents’ house five years ago, partly at his mother’s behest and partly out of sentimentality, he began coming on his own annually during the New Year. Now, he finds it one of the only places in Korea where he can escape the troubles of being a single 27-year-old boy and absorb himself in real, palpable peace.
It’s no wonder why. That morning I’d trekked past the parka-clad ajummas huddling around the instant coffee vending machines and hordes of shoes respectfully removed at the door of each temple, and reached the Great Teacher Hall, Guinsa’s modest peak. To look down at the Korean landscape for the first time from there, one would be convinced it’s nothing but mountains. The sound of monks’ praying, chanting, banging is inescapable—it echoes throughout the valley below, mingling with the birds’ early morning song through unpolluted air against the early morning coral sky. I try not to romanticize stuff like this, but it was a goddamn romantic moment, and you don’t need to be a Cheontae Buddhist to have felt it.
Guinsa is a large, remote temple complex in North Chungcheong Province and has several direct buses which take around five hours from Busan. Find out more by calling (043) 423-7100~8 or visit www.cheontae.org/guinsa (Korean only).
Photos by Jill Osteen. You can see more great photos from her 2010 temple stay at Guinsa on her blog.