Temple stay in South Korea

What is “temple stay”? It means to stay in a temple for some time and learn about Buddhism.

Before I came to South Korea I read about temple stay on a list on what to experience here. Some other exchange students apparently did too, which led to 24 students staying one night at a Buddhist temple located two hours from Seoul.

To give a better picture of the event, this was our itinerary for this one night stay:

 1st day:

16-17 Temple Guide

17-18:30 Dinner

18:30-19 Buddhist ceremony

19-19:30 108 Prostrations

19:30-20 Lotus lamp prayer

22:00 Lights out

2nd day:

06-07:30 Breakfast

07:30-08:30 Walking in the park

08:30-09:30 Tea time with monk

09:30-11 Making traditional Korean bracelet

11-12 Free time

12-13 Lunch

Even though I am not a religious person I was very interested in the temple stay experience. I went with an open mind and wanted to learn more and better understand this part of the culture.

We went to the temple stay in Beomnyunsa temple. The buildings were only 13 years old so it was very modern. You could stay for only a day, a night (as we did) or for many nights if you wish to.

The temple manager explained that some temples do not allow phones but that it is okay to use them at this temple, they even encouraged it. So I was a bit disappointed to learn that they had Wi-Fi on the place since I looked forward to staying offline for (at least) one night. But even so I decided to leave my phone in the room and put on airplane mode – it is not every day I spend a night at a temple. So please note that none of the photos in this post are taken by me. Even the temple manager took many pictures of us, which is good so I now also can show you what it looked like.

temple stay south korea

The temple had some (not so strict) guidelines, for example to stay quiet as much as possible. But almost 25 students staying quiet together, what do you think? We were talking, laughing and some played games.

In the room there was a poster that explained that being quiet is seen as “noble silence” and means having a conversation with oneself. Even so we had a nice time together and got to know some people better. 🙂 But going all in on an experience like this sure would be another kind of experience.

As for the clothes, we got an outfit to put on which was a beige vest and some comfy pants.

Me and a statue of a monk, you could rub his belly to get good luck.

Activities during temple stay

In the beginning of this post I shared our itinerary and now I will explain more what some of the different programs were like.

108 prostrations

Going on a religious event often involves praying. This time it meant to do 108 prostrations, a kind of movement from a standing position down to your knees and up again. To do this we  sat in a circle.

The monks only spoke Korean so they put on a CD in English with all the prostrations, this way we could understand what we were doing the prostrations for. They were things as remember to take care of the environment and giving thanks to the ones who made your food. All of us did the 108 times which made the master happy since sometimes people do not do all of them.

Afterwards we took a moment to meditate.

Beginning of the prostration.
End of the prostrations after which you get up again.

Lotus lamp prayer

When it got dark we got to take an electric flower from a water well and put it into the lake after walking around a tower (to get the power of the tower).

The first day was a very interesting experience that made many think more about life and how you act, why you do the things you do and how you think of yourself compared to others. The experiences afterward was very different. Some cried and some talked about how brainwashed they are here.

After the program was done some of us sat outside under the stars discussing until we had to have the lights off at 10 pm (do you see the irony, I paid for an experience where I have an even earlier curfew…?). All in all a very different day for me.

The food at temple stay

On the poster in the room it said “comments about the taste or quality of the food is highly discouraged”. Nevertheless it was a common understanding that after the temple stay many wanted some food. We got served rice with different kinds of vegetables.

Q&A with a monk

On the next day after breakfast and a walk in the park we got to have tea with a monk called Sunim, a woman with happiness in her eyes. She only spoke Korean so the Korean students kindly translated for us. This was very interesting and we learned a lot. She also seemed very interested in us and asked us questions too. Here are some of her answers:

  • She found the way to religion when her grandmother died when she was 10, which she found very difficult and through religion she learned to cope with it better.
  • She did have a relationship with a significant other before she became a monk and said that of course if she sees someone good-looking her heart still flatters. This said she knows what it feels like to want to get married and have children and admitted she would like to have a relationship if it was allowed.
  • We even asked what she missed the most of her earlier life and she smiled and said that she is living the life she wants to right now. Something she did find difficult was to wake up at 4am every morning.
  • She said she wants to get better at accepting people and understanding them, e.g. other religions (she had been a Christian before).
  • In the end she said she was very open-minded and that she was very happy to meet us.

Bottom line is that she thinks it is important to seek happiness, which admittedly is hard to not agree with.

Making a traditional bracelet

Everyone got a pair to make a bracelet with. “This is an activity you could do with children too”, my pair Lisa commented. Even if it was true it turned out to be more difficult than we thought since we had to start over twice, which we then could laugh about.

Everyone got to keep their bracelet and even in the trip to Busan some of the people still had their bracelets on.

The whole temple stay experience was definitely a very different one for me. And some of you might not have thought that I would have gone on something like this. But when in Rome…  And I think it is always good to learn something new.

This combined with that I made a wish to a 600 year old wishing tree really takes me back to the basics and makes me think of what is really important. And remembering to be very thankful for what you have. It is so easy to get busy thinking about everyday things and not realising what everything means.

Would you ever go on a temple stay? Or perhaps you have been already – how was your experience?

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