Temple stays allow travelers to experience for themselves the contemplative aspect of Korean culture and orthodox Buddhism
Two things should come to mind when talking travel to Korea: food and culture. Sure, there’s the Cold War spectacle of the DMZ, and the amazing shopping and wandering to be done amid modern Seoul’s canyons of towering steel and glass. But the true Korea is played out in the quiet of the country’s backwoods in centuries-old Buddhist temples where nature and cultural traditions rule.
Part of the scenic grounds at Bulguksa Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site
Until recently, as with many of Korea’s charms, the contemplative nature of this culture was something foreigners could only observe, not experience for themselves. Now they can immerse themselves in it with a new kind of travel mode just beginning to catch on: temple stays.
“Some people might say there isn’t much to see in Korea but I disagree,” says Korean Tourism Organization Director Charm Lee. “Visitors will find beautiful landscapes and historical relics in every corner of the country and can experience local customs and mouth-watering delicacies [that are] part of our treasured heritage. Korea is a special culture and most people do not have a sense of what this is.”
The concept of offering temple stays to foreigners was launched during the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and managed to stick, gaining more and more popularity with Westerners eager to steep themselves in Korea’s spiritual traditions as well as gain a solid experience of orthodox Buddhism. For adventurous travelers, many of these temples provide modest accommodations plus all meals for less than $100 a day. Travel companies such as Goway and Tour East Holidays offer temple stays as an adjunct product or as part of a general tour package to Korea to individuals, couples and small groups.
During an average stay, guests might sleep in a room with one, two or even three others (with separate rooms for men and women). It’s lights out at 9:30 p.m. and a bell rings for pre-dawn chanting at 3:45 a.m. On arrival, each guest is given a schedule, and a loose and comfortable uniform. They can drink tea at any time and are usually given free time to settle down and tour the grounds. There is usually an evening chant, dinner and a meditation session with a monk. On day two, following pre-dawn chants and often the ritual of 108 bows (believed to relieve troubling thoughts and worldly desires), guests go for breakfast and tea. There will be another meditation session, a walk to a local shrine and a tea ceremony with a monk, which is the best time to ask questions. Some temples hold classes in calligraphy or the making of lotus lanterns. Guests often help out with cleaning and chores between meals and meditations, but there is plenty of free time to walk or hike, sit by a pond or rest. All three meals are vegetarian. Usually, there are three chanting sessions each day.
Between meditation and chores during temple stays, there is plenty of time to go on a stroll or sit and relax
Guests are free to take pictures around the temple grounds, but not inside the main Buddha Hall. All meals are eaten in silence and no food should be wasted. Guests clean their own utensils and their quarters when they are done.
The temples offer a variety of practicing methods, including Yebul (ceremonial service involving chanting); Chamseon (Zen meditation); Dahdoh (tea ceremony); and Balwoo Gongyang (communal Buddhist meal service). The monks believe each participant can find his or her “true self” within the harmony of nature and the temple lifestyle.
Temple stays are available in just over 40 temples throughout Korea. Yongmunsa Temple, for instance, known for its 1,100-year-old gingko tree, is a two-hour drive from Seoul and conveniently accessed by public transportation. Many temples take groups and provide private quarters with bathrooms.
For visitors without a night to spare but a desire to engage in a temple experience, the Temple Life Program at Bongeun Temple (011-822-3218-4827) in the Samseong-dong district of southern Seoul may be just the ticket. The temple, across from the InterContinental Coex Hotel (011-802-3452-2500), was built by a Buddhist master in the year 794 during the Silla dynasty’s reign and is one of the hot attractions for visitors to Seoul.
The Temple Life program includes a tour around the grounds in English, plus basic lessons in Buddhist culture and traditions such as lotus lantern making and the venerable tea ceremony, as well as sessions in meditation and spiritual counseling. The program takes place every Thursday from 2-4 p.m. and costs a mere $8.79 (10,000 Won). A 24-hour temple stay is available once a month on the fourth Wednesday for about $44 (50,000 Won), inclusive of all activities and meals.
Only four temples in Korea easily accommodate single-person reservations. Those are Mihwangsa Temple (011-826-1533-3521) in the south of the country; Golgulsa Temple (www.golgulsa.com, 011-825-4744-1689) near Kyong-Ju and accessed via Ulsan or Pohang airports, both about an hour’s flight from Seoul; Musangsa Temple (011-824-2841-6084) about an hour from downtown Seoul and easily accessed by train to Gye-Ryong Station; and Jakwangsa Temple (011-824-2822-9220) on the outskirts of Daejeon in the center of the country. A comprehensive list of temples plus contact information, locations and ways to book these stays can be found at Templestay in Korea.
For more information call 323-634-0280 or visit Korea Sparkling.