I was recently travelling to South Korea, and one of the things I did there was to stay at a temple and experience life as a Buddhist Monk. So-called “Templestay” programs have been flourishing as they are becoming a popular element of a holiday in Korea for tourists or expats interested in learning more about the country’s culture.
So what happens during a templestay? First of all, you should stay for at least one night. You normally arrive in the afternoon, you change into a set of Buddhist clothing and start with receiving an introduction into (Korean) Buddhism (e.g. that there are differences between Chinese, Indian and Korean Buddhism, or that in South Korea there are both male monks and female monastics living in the same temple).
One of the challenges of our stay was to do 108 prostations. A prostation is a sort of enlarged bowing posture which Buddhists employ as an act of submissiveness or worship to a Buddha. If you know yoga, then it may help to explain it as a similar movement as the sun saluation. So, you will figure, doing 108 of them is quite an intense exercise! It helped though that for each prostation we completed, we were adding one wooden pearl to a string, and after completion, we would receive the necklace as a reminder of what we managed to do. So while this was already hard, all of us were more nervous about the other challenge we would face: doing a 50-minutes medidation at 5:00 in the morning. So, after a delicious meal of vegetarian temple food (so-called Baru Gongyang) we went back to our rooms (communal rooms, men and women separated) and tried to go to sleep early in order to make it up call at 4:30. Yes, we all collectively sort of overheard the bell, but then we still made it on time to the prayer room. As a surprise, our teaching monastic welcomed also the temple’s Zen master to our medidation practice which of course, added some pressure to succeed in completing the medidation in the proper position. And I made it! I was so proud of myself, especially since during the practice session of 10 minutes I had found it almost impossible to stay in the seated, cross-leged position without moving. It is quite astonishing what things you can master if you are really focused.
The program also included the bell-ringing procedure, Buddhist tea-ceremony and a talk with the Zen Master but the most rewarding parts were certainly doing the prostastions and the medidation. I found that the flow in doing prostations felt really good, almost liberating even, like getting rid of negative emotions and humbling oneself and so I find myself doing some of them every now and then, even back at home.
Planning your temple stay experience
So, if you ever make it to South Korea, definitely include a templestay in your travel agenda! All temples open to foreign visitors are listed on www.eng.templestay.com. Which one to pick? First of all, think about how much time you have at your disposal and make sure though that you book a few weeks in advance in order to be sure to secure a spot at your preferred temple. I was unfortunately late in doing so, but luckily I still got a spot at Myogak-sa which is in the center of Seoul which is perfect if you don’t want to loose time traveling across the country and the accomodation is also supermodern, including also air-conditioning (which may not be the case in temples in the countryside). Another temple also in the center of Seoul is Bongeun-sa, which is probably the one I would choose for my next visit since the temple is not only large and beautiful but there is also an adjacent forrest which allows you to really take a breath and dive into the sacred place. If you can spare some more time, then it is maybe worth going all the way down to Mihwang-sa, which is in the very South of South Korea in the so-called “Land’s End Village”, where you can see at one both the mountains and the West Sea at the same time.
PS: More tips for discovering Seoul can be found on my travelinspirations page here.