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The House of Mercy
Travel Story by Jennifer Barclay
South Korea Archives South Korea
By early evening I was standing under a shop's awning in the town of Toksan in the pouring rain, trying to figure out where to spend the night, and how to avoid being drenched to the skin. I had my tent in my backpack and would prefer to camp to save money, since all I wanted was to sleep, but it really was pouring down. Rainy season had started in earnest, it seemed. It was too late to get to the monastery, but I hoped I'd be able to find a bus there in the morning. Then a car stopped, the window rolled down and a fine-featured man with a smooth head and soft, voluminous, grey monk's robes asked:
Where was I going? 'Sudoksa,' I said, wondering if he'd advise me on how to find it or something. But no, it appeared from his gesture that he was offering me a lift.
'Kamsamnida,' I said, thanking him, and got in.
I tried to cover my bare legs with my backpack. Of course I had to be wearing my shortest hiking shorts. As we made our way slowly through sheets of rain in the air-conditioned car, he tried to make conversation, but neither of us had enough of the other's language. Eventually, he found some classical music on the digital dial, then put in the earpiece of his mobile phone to check his messages.
After driving for ten minutes or so, we passed through a gate, and halfway up a forested mountain arrived at the monastery under darkening skies. Imposing buildings in traditional style rose from the hillside at intervals: long, black-tiled roofs, the eaves painted in delicate pinks and greens, decorated with flower and animal carvings; sturdy red wooden pillars, delicate trellised doors with paper windows. They looked like the palaces in Seoul, except surrounded by woods. Though there is no historical record, historians believe there has been a temple here on the mountain at Toksan since 599, and the worshippers practised Son, or Zen Buddhism. We stopped and the monk disappeared into one of the halls, asking me to wait.
I watched the mist rise from the trees and glanced onto the backseat, spying a football and a brochure for 'Travelling in Malaysia'. I couldn't help thinking the monk was going to emerge embarrassed, having discovered I had no invitation, no right to be here.
Instead, he invited me into what turned out to be a canteen, and asked if I wanted to eat. When I said I wasn't hungry, a boy of about twelve gave me an umbrella and two monks led me across the sandy courtyard, skirting puddles, past a stone pagoda and towards the Hall of the White Lotus. Instead of passing by, we walked up steps to a raised walkway kept dry under the long eaves – aha! Now the shape of the roofs made sense. Sliding wooden doors were drawn open on a bright, bare room. I left my shoes outside as was customary and from behind more sliding doors the monks brought out pretty satin cushioned quilts and a pink, seed-filled pillow, and I was left alone with a bow and a smile.