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Stay at a South Korean Temple

Program Offers Glimpse into Soul of Country

Temple in South Korea

It was a cold December afternoon on the roof of the administration building of the Jagwang-Sa temple compound in Daejeon, South Korea. The monk stood to one side, meditating, with his arms tucked in his robe. It was time to beat the Beomjong temple bell. In Korean Buddhism, the ceremony rids a person of earthly desires and helps prepare for meditation.

The huge bronze bell has rung every morning and evening for hundreds of years. Weighing several tons and adorned with floral and celestial motifs, bells like this one are found in all temples. Cho Seong Ran, the temple guide, took hold of the suspended log, about three feet long and 10 inches in diameter, and slammed it into the huge bell. Then she motioned for the guests to follow her, and we slowly walked around the bell, hands together in prayer.

The bell’s deep sound reverberated through our bodies. It was a moving and emotional experience. When we arrived back at our starting point, she indicated that it was my turn. The log was heavier than I thought, and it took a good push to make a loud and resounding echo. We repeated this 33 times, meditating as we circled the bell.

Temples are considered cultural treasures, so an overnight stay is an opportunity to experience the ancient traditions of monks and nuns (called Biguni).Buddhism remains the largest religion of South Korea. While at the temple, you are free to ask questions about Buddhism or just enjoy the peace and quiet. “This is a unique experience for people who want to truly relax or delve into the culture,” said Frank Creasey, of South Korea’s National Tourism Organization.

If you are touring South Korea, the calm and tranquil atmosphere is a welcome relief after the hustle and bustle of Seoul, just an hour by bus from the Jagwang-Sa temple compound.

There is no charge for a stay—which includes lodging in a dorm, three meals, and activities—but a $60 donation is suggested for each day you are there. While the size and style of the accommodation vary, the temples are clean but spartan. Rooms are usually shared. At times Western style beds are provided, but sleeping with a mat and comforter on the heated Korean floor can be cozy.

Meals are eaten together, seated on cushions on the floor, at long, low tables. Be forewarned: the entire group will wait until everyone has arrived and is seated before beginning the meal, no matter how late the guest is.

Men and women have separate residences. The women’s residence at the Jagwang-Sa temple is called the “Empty mind house.” When we saw the sign, the Western women in the group felt miffed until we were told that an empty mind is a good thing in Buddhism. To empty one’s mind is a prelude to meditation.

After the pre-dawn ceremony of 108 bows and breakfast, a visitor’s day begins with a tour of the compound, which typically includes the temple, an administration building, and a lodging building with dorms and dining hall. Temples are always open for individual worshippers and are used four or five times a day for group worship.

During the day you can roam the countryside or take part in such activities as hiking, calligraphy, forest meditation, Sutra printing, Buddhist dance, tea ceremony (Dado), and traditional crafts like making lotus lanterns (Yeon deung Yejak).

Meals are simple vegetarian and presented in a serve-yourself style. Food is an important element in temple life—eating is seen as a way to discipline the mind, to know your limits and to teach self-control. You must eat what you take; waste is not an option. When the monks have finished eating what is on their plates, they add a little water, scrape up the remaining morsels and drink the water with the tidbits of food. This ceremonial is called Barugongyang, and if you don’t know it’s coming it can be a bit disconcerting.

This simple ceremony is all part of getting to know a country, and a stay in a temple is an exceptional opportunity to glimpse into the soul of South Korea.

Barbara Bunce Desmeules is a freelance writer and part-time high school librarian in Montreal, Canada. She is a host mother to Korean students who come to study English. Last year she decided to visit Korea and, at the suggestion of one of her students, participated in the Templestay program.

Finding Your Inner Buddha in South Korea

Koreans come to the temples to find peace and relaxation before exams or to shed workday stress. Westerners seek to gain insight into Buddhism, or themselves, or to explore Korean culture in a glorious natural environment. Six temples offer programs in English for singles, couples, families, and groups. Visitors can sign up for a half-day session, 2-day/1-night session, or a longer sojourn. All provide a program of the highly-formalized procedures and etiquette that envelops visitors in the monks’ way of life as well as immersion in the beauty of the ancient temple compounds. The physical demands are somewhat rigorous, especially for those whose legs resist the lotus position or demand a full night’s rest. In 2005, 7,000 foreigners partook in temple programs along with 60,000 Koreans. Local volunteers, including translators, are on hand as guides.

For More Info

Contact Templestays in Korea, which specializes in temple tours.

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