Buddhist Templestay in South Korea
One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in South Korea has got to be an overnight templestay in a beautiful Korean Buddhist temple. This was one of my top bucket-list goals when I moved to South Korea and something I’ve done again several times since.
My first templestay was in the 1,500-year-old Beopjusa Temple, located in a leafy valley in Songnisan National Park in central South Korea. I’d heard about the templestay program before moving to Korea, but it wasn’t until I went hiking through the national park that I decided that it was something I definitely couldn’t miss.
So what exactly is a Buddhist Templestay?
There are many templestays in Korea, run by the Culture Corps of Korean Buddhism, with the goal to show visitors to Korea (and Koreans) a glimpse of life as a Buddhist monk and to share the thoughts and wisdom of Buddhist teachings. The program aims to let visitors “experience the life of Buddhist practitioners at traditional temples which preserve the 1700-year-old history of Korean Buddhism.” (Culture Corps of Korean Buddhism).
I was really excited to learn more about Korean Buddhism and life in a temple before joining the templestay, and I’m glad to say that this unique Korean experience left me feeling refreshed, more knowledgeable about Korean Buddhism, and maybe a bit wiser.
Experiencing a South Korean Templestay
Every templestay offers a different experience, with some focusing on teaching the basics of Korean Buddhism, others helping you to meditate, and most providing cultural activities and tours of the temple. If you just want to visit the temple to rest, recharge, and contemplate life, then that’s something you can do, too.
My templestay experience had all of these and more.
It started off with a tour around the gorgeous temple complex, with the insightful guide providing information about the many statues, carvings, buildings, and other unique sights at the temple. I’d seen the temple grounds before whilst hiking, but hearing the stories behind each statue, why there were giant drums and other musical instruments, the history and cultural relevance of each building, and seeing inside the temples that were normally off-limits to tourists, was so much better.
After the tour, it was time to learn about Korean Buddhism, with a short presentation about the history of Buddhism in Korea and what it means in modern Korean society. I got the chance to make some Korean prayer beads (which I still have years later) and wrote my wishes for the future on a lovely wooden tile that I hope is still hanging at the temple now.
For me, the best part of the Korean templestay experience came at night when the temple closed to regular visitors and I got to see behind the scenes of the temple. I dined with the monks – a completely vegan meal that was both healthy and delicious – and got to see inside the temples where they were chanting. I even joined in. After this, there was a lotus lantern procession outside of the temple, around a lake, and through the forest. Even though it was pitch black outside, I felt completely at ease and my mind was clear. It was so relaxing and peaceful walking through the forest at night with only the lantern light to see by.
As the monks like to start early in the morning (4 am!), it was early to bed and then up before sunrise to experience more chanting and bowing, and other traditional Buddhist ceremonies, such as the playing of the giant musical instruments. Before the sun rose, I was led up a small slope behind the temple (again, not open to normal visitors) and made it to a rocky outcropping overlooking the east to watch the sunrise over the wooded mountains beyond. It was breathtaking. Blue skies, green trees, and the brilliant golden orb rising up and clearing away the darkness. It was like a spiritual revelation.
After breakfast and a chance to rest a bit, the templestay ended with one of my favourite activities of the stay – a traditional Korean tea ceremony and a chance to chat with one of the Buddhist monks. He was surprisingly funny and honest, telling us about the times he may have committed some minor sins, how Buddhists justify squatting mosquitoes, and about his life as a monk. The tea was delicious and the conversation was just as refreshing. Sadly, this was the end of the templestay experience. I left feeling healthier, both physically and spiritually.
I love learning about foreign cultures, trying unique experiences, and being surrounded by nature, so the templestay experience was absolutely perfect for me. There are a number of different templestays that you can do, which run from a single day to a week. The most popular type is an overnight templestay where you can experience a couple of days in the life as a Buddhist monk and sleep overnight in the temple. This is the experience that I tried.
Useful tips to experience a Templestay in South Korea
If you’re worried about not being able to understand Korean when you do a templestay program, you needn’t be. The staff usually speak English, the templestay website is in English, and there are even some monks who might be able to speak English.
South Korea wants to share its culture with the world and has made this as easy as possible for travellers to the country. It’s also ridiculously cheap for an amazing experience like this. I paid around 80,000 Korean won (about $75 USD) for an overnight templestay that included meals, accommodation, the guided tour, a tea ceremony and everything else that was part of the templestay experience. There were no extra costs. You’d normally pay twice that just to stay in a traditional Korean hanok house without everything else!
You don’t need to travel all the way to Songnisan National Park to do a templestay, there are temples throughout the country and I’d recommend also trying Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju or Yakcheonsa Temple on Jeju Island.
If you want to see more of Korea, learn about the country’s history and culture, witness the life of a Buddhist monk, and create some unforgettable memories, then a templestay program is definitely for you.
About the Author
Joel is a travel writer based in Daejeon, South Korea and the owner of In My Korea. In My Korea is a blog all about Korean travel, culture, food, and lifestyle which are created from his personal experiences of living and working in Korea since 2015. It features are articles about expat life in Korea, the best Korean travel highlights, what to see and do in Korea, and lots more.
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