Last week my American friend Kyle and I went to a temple stay in the northern province of Kangwon-do where we stayed at the Guin Buddhist temple, for 24 hours and took part in the daily rituals and other goings on at the temple. For those of you who don’t know, temple stay is a service where you can reserve a place at one of Korea’s myriad Buddhist temples which you can stay at for up to three days (depending on the temple). During your stay you are expected to take part in a number of activities that range from meditation to manual labour. It sounds pretty tough, but it can be a very interesting experience. Ours went as such. . .
We took the bus from Dong Seoul bus terminal at 6:59am and arrived at the temple gates at 9 after a scenic bus ride through the country. Upon arriving at the temple we walked around the temple grounds, which to our surprise, were huge! It was like a small Buddhist village. As we were walking we saw all kinds of people young and old who were working at the temple or staying there for a retreat. The temple was located on the side of Mount Sorak which is very large and scenic. We made our way to the top of the mountain which was breathtaking and then we went back down to the temple office to sign in with the monks, however, not before eating some of the temple’s vegetarian food which was actually pretty tasty.
After signing in with the monks we were issued our temple clothes which were orange garments resembling a traditional Korean design, shown to our quarters and then given a tour of the temple and made paper lanterns that resembled lotuses which can be seen in many Buddhist temples. The tour concluded with the evening ceremony in which some monks played a drum and wooden fish and rang a bell to signal the end of the day. After that we went into what was called the Dharma Hall to do prostrations in front of a large idol of Buddha himself. After that we had a vegetarian dinner which consisted of rice, various kinds of kimchi and bean paste soup. After that we had some free time to walk around the temple and then we did some additional exercises in the dorm that were led by the two monks who supervised us. These exercises consisted of meditation and 108 prostrations which left us pretty tired. After that we went to bed at 9pm.
We woke up at 2:50am to take part in the morning ritual which consisted of walking around the Dharma hall and doing more prostrations in front of Buddha after which we were given a two hour break. After that we had breakfast and walked up the mountain step by step in what we were told was “walking meditation” in which we had to count our breaths as we ascended the mountain. After getting down the mountain we walked along a grid that had been painted on the temple compound that was also used for walking meditation. We then went to another dharma hall, this one dedicated to the temple’s founder where we performed additional prostrations.
After that we were given tea and various edibles during a tea ceremony where we were able to ask the monks about their temple lives and engage in general conversation. After waking up at 2:50am and climbing a mountain it was a nice break and made very pleasant by our monk hosts. The temple stay period ended after that and finally we changed back into our jeans and coats and hopped on the bus to go back to Seoul.
By this description I’m sure you must have realized that temple stay is not exactly a walk in the park, but it’s certainly an interesting and worthwhile experience, especially if you are interested in East Asian culture. The food was quite tasty and the monks were friendly, patient and informative and the sleeping area was quite comfortable, if not somewhat overheated. It was a lot of fun and I would certainly recommend it. If you ever decide to do it though, it is much more interesting if you book a temple in the countryside. Also, be ready to do a lot of bowing.