SOUTH KOREA: Temple Tourism Where Silence is GoldenWe had booked what is known as a Templestay, a unique cultural program that allows you to experience the life of a Buddhist practitioner at traditional temples that preserve the 1700 year old history of Korean Buddhism. Many of the temples are situated in the most scenic areas of Korea with beautiful mountain scenery, streams and spectacular natural beauty.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2012
South Korea is a nation of 48 million people and it felt like a fair number of them were driving vehicles on this bright but cold winter’s day. As we swung into traffic on the main expressway leaving Seoul, high rise concrete apartment blocks built cheek by jowl stretched skyward, aesthetically unattractive but a necessity in this city boasting 12 million people.
We were in a luxury coach on the way south to stay overnight in a Buddhist Temple to enjoy a peaceful and rejuvenating experience – something that is becoming increasingly popular in South Korea. The Templestay program only began in 2002 yet since then approximately 500,000 Koreans have participated in one or more stays. Add to that another 90,000 foreign visitors who have delved into a journey of self discovery . . . that’s a lot of footprints on the doorstep to Korea’s traditional culture.
We had booked what is known as a Templestay, a unique cultural program that allows you to experience the life of a Buddhist practitioner at traditional temples that preserve the 1700 year old history of Korean Buddhism. Many of the temples are situated in the most scenic areas of Korea with beautiful mountain scenery, streams and spectacular natural beauty. Our stay was special in that it would allow us a brief introduction into a monastic world that includes such activities as meditation with the temple monks, dharma talks, temple food, calligraphy and painting classes or ecological education.
Templestay is a form of collective. Out of 118 temples in Seoul and across the country there are now 16 temples offering English speaking Templestay programs. Our destination was Seonunsa Temple in the Jeollabuk-do Province located about 260km south of Seoul on Korea’s southwestern coast.
As we travelled further from Seoul, the high rise apartments slowly disappeared. The landscape was now denuded until eventually all I could see was an ocean of rice paddies. There were small rural villages with little traffic except for the odd truck carrying farming supplies.
Our coach eventually stopped for lunch at what I can only describe as an expressway service area with a small food court. This was a place where Korean food outlets competed, side-by-side with western-style burger joints. I ordered a bowl of soup which came with a stewed shin of beef inside – it was very spicy and sizzling hot – the sort of food you ate on a cold winter’s night. Across from me, Monty from Yorkshire tucked into a burger, fries and a coke . . . of course his choice was limited . . . steak and kidney pudding and mushy peas weren’t on the menu!
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the parking lot outside the Seonunsa Temple and even though it was sunny, the air was cold to my skin. We crossed a small arched river bridge and climbed some steps before walking through a large gate house with wooden doors into the temple grounds. We were met by a demure woman with black spectacles who greeted us in English and said her name was Kim. Kim it turned out was our interpreter and temple manager.
Once inside the grounds we were offered a uniform (not unlike a judo suit) and some plastic slippers that all participants are required to wear. Monty however found that the uniform jackets wouldn’t fit his rather large, big-whopper physique, so he left his unbuttoned.
We were then shown to our dormitories which were rather cramped but adequate with a roll-out mattress on the floor but no pillow. The room size allowed for between three to six people to sleep side by side . . . snorers take note! The deluxe side of a Seonunsa Temple stay was the under-floor heating and an en-suite with a hot shower.
The temple name "Seonun" means “the place where an ascetic devotee practices seon (Zen) meditation with the evening cloud which dwells in the blazing red of the setting sun.” The temple is located in a long valley dominated by high cliffs and weirdly shaped rocks. The temple was founded in A.D. 577 by master Kumdan who taught the teachings of Buddha, as well as traditional salt making and Korean paper making methods to local villagers who made their livelihood from these practices.
Today the temple houses 20 monks and two apprentice monks. The senior monks (it can take at least 16 or more years to become a monk) had also introduced an institute of learning which had three teachers and seven students enrolled in its present two year course.
In the evening, after watching a monk swing a large log at a huge gong and a drum beating ceremony calling the monks to prayer, we sat cross-legged on a floor to eat a traditional monk’s dinner – Monty was not impressed. Later a few of us were given the opportunity to talk with the chief monk. His first response was to say, “We will talk about anything except North Korea as we know nothing that goes on there, just like you.”
I first asked what prompted foreigners to visit and stay at his temple. “People want to take a rest with nature. It’s inviting and we are open-minded. It gives people a chance to feel happy, to de-stress their lives.” When I then asked why he had become a monk he replied, “I feel close to nirvana, freedom, happiness, completeness. Buddha means here and now, living a better life.”
At 3.45am the next morning we were woken for the 4am morning prayers with the sound of the drum being beaten. Outside the thermometer hovered on freezing. The only stipulation on monks is the morning and evening requirement to practice their 108 prostrations. Gold leaf statues of Buddha presided over everyone. We sat silently to one side in the main temple as monks drifted in at different times through two separate entrances. They all had a set place to kneel and prostrate and by 4.45am it was all over.
At 6am we were walking single file on a trail by a small stream beneath a forest glade. A monk led the group in silence. The walk was a 3km round trip to visit a Buddha image carved into a cliff below the Seonun Temple. This gigantic image of Buddha is the type in Korea carved in the Goryeo period that lasted from 918 to 1392. Carved at 3.3m above the ground the 15.6m Buddha was seated with his legs crossed . . . naturally!
On the return journey I walked at the back of the group with Kim and asked her some questions after she told me the area is renowned for the scarlet flowers of camellia trees that blossom every spring which is much loved by poets, artists and the hordes of tourists that visit.
Kim had mentioned that she had lived and worked in Christchurch as a primary school teacher but lost her house and belongings in the devastating 2011 earthquake, so she had returned to South Korea to find a job. I asked if alcohol was consumed in the temple and she replied, “No it was not allowed but it is possible monks had tasted it outside the grounds.”
Most monks sported wrist watches, there were German kettles for making tea, room temperatures were thermostatically controlled and I saw satellite dishes at the rear of some buildings. Another monk admitted they had access to computers and the internet for personal use, so I asked if they were paid wages. “Depending on their stature monks are given an allowance,” replied Kim smiling. It seems tourism helps contribute towards certain modern conveniences.
Temple Tourism in Korea is taking off and in a spiritually big Buddha way! For visitors looking for a more in-depth travel experience in Korea where you can reach out and touch the heart of the country, the Templestay experience is just the answer. In this monastic part of the world, silence is certainly golden!
Whether you’re interested in getting a feeling for what a Templestay is all about, or you want to get a little taste before you actually sign up, or if you are just trying to figure out which temple would be best for you, then the Templestay Information Center in Seoul is the place to visit. It houses an Information Center, Education Center and a traditional temple restaurant called “Balwoo Gongyang”, the Lotus Café and a Buddhist bookstore. The Information Center handles all general enquiries concerning programs. Here you can pick up brochures about programs, as well as get many answers to your questions.
71 Gyeonji-dong (56 Woojeongkuk-ro)
Kongno-gu, Seoul 110-170, South Korea
T: +82 2 2031 2000
Seonunsa runs regular two, three and four day Templestay programs. You can partake in the Buddhist method of eating ecologically, called Barugongyang (a monastic formal meal). Through the practice of Dado (tea ceremony) you can find true stillness and tranquility. While walking along a peaceful forest path you can listen to your inner voice and during ‘a Buddhist Service’ practice the 108 prostrations that all the monks do daily. Depending on the season you might be required to do community work such as sweep the grounds, make food or work around the temple. Additional daytime programs such as crafting lotus lanterns, Buddhist yoga or making a Buddhist Rosary are also encouraged.
T: +82 6 3561 1375
Tips for Templestay Participants
Toiletries: You must bring your own razor, shaving cream, toothbrush and soap etc.)
Dormitory: There are separate rooms for male and female guests. In some cases private dormitories may be arranged for individuals and families upon request. Lights go out at 9.30pm
Clothing: Most temples provide comfortable uniforms, but uniforms for children are not provided so you should bring suitable children’s outfits. Refrain from wearing revealing clothing. Warm clothing may be necessary for early morning programs regardless of the season. Socks must be worn during Buddhist ceremonies.
Program: Morning chant is between 3.30am and 4.30am depending on the temple. Since this is the start of the day, all participants are urged to attend with an open heart. If this is not possible kindly consult an official ahead of time. Taking photographs is frowned upon but some temples do allow it.
Environment: Temples are cultural properties and should be conserved and protected – smoking or drinking is not permitted.
Even though tea is a national drink take you own preferred kind from home
Round pin plugs on adapters are required for electronic appliances
Internet is widely available in Seoul; but less so in smaller towns
Taxis in Seoul are cheap to get around
English is widely spoken in Seoul but not out in many smaller towns
Shuttle coaches run to and from the airport for approx NZ$20 one way
Grand Ambassador Hotel, Seoul
T: +82 2 2275 1101
Shane Boocock would like to thank the Korea National Tourism Organisation for arranging his visit to South Korea. Visit: www.visitkorea.or.kr
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