Zen and Temple Stays in South Korea

Bonfire camping at Yongmunsa temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Bonfire camping at Yongmunsa temple (Photos by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

The Art of Temple Stays in South Korea

By Teh Chin Liang
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

In June 2002, as summer heat swept across the northern hemisphere, South Korea and Japan were engulfed in an unprecedented football frenzy as both neighboring nations co-hosted the much-anticipated FIFA World Cup.

Songkwangsa temple surrounded by mesmerizing fall foliage (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Songkwangsa temple surrounded by mesmerizing fall foliage (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

It all started from a temporary accommodation solution

A record-breaking number of tourists flocked to South Korea, filling up hotel rooms for weeks like an unstoppable tsunami.

“How about we open our doors to people who can’t find a hotel to stay?”

The idea struck the Korean temples. One thing led to another; the lightbulb moment finally gave birth to Templestay in South Korea.

They had no idea that they were not only solving the accommodation shortage, but also paving the way for a new chapter in the local hospitality industry, providing tourists with a unique opportunity to experience South Korea like never before.

The idea also led to the establishment of the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism in 2004. which was initiated by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, with the aim of promoting Korean Buddhism and its rich traditional culture worldwide.

Tongdosa Temple Buddhist Ceremony (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Tongdosa Temple Buddhist Ceremony (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

Promote Korean Buddhist culture

“We promote the value and excellence of Korean Buddhist culture and its work in diverse areas, including education, exhibitions, research and investigation, and social campaigns, as well as cultural experiential programs like Templestay,” Ven.Won Myeong Sunim said in a recent interview with me.

Templestay program is generally categorized into three types: experiential, relaxation-oriented and half-day programs.

Ven.Won Myeong Sunim
Ven.Won Myeong Sunim

Sleep on the traditional Korean Ondol floor

“Typically, it is two days and one night long. Participants will be assigned to sleep on an Ondol floor. Ondol is a traditional Korean underfloor heating system that has been used for centuries in Korean homes.”

“We serve vegetarian meals that are traditionally served at Buddhist temples, made with fresh, farm-to-table ingredients and prepared in a simple and healthy way.”

Cherry blossoms in bloom at Tongdosa temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Cherry blossoms in bloom at Tongdosa temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

A chance to reconnect with your inner self

Staying at a temple for two days may sound like a tedious prospect for those who are drawn to fast-paced travel. But the truth is there are contemplative and mindful activities that would fill your time with purpose and make your stay unforgettable. It’s also a chance to take a step back and reconnect with your inner self.

“For two days and one night, you partake in the daily rituals of monastic practitioners,” Ven.Won Myeong Sunim said.

“The day usually starts around 4am with everyone attending the early morning Buddhist ceremony, followed by the breakfast offering and communal work, such as cleaning the temple. You will spend the day keeping yourself busy in various activities.”

The beautiful Daeheungsa temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
The beautiful Daeheungsa temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

Unique activities to experience Templestay

Participants will have a unique experience through activities that encompass all aspects of Buddhist practitioners’ daily lives, such as Buddhist ceremonies, baru gongyang (formal monastic meal), meditation, 108 prostrations, making lotus lanterns and pohaeng (walking meditation in nature).

Walking meditation (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Walking meditation (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

The 108 Prostrations Practice is a Buddhist ritual for repenting of our 108 defilements, cultivating humility and achieving self-renewal. By performing each prostration with contemplation of one’s ignorance, we let go of one defilement at a time.

Therapeutic acoustic experience

At the temple, visitors enjoy a therapeutic acoustic experience by listening to the four dharma instruments: the temple bell, the dharma drum, the cloud-shaped gong, and the wooden fish

Each of these instruments have distinct sounds: the temple bell is deep and resonant, the dharma drum thunders with power and rhythm, the cloud-shaped gong is ethereal and otherworldly, and the wooden fish is gentle and soothing.

Buddhists use these percussion instruments to pray for the blessings of all beings. The temple bell for those souls in hell, the dharma drum for land-dwellers, the wooden fish for water-dwellers and the cloud-shaped gong for flying creatures.

At the bell pavilion, visitors have the opportunity to chime the bell (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
At the bell pavilion, visitors have the opportunity to chime the bell (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

Conversation with monks

When asked what activity stands out to him among all, Ven. Won Myeong Sunim a singled out a conversation with a monk or nun.

While it may seem like an ordinary conversation, the exchange could turn out to be very meaningful and life changing too.

“In my opinion, the most special experience at a Templestay would be sitting face to face with a monk/nun and speaking with them. Not only can you feel free to ask them questions about Buddhism, but you could even let out feelings that are weighing you down.”

“Having a heart-to-heart conversation with the monk/nun over a cup of tea about your life can be profoundly healing. Some people find it beneficial to unload their mental baggage and restore their happiness and peace of mind.”

At Jeungsimsa Temple's yoga session, participants engage in stretching routines (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean templ Buddhism) Temple Stays
At Jeungsimsa Temple’s yoga session, participants engage in stretching routines (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

150 Temples offer Temple Stay programs

Across the country, 150 temples offer Templestay programs where visitors can immerse themselves in the unique experiences of Korean Buddhist culture.

Ven.Won Myeong Sunim (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Ven.Won Myeong Sunim (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

“Many exciting programs awaits visitors to explore. While I can’t introduce them all, here are a few that people might find interesting.”

  • Geumsunsa Temple on Mt. Bukhansan in the heart of Seoul is a popular choice among the younger generation.
  • Yongmunsa Temple in Yangpyeong offers an unparalleled experience that combines pizza-making and campfire meditation. Their program is so unique that it has become well-known through its appearances on various broadcasts.
  • The ‘Singing Bowl Meditation Templestay’ at Beopjusa Temple in Boeun offers a unique and tranquil experience for participants.
  • Jeungsimsa Temple in Gwangju offers daily yoga to reduce stress and boost self-awareness and mindfulness.
  • Daeheungsa Temple in Haenam offers participants a hands-on experience to learn the art of green tea production, from harvesting the leaves to brewing a steaming cup of tea. The harvesting season usually falls in April and May.
  • At Mangyeongsansa Temple in Yeongwol, participants can indulge themselves in the rejuvenating experience of a wine foot bath, surrounded by a serene Buddhist setting.

“Korean temples have been home to monks and nuns for centuries, ranging from a few hundred to over a thousand years. They also serve as institutes for preserving and maintaining traditional Buddhist culture,” Ven. Won Myeong Sunim explained.

The temple comprises various buildings, including the main hall (Daeungjeon), which harmoniously coexists with the natural environment, offering a tranquil and comfortable retreat for all visitors.

Participants form a circle around a candle in meditation (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Participants form a circle around a candle in meditation (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

Focus on the Programs

When choosing a temple to stay, try to focus on the type of program you want to experience, rather than the differences between temples.

“If you are short on time, consider a half-day program, which typically lasts for 2 to 4 hours. This program consists of a temple tour, a sharing session about Buddhist culture and buildings, a tea session with a monk or nun and craft learning activities such as making lotus lanterns or prayer beads,” Ven. Won Myeong Sunim suggested.

For longer stays, consider these two programs.

  • Experiential: Get a glimpse into the daily life of a monastic practitioner with a two-day-one-night experience.
  • Relaxation: Escape from your daily routine and rejuvenate with activities, such as Buddhist ceremonies and meal offerings.
Participants meditate on a mountaintop overlooking the ocean at Neunggasa temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Participants meditate on a mountaintop overlooking the ocean at Neunggasa temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)

Templestay is for everyone

“Anyone, regardless of their religion or nationality, are welcome to stay at a temple and learn about Buddhism by experiencing the daily life of a monastic practitioner. While at the temple, don’t forget to show respect and maintain a respectful demeanor,” Ven. Won Myeong Sunim said.

“Be mindful that the temple is home to practicing monks. Be respectful and avoid doing things that might disturb the temple activities.”

Green tea harvesting at Daeheungsa Temple (Photo by Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism)
Green tea harvesting at Daeheungsa Temple.

Easy booking gets you to the temple’s doorstep in no time

Booking for a temple stay is simple and easy. All you need to do is go to the website, select the temple of your choice, choose the dates of your stay, make a reservation, confirm your reservation and pay the fee at the temple upon your arrival.

Two days one night stay usually costs in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 won ($35 – $75)

Monasteries do not provide toiletries, towels, undergarments or socks. Make sure you bring your own. Also, bring comfortable outdoor shoes or hiking boots and warm jackets or thermal underwear. Contact the temple in advance, as each temple may have different requirements.

Culture that bridges past, present and future

“Korea’s traditional Buddhist culture is our proud past. It is nourishment that enriches today, and the key that opens the door to tomorrow. Traditional culture is a symbol of our identity that makes us who we are,” Ven. Won Myeong Sunim commented.

“It is a driving force that connects and enables communication between regions, countries and nations. Buddhism, the source of Korean traditional culture, is the protoplasm that forms the nation’s unique mindset and culture.”

“When your heart is hurting and you are experiencing difficult times, Buddhism can be your beacon of light. I pray that the flame of hope that burns in your heart never be extinguished, regardless of your beliefs.” Ven. Won Myeong Sunim concluded.

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2 thoughts on “Zen and Temple Stays in South Korea

  1. This article by Chin Liang Teh, as with the many others he has written, was very interesting and well done. The idea of staying at a Temple would be very interesting too. I don’t know much about the Buddhist life but I’m sure I would learn a lot by staying there.

  2. Chin Liang Teh’s article about staying at a Buddhist Temple in South Korea is so interesting. What a great idea to combine tourism with mental and spiritual healing and see some really beautiful places at the same time.

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