Find Enlightenment on a South Korean Temple Stay
The temples of South Korea provide an oasis of calm amongst its buzzing cities. Participating in a temple stay program is one of the best ways to travel back in time and discover Korea’s most ancient traditions.
We seek to enlighten you on the benefits of a temple stay and recommend five temples which can be included on a tour of South Korea.
What is a temple stay?
The Temple Stay program is designed for those who are looking to gain an understanding of the important influence Buddhism has played in South Korea. It also provides a unique and relaxing alternative to a traditional hotel stay. Participants leave the modern world behind at the temple gates and immerse themselves completely in the monastic lifestyle.
Most temple stays are run on a shared basis, sometimes up to 80 participants, and last for two days including an overnight stay. It is possible to arrange stays lasting much longer if you wish to gain a deeper understanding of the life of a Buddhist monk. But two days is sufficient for a hands-on introduction to the 1700-year-old history of Korean Buddhism.
South Korea is home to dozens of working temples with many enjoying mountain locations in or just outside the major cities. Overnighting in a temple stay can be an enlightening experience, and not just for those with an interest in Buddhism.
What are the highlights?
A temple stay itinerary will include various ceremonial activities with each temple designing its own program. A temple’s activities are influenced by its location and particular spiritual focus, but there are a few common activities found in most temples. These include:
- Meditation (Cham-Seon): The act of meditation is central to Buddhism and is especially important in Korean Buddhism. The aim of Cham-seon is to cut off all thoughts in search of your ‘true self’ and is often practiced while seated.
- Tea ceremony (Da-Seon): Tea plays an important role in Korean Buddhism. Monks believe drinking tea uses the five senses to aid the meditative techniques of mindfulness and concentration. During a tea ceremony, a resident monk teaches the traditional method for making tea. This also acts as an informal Q&A with the monk where participants are free to ask questions.
- Buddhist chanting (Yebool): A monk’s day begins with chanting to pay respects to the Buddha. This can often take place by the central bell in the temple grounds or the principal hall of the temple. Its purpose is to help the monks start the day ahead feeling calm and purified.
Temples will also include a hands-on experience introducing an element of traditional Korean culture. This is largely dependent on the temple’s focus or location but can often include: making lotus flower lanterns, Ingyeong (wood block printing), preparing temple food, creating rosary prayer beads and even martial arts.
One of the real highlights of the monastic lifestyle is temple cuisine. Participants are provided with three meals a day, which are strictly vegetarian using ingredients often grown on the temple grounds or foraged locally.
Meals are prepared and served following the traditional way (Balwoogongyang) involving a spirit of equality, cleanliness, and thrift. Waste is discouraged with the expectation that you will always finish everything from your bowl but going up for seconds is welcomed. Following the spirit of equality each participant is expected to clean their own bowl and chopsticks.
What are the sleeping arrangements?
Fitting with the monastic lifestyle sleeping arrangements at Korean temples are simple but clean. Most rooms tend to be shared accommodating between four to eight people per room with men and women bunked separately. Some temples can provide private rooms for couples. Beds in temples are almost unheard of so participants are provided with floormats, blankets and pillows for sleeping on the floor. This sounds rather spartan but the use of floormats is still largely widespread in Korean society. The floormats are padded and coupled with Korea’s unique underfloor heating system (Ondol) provide a surprising amount of comfort.
All rooms share toilets and bathrooms, which are equipped with modern showering facilities and usually segregated between sexes. These days, it is becoming increasingly common for participant rooms to be equipped with a simple shower.
Is it for me?
As temples are sacred places of worship visitors need to follow strict etiquette whilst on temple grounds. Participants are introduced to temple etiquette at the beginning of the program. This largely involves the correct way to greet monks or walk through the temple complex. Dress during a temple stay, or any visit to a temple, is important with a focus on clean, neat, and conservative attire - revealing or bright, outlandish clothes should be left at home. Other than following the expected etiquette there are activities which some people may find difficult.
While activities during a temple stay program are optional, many participants find the activities the most fulfilling part of the experience. Meditation can involve up to 30 minutes sat cross-legged on the floor which can prove to be difficult for those with bad knees. Likewise, many temples include prostrations, sometimes as many as 108 or more, which could prove a problem for those with back issues.
If you are happy to forgo some creature comforts for one night, joining an overnight temple stay program can be one of the most enriching experiences on a trip to South Korea.
Our top 5 temple stays:
- Hwaeomsa Temple, Jirisan National Park: This serene temple is situated at the foot of Jirisan Mountain, one of the three holiest in Korea, and is home to numerous cultural assets. Its overnight temple stay program has up to 50 participants at a time and is run in English. Rooms are shared between four people but private rooms for two can be arranged on request.
- Beopjusa Temple, Songnisan National Park: Set amidst dramatic natural surroundings, this temple is a UNESCO heritage site and home of the highest pagoda in South Korea. A maximum of 78 participants can join the overnight temple stay with activities, conducted in English, including hiking in the surrounding National Park. The temple has rooms which can accommodate from two to eight people.
- Golgusa Temple, Gyeongju: One of South Korea’s most unique temples located just outside historic Gyeongju. The temple complex is comprised of 12 caves built into the limestone cliff face of Hamwolsan Mountain. One of the smallest temple stay programs, up to 30 participants follow an active itinerary including its specialist martial art, Sunmudo. Activities are conducted in English and participants are spread between 15 rooms accommodating two people.
- Jogyesa Temple, Seoul: The centre of Korean Buddhism located in the heart of Seoul. The temple is an oasis of calmness in the middle of South Korea’s buzzing capital. The temple accepts a maximum of 45 participants who are accommodated in rooms shared between three people, private rooms can be requested, with one larger room housing six.
- Beomeosa Temple, Busan: Easily accessed on Busan’s subway system, this temple is located on the eastern side of Geumjeongsan Mountain. Within the city limits this mountain is criss-crossed with hiking trails featuring several scenic viewpoints overlooking the city and coast. Its overnight temple stay program has up to 48 participants at a time and is run in English. Private rooms for one or two can be arranged and there are also two large dormitory style rooms for 15 people.
If you have an interest in a temple stay or the above temples, check out our Deeper into the Land of the Morning Calm tour. But with dozens of temples offering overnight temple stay programs, it’s not hard to include this unique experience on your holiday to South Korea.