A foray into Korean culture would not be complete without a Buddhist temple stay. Buddhism, the predominant religion in the ROK, is the basis of many cultural beliefs and values for Koreans and throughout the country you can find hundreds of temples anywhere from the center of an urban city to hidden on rural, mountainous roads.
A temple stay is an opportunity to visit a temple and learn from the monks about the practice of Buddhism, and experience what the life of a monk is like. My friends and I chose to do an overnight temple stay at Beomeosa, a temple on a mountain in the outskirts of Busan. While we expected the group of 30 temple stay guests to be mostly foreigners, we were surprised to find ourselves amongst a group of all Koreans and only one other foreigner. Luckily the temple provided a lovely woman to serve as our translator for the weekend.
While each temple stay’s program varies, they tend to have many of the same basic activities. In case you’re interested in doing a temple stay or have ever wondered what it’s like, here’s what to expect at a temple stay, based on our experience at Beomeosa:
The bowing, oh my word, the bowing. You will bow SO many times. Over 108 times, in fact. During most temple stays you will participate in the practice of 108 prostrations (bows). These aren’t your average upper body bows, though; you begin in standing position and then kneel all the way to the ground to touch your forehead to the floor. It’s like a glorified squat with a half pushup mixed in.
At Beomeosa, the bows were combined with the stringing of a prayer bead necklace, so for each bow we would string one bead as we knelt on the floor. My thighs burned by only the 20th bow–the rest were pure torture. For every bow you are supposed to think a positive thought or wish, but I definitely failed in this endeavor; my mind was a steady stream of curses and the only wish I made was for my knees to stop hurting (maybe this is why Buddha punished me the next day with a dead car). What I took away from all this bowing is that underneath those robes, monks must have thighs of steel.
Everyone wears the same uniform. Although they make you look somewhat like a fat hobo, they are ridiculously comfortable.
Tour of the Temple
Our monk leader gave us a tour of the temple, detailing some of the history of the 1300 year old temple and explaining more about the practice of Buddhism.
The food, while not exactly Michelin star quality, is simple, wholesome, and purely vegetarian. You can dish as much as you like, but you are expected to eat everything on your plate and waste nothing. Before eating, everyone completes the meal chant.
Chanting & More Bowing
In the evening the monks gather in a temple for another service and the templestay guests were welcome to bow and observe the ceremony as they chanted and worshipped. Hearing the melancholy chants reverberate through the temple walls was eerie and enchanting.
Peace, quiet, & beauty
The primary reason many Koreans go to weekend templestays is to relax and enjoy the quiet, peaceful atmosphere. During the day temples are overflowing with people and it can be hard to find any sense of peace; when the crowds dissipate at night, however, with the lanterns strung along the stairs in the cool, quiet air, you can finally take a deep breath of serenity.
Definitely my favorite part of the temple stay was when the monks ascended to the second floor of an open temple structure and played an enormous drum. The punctuation of the drum beats against the still night air was mesmerizing.
Making Rice Cakes
This experience may have been unique to Beomeosa, but it was quite fun. A woman taught us how to make traditional songpyan, by mixing plant based colored powders into rice dough, stuffing them with sweet bean paste, and forming them into cute little patties. We were even given a nice little gift box to wrap them in, which I inadvertently gave to my mechanic later that afternoon.
At Beomeosa we arose at 5am, though I know some temples will wake you up even earlier. At least you’ll catch a beautiful sunrise.
Tea with a Monk
At the end of the templestay we spent an hour drinking tea with a monk while guests asked him any questions they liked, such as why he became a monk or what his daily life is like.
Would I recommend a Buddhist temple stay? Absolutely! Granted, it’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested in a weekend of learning about Buddhism, experiencing the life of a monk, and relaxing away from the stresses of everyday life, a Buddhist temple stay in Korea is a great opportunity. I definitely recommend Beomeosa!
Have you ever done a temple stay? What was your experience like?