I WISHED WE HAD a guide for this trip because Guinsa was mysterious and we couldn’t read any of the Chinese inscriptions beneath gargoyles or in front of important entrances or at the burial mound of the temple’s founder. Neither MJ nor myself read anything on Guinsa before we took the bumpy bus ride out of town toward the Sobeak Mountains. I went through the day looking at details the way a parentless child might, inventing my own slightly mystical legends for the murals painted into the undersides of the eves.
MJ itched to get out and up on a trail to a sacred sight. That’s where we found the burial mound of Sangwol Wongak, 30 minutes up some paved switchbacks. Other visitors offered polished staves the further up we went along the way. At the burial site several benches faced a grass clearing decorated on one side with three upright oblong stones. While we sat on one of the benches facing the grave we watched as others left their seats and their shoes to kneel with their foreheads touching the grass.
We were up above the bold curvilinear rooftops of the temple grounds and looked out onto the Sobeak Mountains just as it started to shower. The clouds pushed past the small clearing. I wanted to take a picture of them brushing against the hills but out of respect for the large sign and shrine of the revered person whose deeds we didn’t yet know, I left my lens cap on.
Afterwards, we went back down a different way and ate a complementary lunch in a cafeteria where one of the nuns admonished me for taking too much kimchi. Because we were foreign, two nuns went out of their way to lead us to a specific row of seating. We ate rice with kimchi, an eggplant stir fry that I pushed onto MJ’s plate, and a miso soup that I slurped up quickly. For desert they gave us two bananas before we continued uphill into a deep crevice of Mt. Sobeaksan towards Great Teacher Hall.
Ribbons draped between windows, walkways, and balconies drifted in the barely-noticeable breeze. The buildings were many stories high which is pretty non-traditional compared to other temples in Korea but Guinsa burned down during the war and was rebuilt. The new buildings towered above the cobble path and us two trudging along. We passed by a large hall where dozens sat chanting behind opaque glass sliding doors. All around us pathways went up in a maze towards other smaller buildings, balconies and walkways, even a greenhouse.
At the Great Teacher Hall I felt small looking up at it’s multi-tiered eves, and the two gargoyle-like statues standing guard on either side. When we walked to the far side of the courtyard to get a better view of the hermitages below we saw a large group of high-heeled women, lined up for a photo, stunted by its size and the mountain peak still reaching up behind it. I would like to go back, to name the things I saw the first time and did not know and to do the names justice. Maybe I was a little irresponsible this one time but I liked discovering this hidden away spiritual fortress through the eyes of a child. I felt wonder.