When you live in Korea you are privileged to experience many aspects of the culture, from the food and the people to the small nuances of the society. If you are looking for a truly unique experience while here in Korea then a temple stay is definitely something to add to your Korean bucket list.
What is a temple stay you ask? Well, a temple stay is exactly what it sounds like. You book a weekend in a temple and for two days and one night you live life as a Buddhist monk.
There are many temples in Korea that do these experiences but we chose the beautiful Donghwasa(동화사) at Mt.Palgong(팔공산) in Daegu, since it was close to home and it is a beautiful place.
The temple stay lasts two days and one night. There are two options for your stay, either a structured stay that allows you to experience life as a monk, or just a peaceful retreat in the mountains. In this article we will be looking at the structured experience.
The buildings that participants stay in are brand new. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means they are tacky or look out of place. Lots of time and effort has gone into building houses that use the best materials and are in keeping with the style of a Korean temple. There is under floor heating, air conditioning for summer stays and a private bathroom with a fantastic shower. The rooms are ‘pension’ style which means you are sleeping on the floor, and bedding is provided. The only issue with the sleeping arrangements was the small pillows. If you need a good pillow to sleep you may want to bring your own. Men and woman sleep separate, even if you are coming to the stay with your boyfriend/girlfriend/ husband / wife.
To start your experience you are given appropriate attire. The soft, pink, marshmallow-like outfits are comfy and warm. Most people that attend the Donghwasa temple stay are Korean but not speaking Korea wasn’t too much of a problem since the lady in charge spoke fantastic English (even if she didn’t think she could). They also had the orientation video in English.
After orientation in which you are taught simple rules such as bow before you eat,and then we had tea with a monk. He didn’t speak any English but everyone tried their best to explain what he was saying. He asked everyone to think of a question to ask him before we left and to open our minds to the experience. It was a lovely chance to meet a real monk. This was followed by lunch and then at 5pm we were invited to watch an evening ceremony.
Every day at 5pm the monks play the drum to sooth all the injured and suffering animals in the surrounding area. It was incredible to watch and the sound echoed through the mountains. There was also a bell that was rung 39 times for the deceased and wandering spirits, we were allowed to stand with the monk and participate in ringing the bell. After this a wooden fish was played to sooth the aquatic creatures and a metal plate what was rung to thank the birds for their existence. It was a beautiful ceremony and exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to learn about on this trip.
Humbled and happy we headed back to learn how to bow. The bowing was the part of the temple stay I had feared and looked forward to all at the same time. In Buddhist culture you do many things in 108ths. The number 108 symbolizes the 108 struggles we face in our life such as anxiety, stress, and anger and so on. The bows are quite intense. You stand and half bow, then lower yourself to the floor, place your head on the floor with your hands by your ears, you turn over your palms and raise them up as if someone was standing on them and you were lifting them to the sky, then you raise up onto all fours, sit up straight on your knees and without bending your back you stand up.
This may sound easy to read but monks must have thighs of steal because these bows aren’t slow ‘think about your life’ kinds of bows. They are fast moving, thigh burning punches to the gluteus maximus that make it impossible for you to think of anything else but the task at hand….which I gather is the exact point. When we did our bows we had the added bonus of making a beaded necklace at the same time, so every time we lowered ourselves to the floor we’d thread a bead. I can’t thread a bead when I’m sat still for about ten minutes, let alone in-between bowing like a mad person. By the time we were finished everyone resembled crazy people. Our hair was all over the place and our skin was a delicious shade of puce. I can safely say that this beaded necklace is now one of my greatest possessions since I worked so hard to make it. It was a lovely souvenir.
After all that exhausting activity we were invited to join the nightly meditation. It lasts from 8pm to 3am but since we had an early start we were allowed to do half hour. We were taught how to sit before entering and then we sat; quite simply we just sat, for a long time and you know what, it was invigorating. The bowing beforehand probably helped quite a lot but it is a peaceful experience that I think most people would benefit from. This is an optional part of the stay (as is all of the tasks) so you don’t need to do this if you don’t want to but I’d recommend pushing yourself and having ago.
By this time it was 9pm and we were shattered. For someone who is used to a bed time of 1am this was an achievement for me. When the bell went to wake up at 3am I wasn’t exactly the happiest person but we all go up and moving. The walk in the dark, cold night was horrid but because we were a small group we were allowed to slip into the temple and experience the real ceremony with the other monks. We entered the massive impressive temple, did our three bows and followed along. The monks sung, chanted and rang gongs to welcome the day. We bowed a lot more but it was so peaceful and humbling that I didn’t even care it was 3am.
After the ceremony you are allowed to get another hour sleep. This was needed. At 6am the bell went for breakfast. I should mention at this point that this food was incredible. It was healthy, vegetarian, colorful and tasty. Not too spicy and full of flavor. Whatever you put on your plate you have to eat so it made me over cautious and probably made me eat the right amount instead of giving myself huge portions like I would at home. Before eating you bow to the food since it is an offering from the monks and you eat in silence. It might have been the tiredness but the silence was great to gather your thoughts. We cleaned our own dishes and then headed back to our rooms. There is an option to try meditating again in the morning. I did attempt this and although it was much harder than the previous night it was still enjoyable.
After breakfast you can get another 2 hours sleep which will leave you feeling very rested and ready for 8am when you are invited to go on a mountain walk. We climbed the surrounding mountains just in time to arrive at a shrine as the sun rose. It is the first part of the mountain to see the sun. We could see all of Daegu surrounded by mountains below us.It was beautiful.
The rest of the day was spent learning how to serve Korean tea in the traditional manner. The ceremony is beautiful to watch and very intensive. The teacher was patient and friendly. We learnt how to hold the cups, how to clean them and how to serve the tea. Snacks were also provided to congratulate us on our attempts.
The rest of the day was spent having a tour of the temple and the temple museum, eating lunch and making our own wood coasters which involved painting. It was all very relaxing. Before we left we were invited to see the monk that had greeted us. He asked us our questions and did his best to answer them.
When we were done we were ready to go we were presented with three small gifts of a bracelet, a bag of perfume, and a note book. The experience was everything I hoped it would be. It was in the perfect setting as it wasn’t too commercial or tacky as I was afraid it would be. It felt authentic and you could tell a lot of care and thought has been put into the experience. Everyone was friendly and happy that you wanted to learn.
If you are interested in doing the Donghwasa temple stay or any other temple stays in Korea then you can contact the people in charge here:
http://www.dhtemple.org/ (Korean site)
http://eng.templestay.com/contents/contents.asp?cid=7 (English site)
firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for details.
Prices range from 70,000 won and depend on what you would like to do during your stay.
How to get to the temple:
Take the Rapid 1 bus to Donghwasa. From Jungangno the bus takes about 65 minutes.