When planning to travel to Korea, or to any country, you always want to avoid the kitschy, “touristy” areas in favor of a more authentic experience. Planning an authentic tour is hard, however, unless you already know a lot about the area’s culture. Is this tour really highlighting the most important sights of Korean history, or just showing things that tourists like to see? Does this restaurant offer real Korean food, or a cheap imitation of it?
If authenticity is what you seek, consider a stay at one of South Korea’s Buddhist temples. Temple stays put visitors directly in touch with Korean Buddhism’s proud 1700 year history. Through interactions with monks and tours of the temple sites, you’ll be right in the heart of the peninsula’s culture.
Who can participate?
Buddhism is an all-inclusive religion, open to people of all races, genders, and nationalities. You need not be a Buddhist to visit a temple; indeed, non-Buddhists are welcomed, and dialog between religions is heavily encouraged. You will not be required to do any activities that conflict with your religious beliefs, so long as you let the instructors know ahead of time. Some programs are targeted specifically to children, emphasizing cultural education and ecological awareness, but in general, all ages are welcomed. If you can travel to Korea, you can enjoy a Temple Stay.
If you plan to travel to Korea, your trip will never be complete without an understanding of Buddhism. Begun in Nepal in the 6th Century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism spread to East Asia along the Silk Road trading route. It reached Korea in the 4th Century CE, fusing with local shamanistic practices and becoming ingrained in Korean culture.
Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by desire; the path to enlightenment involves escaping desire. It is for this reason that Buddhist temples are often built on mountains, away from the racket and temptation of the city. Here you will have a chance to meditate, exercise, and find harmony in the absence of worldly distractions.
Due to the delicate nature of this harmony, you will not be allowed to smoke or drink alcohol during your stay. It is also requested that you leave your cell phone behind. Most temples have their own phones that you can use during emergencies.
Buddhism is not just some theory about what happens to our souls; it’s a way of life, encompassing everything we do. As such, food plays an important role in the Buddhist experience. Food nourishes the body, and the body in turn gives nutrients to the mind. Control over your mind, then, means eating a healthy, carefully-selected diet.
The formal meal of a Buddhist temple is called Baroogongyang. This meal is typically made from organic, locally-grown ingredients, and is completely vegetarian. Eating it will help you to reflect on and appreciate your life and the food that is available to you. To do this, you are expected to remain silent, to eat slowly, to examine the food using all of your senses, and to eat every crumb of food on your plate.
Most of the activities–such as Seon (Zen) meditation, the Dado tea ceremony, and the “1,080 Bows” ceremony– are based around Buddhist rituals. You will also have the chance to see any important sights in the area, make lotus lanterns, converse with monks, and learn about Korea’s history and ecosystem.
Many temples also offer lessons in traditional Korean martial arts. Besides teaching you to defend yourself, martial arts are a great way to meditate. Performing them makes you aware of the energy that exists around and within your body, especially that of your own breath. Through practice, you can cultivate harmony between your body and your mind, becoming aware of your true self.
Temples with Temple Stay programs provide separate rooms for families or for individuals. You will be provided with bedding and with any special outfits that you may need for Buddhist training. You should bring clothes, toiletries, personal items, and other necessities as you see fit. If you are staying in a mountain temple, be sure to pack warm clothes and hiking boots or durable shoes. Also be sure to bring socks, as it is rude to enter a temple with bare feet.
How can I learn more?
If you’re ready to travel to Korea and experience a Temple Stay, the first step is to find a temple that’s right for you. If you’re already in Korea, consider visiting the TempleStay Information Center at 71 Gyeongjidong Jongnogu in Seoul, where you can learn all the details before planning a trip. Near the Information Center is the Balwoo Gongyang restaurant, which serves the food of Buddhist monks; pay this place a visit to get a sample of the food you’ll be eating.
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