Templestay is a popular way for Koreans and foreigners alike to relax and unwind. Buddhist or not, you can go and stay overnight at a temple for a single night, or even a few weeks. There, you can learn about traditional Buddhist practices, whilst escaping the rush of your daily life. My personal favorite temple stay location? Beobjusa!
You do not need to be Buddhist or Korean in order to experience a temple stay. In fact, it is especially popular amongst foreign visitors with non-Buddhist religious backgrounds who are simply curious about the culture. I myself have been fascinated by the beauty of Korean Buddhist temples since I first set foot in one. I was so excited to finally venture on my temple stay journey this year. Before I take you on this little adventure, let me briefly introduce you to the long history of Buddhism in Korea.
South Korea today is a melting pot of several religions, from Islam to native shamanism.
Christianity grew rapidly in Korea, following the end of Japanese Colonization. However, before that time, Buddhism and Confucian ideals had the greatest influence in South Korea.
Buddhism first arrived in Korea in the year 372 and became prominent enough to be designated as the state religion during the Joseon dynasty period (1392–1910). Confucian thought – not a religion but more of a moral code, was then used to supplement Buddhist ideas and resulted in a set of conduct codes promoted to all citizens. Confucianism promoted such concepts as filial piety (respect for elders), loyalty to the king, and ancestral worship. Many of these concepts are ingrained even in non-religious Koreans, as you’ll quickly notice if you visit Korea.
While Buddhism is a global religion, Korean Buddhism has many unique characteristics. So many, in fact, that it was dubbed ‘Tongbulgyo’ (interpenetrated Buddhism). Buddhism remains one of the major religions in Korea, although traditional Buddhist customs are rarely practiced in daily life. Despite the tumultuous events of the previous centuries, many stunning Korean temples and relics remain. In fact, there are over 900 traditional Buddhist temples in Korea, and approx. 20,000 in total. However, not every temple offers a temple stay program. Many temples are private, but there are plenty of options to choose from.
So where did I head for my own temple stay program?
I was lucky enough to visit one of the most beautiful temples in Korea, Beobjusa temple. This temple, located in the stunning Songnisan Mountain National Park in Boeun-gun, North Chungcheong, is the main temple of the 5th diocese of the dominant Buddhist order in Korea, the Jogye Order. The meaning of its name is “the temple where the Buddha Dharma stays”. A name that perfectly captures the temple’s serenity. It is presumed to be founded in the year 553.
I decided to participate in the free-style temple stay program at Beobjusa that lasts two days and one night. Although the program is two days long, you can only check in after lunchtime. Dinner, breakfast, and lunch the next day are provided as well as the accommodation and clothes. If you want to experience various programs – for example, tea time with monks, you can visit on Fridays and weekends.
To reach the temple from Seoul, the easiest way is to get a bus from Nambu Bus Terminal located in Gangnam. You get off at the very last stop – Bus Terminal Sokrisan. The journey takes no more than 3 hours. It is especially important that you stay seated until the very last stop, the bus stops at several other terminals before reaching the mountain area.
After walking for about 20 minutes from the bus terminal, you began to be surrounded by dense nature. National Park visitors have to pay a small entrance fee, but for temple stayers, the fee is waived. I can still see the little pathways among the trees, stepping into the beautiful valley where the temple lies. Unlike the majority of the other temples I have visited, I didn’t have to spend hours trekking uphill! I just followed the main road to the heart of the park where Beobjusa lies.
The temple is a popular place for many visitors, but the temple stay residence is slightly separated from the main buildings. This means that you really get all the quiet you can ask for. In fact, in every temple, you should always honor the silence by minimizing noise as much as possible.
Over the two days I was there, I feel like I said approximately 2 words – Hello and goodbye. Not counting chanting and info session of course. Each visitor had their own room, the classic floor bed which was surprisingly comfortable. The clothes they provided were also fresh and comfy.
Since I took part in a free-style temple stay, there was no strict schedule to follow. The only set events were chanting and meals. As at any other temple, breakfast is served extremely early, 5:45 am! Plus, if you want to take part in the morning chanting… getting up at 4 am is a must. Being a lazy night owl, I only chose to experience the evening chanting during sunset.
While attending the evening chant, I was nervous about ditrubing the harmony of the ceremony because I didn’t know what to do. However, the staff guided us all the way. They showed us the proper way to bow and provided us with written texts so that we could follow along. It was truly one of a kind experience, something I would recommend to everyone.
The next morning, I also decided to venture into the true wilderness and I challenged myself to hike the surrounding mountains. In about an hour, I reached the peak of Seoriksan Mountain and I didn’t want to go back down. It might sound cliche but I truly felt completely at peace. Free as a bird. No noise, no people, no stress – nothing to distrub being myself. Until a gigantic wasp came and made me return to the safety of the trees!
One last part that I can’t fogret is the food. As a vegan, Buddhist temple cuisine is my dream. All the vegetables and grains, please! Over the years I tasted plenty of Korean tempe food, but Beobjusa is truly one of the best. Buddhist meals are not only fully plant-based but encourance mindful eating. Called gongyang, the idea is to eat only what you can and not waste, focusing on simple but adequate nourishment for the body. Another thing I want to keep as I left the temple gates.
Overall, despite dreaming of the temple stay program for years, Beopjusa exceeded my expectations. The staff were also nice and helpful, and fluent in English! So even if you can’t speak Korean you don’t have to worry. I definitely will return, since this world will likely make me want to escape into nature once again soon.
Beobjusa Address: 405 beopjusa-ro, Songnisan-myeon, Boeun-gun, Chungcheongbuk-do Korean Address: 충북 보은군 속리산면 법주사로 405 Normal Visiting Hours: Mon - Sun: 06:00 AM - 06:30 PM
Find more info on Beobjusa’s temple stay program by Clicking Here.