From the first time I read about temple stay programs in Japan and South Korea, I was hooked on the idea of spending the night at a Buddhist temple. I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and what, exactly, Buddhist monks did on a daily basis. The stays I saw in Japan (“shukubo”) sounded more like simple lodging in a monastery; interesting, but not as much as I was looking for. When I found South Korea’s Templestay program, it seemed I’d found what I was looking for: a real cultural experience aimed at sharing and preserving an ancient way of life.
Beomeosa Temple just outside of Busan, South Korea, offered a temple stay and I wanted to visit the temple anyway; I had my destination! Beomeosa (pronounced “boh MOH sah”) offers temple stays most weeks, Sat. – Sun. You must reserve in advance and should do so as soon as possible. The temple asks for bank transfers, but kindly agrees to accept cash payment upon arrival for foreign guests. Their temple stays alternate between a “resting” and a hiking program. The day that worked with our travel schedule was the “resting” program which focuses on spiritual renewal and offered a 1-hour, as opposed to a 3-hour, mountain hike. We would have been happy with either, but decided we’d probably been lucky to get the shorter hike since the weather was just clearing from the previous day’s rain and still drizzly.
One of the reasons I’d chosen a hotel near Busan Station (rather than the elegant Park Hyatt for which we had free nights available) was that it made getting to our temple stay so easy. We stored our large luggage with our hotel, walked the short distance to Line 1 of the subway just in front of Busan Station. Line 1 runs directly to Nopo dong Station where we got off to catch the 90 Bus straight to the entrance to Beomeosa Station. [Note: The stop before Nopo dong is called “Beomeosa,” but do not get off there.] The subway ride costs 1000 won/pp, one-way = $.91. The whole process takes about 1 hour 15 minutes: 21 stops/40 minutes on the subway, 1 minute walk out the door of Nopo dong station to the 90 Bus, 6 stops/15 minutes on the bus, and about a 5 minute walk up the hill to the temple. When you exit the subway, turn left, away from the Central Bus Station (for long-haul, inter-city buses) and walk right, outside the station, where the local buses park. The sign for Bus 90 is the first one you come to. Pay on the bus (1300 won/pp, one-way = $1.18pp). There’s parking if you want to drive.
Check-in for Templestay was between 1:30-2pm and we arrived right on time. When we explained why we were there, a friendly man at the ticket/info booth at the base of the hill gave us a map and directions and sent us on our way. We joined groups of visitors and hikers climbing the hill to the temple complex. (Beomeosa Mountain boasts several popular hiking trails through its forests where streams fan out through the trees, flowing between enormous boulders.) As we passed through colorful painted gates and large statues of fierce-faced guardians, we wondered what this experience would be like. We’d visited lots of Buddhist temples and shrines in Japan, read what we could, but still so much of it was a mystery to us.
We passed through the last and largest gate into a wide courtyard dominated by a main temple just ahead and several surrounding temple and shrine buildings, all painted in bright shades of red, green, blue, yellow and white. (Although I’ll refer to “Beomeosa Temple,” it’s not one building. There are many temples and shrines of various sizes, as well as living quarters, a drum tower and more which make up the temple complex.) Mounting a last flight of stairs, we turned left as we’d been instructed passing temples on our right and living quarters on our left with signs forbidding entry and stating that meditation was in progress. Later, we’d learn this was where the monks lived. At the far end of a row of temples, we arrived at a gate marked Templestay and climbed one last small hill to a temple much like those we’d already passed.
A young Korean woman met us, quickly found our names on a list and handed us our clothes for the weekend, indicating where we could change. Although, the instructions I’d received upon booking said we could wear “light clothes” under our temple clothes, both David and I found it made no sense to wear anything other than underwear beneath the soft washed cotton of our new clothes. We were given identical outfits, different only in size: a purple front-buttoning tunic with 3/4 sleeves and loose-fitting gray pants with stretchy waist and ankles. Both top and bottom had pockets which came in handy since we stored away our other belongings and gave our valuables to be locked in an office. Once dressed, the same Korean lady gave us a brochure with a map of the temple and surrounding mountain and general instructions about temple etiquette and mindset.
Our fellow templestayers began to arrive and also don the uniform; they included a Russian, an Argentinian living in Busan, an Australian woman whose sick husband left before things began, two women friends from Seoul, two Chinese sister-in-laws, and ten Korean foster/orphanage kids–8 boys and 2 girls–ranging from middle school through high school and the sweet lady who chaperoned them. An exhausted German couple fresh from an overseas flight and a missed train from Seoul arrived just as we began dinner.
Our first activity began with an instruction to grab a cushion from a stack in the corner and form a circle. A monk had joined us and took the lead at the point of the circle nearest a golden bas-relief altarpiece featuring a Buddha among a host of other companions. The young woman who checked us in stationed herself nearby with a clipboard where she jotted notes before translating things to English. A Korean, she’d lived many years in Vancouver and spoke excellent English. The monk introduced himself and the translator began by explaining that while in Catholicism or Protestant Christianity you might call a priest “father” or a minister “reverend,” in Korean Buddhism they referred to the monks as “sunim.” Sunim asked us to introduce ourselves and tell where we were from and why we’d come. He looked to me to start so I gave my name and home and said that I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and the culture around it as part of my trip to Korea. The translator translated my words for sunim and the Korean visitors and so it went around the circle. The younger members gave their grades in school and a few of the less shy ones added their goals and ambitions in life.
After introductions, we took a short break then formed our cushions into rows to listen to a younger sunim explain etiquette of the temple and what was expected of us. As we’d read in the brochure, he explained the proper way to greet monks we might encounter while around the temple, with palms pressed together at chest level and bowing at the waist, a “half-bow” or “hapsang.” We were told to walk with our hands clasped in front, right hand over left, left thumb resting over the right thumb in the “chasu” body posture. We shouldn’t swing our hands vigorously, etc. This was to encourage slower walking and contemplation. Silence was encouraged as a way of having a conversation with yourself. Also, we should not walk or stand with our hands behind our back as that was considered impolite. When in a temple, we should take a cushion from the ever-present stacks in the corner, then sit cross-legged with our hands resting clasped in front of us or with our fists closed, fingers down, resting on our knees. When finished, we should return cushions to where we’d found them. We were taught how to do a full bow; first dropping to the knees, then the elbows, then placing our foreheads on the floor, palms resting beside our head. Then, turning the palms upward, then back down, before rising. A half bow upon entering a temple, facing a Buddha or pagoda, was then followed by three full bows and a final half bow. We practiced the various bows, to the loud cracking noise of a split bamboo rod that sunim slapped against his palm to signal the time and pacing of bows and half-bows. All of this instruction was given in a friendly and welcoming manner and we were repeatedly assured that anything we couldn’t do or weren’t comfortable doing was fine. Our hosts were especially considerate and concerned that people with knee or back problems or stiffness from sitting cross-legged should feel free to extend a leg or two and move about as needed. We all knew that we were supposed to do 108 full bows during an evening ceremony following dinner and there was some apprehension; sunim and the translator both took pains to assure everyone that nothing was mandatory, only encouraged if physically doable.
Next up was a tour of the beautiful temple complex. We walked, hands clasped, when we remembered, and bowed our hapsang and received return hapsang from monks we passed, but our group was not great at keeping silent. There were too many comments to share, too much to ooh and aah over.
After the tour, it was time for our vegan dinner served in the traditional and formal communal style known as “balu-gongyang.” A carefully prepared set of four nesting bowls, placemat/napkin, small towel, chopsticks and wooden spoon was set out for us in a private room off the temple cafeteria. Sitting in a large circle, sunim explained the strict guidelines for each step of the meal. First, we unpacked our set, placing each bowl in a specific spot on our placemat. Hot water was poured into the largest bowl, swirled, poured into the next smallest bowl, poured again, until the water remained in the smallest bowl where we’d also placed the eating ends of our chopsticks and spoon.
Next, food was served on a low rolling tray. Each dish was to be put in a particular bowl: rice in the largest, soup in the next largest, and side dishes (kimchi, cold greens, pickled vegetables, etc.) in the third largest bowl.
We ate in silence, a sign posted at one end of the room proclaiming our prayer for the meal which proclaimed, “…I am ashamed to eat this food…” the idea being that eating was only to sustain life so that one could strive for enlightenment. Happily, the food was actually quite tasty and I really wasn’t at all ashamed to eat it.
After we finished, sunim taught us a ritual cleaning method whereby we cleaned our bowls in sequence as before with fresh hot water and using one slice of pickled yellow radish which we’d been instructed to hold back to “scrub,” adding the water at last to the water remaining in smallest bowl. Finally, we were encouraged to drink the final water and eat the radish as a way of humbly avoiding waste (and finally getting a drink). Our translator and sunim laughed at this and told us the final step, like everything in the program, was optional, but encouraged as an authentic experience. As she pointed out, there was nothing in the water we hadn’t already been eating in separate bowls. Fresh water was available just outside the dining area. And, we did a final cleaning in the cafeteria kitchen before returning the bowls to numbered cubby holes in the private dining room.
The highlight of the evening came just after dinner when we were led to watch the evening drum ceremony. David and I expected some ritual banging on the huge drum that hung from the second story of the drum house (which also housed dragon and cloud-shaped gongs and a huge bell for awakening the spirits). Instead, we witnessed an unbelievable display of talent that went on for quite some time as three monks tag-teamed each other to play pounding rhythms on the drum. They stood facing the drum skin, which was much taller than a man, and proceeded to beat a driving call using both the skin and the sides of the drum, arms extended over their heads, to the side, below, above, over and over. A video of this beautiful ceremony is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.
As the monks finished their drumming, a line of other monks passed below to begin their evening prayer in an adjacent temple. We were led to a facing temple for our own evening prayers joined by locals. The temple was thick with incense and the chanting of the monks and the worshippers (including some of our young companions) was moving. We did our full- and half-bows to the cracking sound of the bamboo rod.
Back at our “base” temple, the time for our 108 full bows had come. A bag of wooden beads and a long cord awaited us before our prayer cushions. The young sumim who’d instructed us earlier explained that the 108 bows symbolized 108 impurities that we were to think on and try to free from ourselves. At the end of each bow, we were to string a wooden bead on the cord, rise, then begin the next bow at the sound of the bamboo rod. As always, anyone who couldn’t or didn’t want to do the full 108 bows was reassured that it was no problem, but we were encouraged to try “using the energy of the group.” David and I both managed our full complement of bows, but it was a different experience than I’d expected. The stringing of the beads was tricky and the whole thing got to be a little more frantic than meditative and I found myself laughing at myself and others as we scrambled to thread the elusive little beads, then get back up in time to throw ourselves back into the full bow at the crack of sunim’s bamboo rod. Still, it was fun and there was definitely a sense of accomplishment when we were done. We finished off our string of beads with a “4-cord braid” capped with a “mother” bead and 4 “baby” beads, scorching the final knots to make things permanent. Korean Buddhists use the beads somewhat like a rosary, running them through their fingers as they pray, or wrapping them around their hands in a figure-eight/google symbol of infinity.
Finally, it was time for bed. David went off to sleep in a separate building with the male members of our group while the women and girls prepared palettes on the floor of the temple where we’d just strung our beads. Toilets and communal showers were in a separate building just in front of the temple. Lights out was at 9:30pm; early, but no one had any complaints about that! Nearly everyone simply slept in their temple clothes. I found myself quickly lulled to sleep by the sound of stream water cascading down the mountainside and the light breeze drifting through the sliding door near where I’d made my bed.
A 5am wake-up had us scrambling to put away our palettes and clean up for the day. Then, it was morning prayers and meditation followed by a vegan breakfast served cafeteria-style in the main dining hall. Once again, the food was simple but tasty.
The drizzle of the day before had given way to a beautiful morning. The air smelled of greenery, wood and water. After breakfast, the young sunim led us on an easy hike up Mt. Beomeosa to a hermitage.
In Korea, a hermitage is more like a remote temple than a place where a hermit might live. Inside the hermitage, Sunim led us in meditation, facing the windows over the valley rather than the altar. The mountain afforded a great view of the temple complex and an absolutely magical view of Busan in the distance, rising like a fairytale city above the clearing mists.
Back at our base temple, we had an hour break before our final activity: “conversation with a monk over tea.”
We formed a circle on our prayer cushions while the senior sunim prepared tea for us. We were each give an bar of unsweetened glutinous rice topped with dried berries, raisins and nuts. It was filling and just-right after our hike, but I noticed that sunim only drank tea. He then took questions from anyone who had them, expounding on such diverse topics as how one becomes a monk (monk “college”), are there women monks (yes, they shave their hair and wear the same robes so you might not recognize them), his/Buddhism’s views on war, how to treat illness, etc.
After changing back into our street clothes and saying our final good-byes, David and I made a last visit through the main temple courtyard before heading down the hill through the three gates. We passed people just arriving, knowing that the temple would soon be crowded with visitors. What a privilege it had been to enjoy the peace and beauty of the temple in quieter hours while experiencing a bit of daily life there.
Korea’s Templestay program now has a dozen or so temples across Korea that offer stays with English translation, and many more that are Korean-only. (Beomeosa Temple has English and Chinese translators available; verify in advance. No other languages are currently offered at Beomeosa.) Day visits without an overnight are also available at some temples. You can find out more at http://eng.templestay.com/. Our temple stay cost 70,000 Korean won (approximately $63) per person which includes everything I described. Although photos are usually prohibited in temples, Beomeosa Templestay allowed us to photograph most everything we wanted. (Although, we of course tried not to be rude or intrusive so did not take photos during prayers.) They also took photos themselves and posted them online for us to view and download afterwards.