Serene, austere Buddhist temples open up to overnight visitors

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Serene, austere Buddhist temples open up to overnight visitors

One of the best-received cultural events during the World Cup last year was a program that allowed overseas visitors to stay overnight at Buddhist temples.
“The serene life of its Buddhist temples is the reason Korea came to be known as ‘The Land of Morning Calm,’” says Dho Young-shim, the former chairman of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s Visit Korea Year Committee, which coordinated the temple-stay programs. “By staying in a temple one can discover the real Korea, the Korea behind the hectic, modern way of life here,” she adds.
With a centuries-old tradition of exclusivity, it wasn’t easy for Buddhist temples, especially those located outside of Seoul, to open their gates to overnight guests from the, well, mundane world. “Just as visitors to a temple need to learn proper behavior, monks need to adjust to outsiders,” says Ms. Dho.
Lee Go-eun, the coordinator of the Seoul-based Committee for Buddhist Temple Stay, says many visitors who took advantage of the program during the World Cup became fascinated with the temple culture of Korea. They kept asking to stay at more temples, and because of the demand the program has continued. The number of participating temples has dropped, however, and fewer visitors are allowed at one time. About a dozen Buddhist temples are officially participating in the temple-stay program this year.
Through the information center at Jogyesa temple in Insa-dong, central Seoul (02-732-9925), or the program’s official Web site, www.templestaykorea.net, interested parties can choose a temple and sign up for a program. Unlike the usual sightseeing tour, each program limits the number of participants to six. Ms. Lee says visitors are expected to become “completely immersed in Buddhist life” ― and few temples offer language interpretation services.
This month, the Committee of Buddhist Temple Stay Program is preparing organized tours. On May 24 and 25, there will be a two-day tour program for a maximum of 34 people to two temples in the south of Korea: Seonunsa temple in North Jeolla province and Mihwangsa temple in South Jeolla province. The tours will depart from in front of Jogyesa Temple.
The highlight of a temple stay is getting out of the city and seeing the countryside. Once on the temple grounds, the natural surroundings, serenity and well-preserved architecture become a natural source of inspiration. Visitors are asked, but not required, to remain quiet, dress conservatively at all times and follow the normal routines of ascetic Buddhist monks. Three vegetarian meals, prepared using fresh wild plants, spring water and reserved sauces, are served daily at fixed times.
Most temples hold similar religious ceremonies and meditation starting early in the morning, but each temple offers its own special activities. At Mihwangsa temple in South Jeolla province, for example, visitors can make rubbings of a Buddhist stone stupa and enjoy a tea ceremony.
A one-night, two-day trip to a Buddhist temple costs 50,000 won ($40) per person, and in the case of a group tour, reservations should be made at least two weeks in advance.
Starting May 15, Musangsa temple near Mount Gyeryong in South Chungcheong province, famous for its Zen center, offers a special Zen meditation program over the weekend for foreigners only. It costs 45,000 won per person.
If overnight stays are more than you can manage, there are crash courses to get a taste of Korean Buddhist temple life. Jogyesa and Bongeunsa temples, the two major Buddhist temples in the capital, offer “Temple Life” programs. Each program includes a two- to four-hour session on Korean Buddhist culture.


by Ines Cho

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