Experiencing a South Korean Temple Stay

by Nicole Brewer

What things come to your mind when one mentions South Korea? Maybe the first is Psy’s Oppa (Korean for older brother) Gangnum Style! Or perhaps you think of kimbap and kimchi.  Well today you will learn about an amazing experience that you must have if you ever travel to South Korea, the Land of the Morning Calm, which is a temple stay!

Visiting a temple in Incheon, South Korea.
Visiting a temple in Incheon, South Korea. Photo by Kayla Patterson

What is a temple stay you might ask? A temple stay is a glorious opportunity to live the life of a Buddhist monk for a day.  It doesn’t matter what your religious background is, the temple stay is designed to educate you about the practices of Buddhism.  In major cities throughout Seoul and Busan in South Korea this opportunity is offered.  The most exhilarating stays include the option to stay overnight on the temple grounds! Who wouldn’t want to include sleeping in a miraculous temple as an item checked off their bucket list? 

In Busan, South Korea there is a great organization that offers free temple stays and other amazing cultural immersion programs to expats called Window to Korean Culture.  The stay is located at Hongboesa temple just past the Nopodong region in Busan.  The first thing that you will do is get set up in your cute little accommodations, which essentially includes a shared room with a floor mate and blanket.  You know Monks like to keep it simple.  Thereafter, you are given a traditional outfit to wear, including an orange free flowing top and grey pants, in order to make your stay more comfortable.  

After you are laced in your comfortable gear, you are shown the immaculate grounds.  There are various botanical plants, ornate Buddhas, gardens, and waterfalls throughout. You will feel at great peace while being in such a serene atmosphere.  This is very important as you must follow the rules of etiquette which include speaking at a normal tone, hence no yelling or screaming, no chewing gum or drinking and/or eating in non-designated areas or taking photos in Buddha areas without prior approval. 

It is absolutely amazing for one to partake in such an historical procedure while visiting South Korea. The next activity includes having a group session with a Buddhist teacher in the grand room.  You will be educated about the traditional ceremonial steps such as Yebul, which is held three times a day. Yebul, or 108 prostrations, are bows that you will make in order to show respect for Buddha as well as align your body in a proper way to have a release and unwind.  You will lay your elbows, knees and forehead to the ground when prostrating.  Also, don’t worry if 108 bows sound intimidating! They will be most accommodating if you can’t do them all. You should just try your best.

Later you will enjoy Barugongyang, which is a monastic ritual of eating that requires complete silence and no wasting of food.  You will sit in a huge circle and are responsible for cleaning your own dishes after.  The meal will be very modest in means, usually only including rice, vegetables and kimchi. The ceremony will show just how much respect Buddhist have for both giving and receiving food.  It truly is a gift, as the utensils and bowl are given with a napkin tied around like a bow. In turn, once you’ve completed eating and washing of your dishes, you will learn how to return it back in the same manner.  

One of the last activities you will do is Chamseon which is zen meditation.  There are two types of this mediation which are seated or walking meditation. At the Hongboesa temple you will practice both forms at the 5am mediation session on top of the Buddha hall. First you will walk around outside on the top floor of an actual huge Buddha! Then after the walking meditation you will be taught how to mediate in the sitting form.  It is most exhilarating to experience both with the fresh, crisp air you will intake atop of the Buddha hall.  

Lastly before departing you can also take in a short art class.  You have the option of designing and painting your own coaster.  It is great fun to do so and very relaxing! So if you ever get the opportunity to visit the mystical lands of South Korea you must try a temple stay.  You won’t regret it!