“Oh it’s so nice and refreshing to talk with you, I hadn’t realised there were any female monks here”
[Successfully putting my foot in my mouth since 1990!]
Buddhist temples are dotted everywhere across Asia and a highlight of my adventures has been stumbling across an off the beaten track temple with a seemingly nondescript outer, to find that the inside is filled with countless elaborate precious metal statues of Buddha; the site encapsulated with the mesmerising scent of incense.
Monastic life always seems somewhat secretive – many of the hilltop temples and monasteries we visit along our travels are home to live-in Monks but very rarely will we bare witness to their activities, let alone have the opportunity to discuss their chosen way of life with them.
It was this element of mysticism that intrigued me, so I was extremely excited when I heard about Korea’s temple stay program – For a couple of days, a week, or slightly longer if desired, you can live in the quarters of a Korean Buddhist temple and participate in the day-to-day activities of a Monk – including the 3.30AM Morning Chants (Ouch!), 108 prostrations/bows (again, ouch!), meditations, tea ceremonies and meals.
…Actually, when I first booked the program I was so thrilled at the prospect of staying in a temple that I hadn’t looked at the itinerary (!) and spent the evening before my departure envisaging the peaceful time I would have at the temple…you know… Buddhism, Temple, Mountain View… It must just be a lot of sitting around drinking Green Tea and meditating, right? Very Zen… My what a shock I had when I realised I had to be up at 3am each Morning!
“You’re very pretty” the program leader said when I first arrived at the temple… He was not saying that after he saw me at 3am with hair like Medusa!
Kidding aside, the experience was one that will stay with me for life – As I stood in the temple courtyard as the Sun set over Songinsan Mountain and watched the resident Monks conduct their evening drumming, it felt almost magical and I thought about how privileged I was to have the opportunity to be a part of such an intimate Buddhist ritual.
You get the hang of the bowing too… I reckon those full prostrations have done wonders for my abs!
Why did I choose Beopjusa Temple I hear you ask?
Good question. There are many temples dotted around South Korea that participate in the nationwide Temple Stay program, including temples in major cities such as Seoul and Busan, so it’s easy to schedule this into your trip, even if you are only in Korea on a City Break or for a short amount of time.
For myself, I wanted to experience Korea away from busy City life and Beopjusa, located in the rural setting of Songnisan National Park in Chungcheongbuk-do was the perfect opportunity to escape metropolitan Seoul for a few days. The beautiful lakes and hiking trails dotted around the temple grounds were an added bonus, and a great opportunity for self-reflection.
The Temple Stay program gives travellers the opportunity to have a one on one discussion with a Monk. Coming from completely different walks of life, with our lives headed in opposite paths, I had such great conversations with this person as we bonded over our shared love of cups of Tea! (I knew being British would come in useful at some point in life!)
I really appreciated the time that the Monks and Buddhist Missionaries at the temple took to tell me about their backgrounds, and the personal journeys they went through, in order to get to the place they are at today – Here, working and living at Beopjusa Temple.
I’m not a religious person, my decision to participate in this program, was more one of intrigue and a desire to learn more about the principles of Buddhism, and what goes on “behind the scenes” of the many temples I have visited across the Asian continent. The program was accepting of all religions, and belief systems – there was no pressure or expectation to come to any sort of conclusions, or share any specific views. This is purely and simply, the Temples and Buddhist Monks of Korea laying their cards on the table and leaving you with the tools to form your own opinion.
To be expected, there is a Temple etiquette to be followed during your stay, and you will be shown a short video upon arrival detailing this. The key aspects can be broken down into the below:
- Clothing is to be clean and conservative – You will be provided with Monastic wear upon arrival.
- Closed, flat shoes should be worn with socks (for inside temple halls). Differing to other parts of Asia, it is disrespectful to don bear feet in the temple.
- Silence – to be followed across the temple site. During meal times, you should only speak when necessary.
- No meat, no snacks, no alcohol or smoking on the Temple grounds.
- You should perform a half bow when greeting others within the grounds, and when entering/exiting a Dharma hall.
- You should always walk in a “Chasu” stance within the Temple grounds – in short, place your right hand atop your left and keep by your stomach.
I stayed at Beopjusa for just a few days, but I am already researching my options for a slightly longer program at another temple in Korea.
Though the starts are early, I felt extremely relaxed and peaceful at the Temple and it was nice to spend some time reflecting, away from the stresses and pressures of modern life.
From Seoul, you can take a bus from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal to Songnisan – get off at the last stop, and you can either walk (15 -20 mins) or get a cab from one of those waiting at the station.
The bus takes approximately 3 and a half hours. If you miss a direct bus, you can also go from Seoul to Cheongju, with buses departing regularly from this station.
Templestay program costs 70,000 KRW per night (approx $58/£40) including meals.