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Chill Out in a Korean Buddhist Temple

If you’re visiting South Korea for the Olympics in PyeongChang—or if the region is on your bucket list—there are some places outside the Olympic arenas that you might want to explore. Contributing writer David DeVoss shares his experience visiting a Buddhist Temple in South Korea—along with his tips for booking your own stay.

Who could have imagined that an Olympic games 40 miles from North Korea would be so exciting? The Olympics are less than half over but already spectators have seen California teenager Chloe Kim perform snowboard aerobatics high above an icy half pipe, elegant ice skaters spin like Sufis, skiers battle frigid, gale force winds in pursuit of gold medals, and a small company of chiseled North Korean cheerleaders who served, if nothing else, as visible proof that not everyone in their country is starving.

Woljeongsa’s octagonal, nine-story pagoda ranks No. 48 on Korea’s list of National Treasures.
The pagoda has bronze wind bells and and a gilt bronze finish and is typical of pagodas built in
Korea’s Goryeo Kingdom established in 918 AD.

One of the best things about the PyeongChang games is that getting there is half the fun. Every Asian capital has excellent seafood restaurants, but at Seoul’s Gwangjang night market you can order quivering fish fresh from the sea. Gangnam style literally comes alive on the South side of the Han River in trendy Apgujeong-Dong where the young and fashionable saunter between designer shops.

Before leaving Seoul most visitors will walk through one of the Moon Gates of Gyeongbokgung Palace and rest beneath the trees surrounding Cheong Wa Dae (the Blue House) where Korean President Moon Jae-in lives before starting the uphill climb to Buckchon Hanok Village, a sprawling outdoor museum of sorts where residents live in traditional tile-roofed homes of the sort that once spread across Seoul before the Korean War.

The Woljeongsa Temple sits in the middle of the mountainous Odasan National Park one hour’s
drive north of PyeongChang, South Korea

To get a real insight into Korean culture, however, try to spend at least one night before leaving Korea at one of the country’s 20 Buddhist temples able to accommodate English-speaking guests.

Visitors are welcome to stroll about the courtyards during the day, visit the temple
museum and photograph and Dharma Bell that calls people to prayer.

For people attending the winter games the closest temple to PyeongChang is Woljeongsa, an artfully crafted Buddhist retreat located beside a rippling creek in the middle of the Odasan National Park. From PyeongChang it takes one hour to drive to Woljeongsa through forest-covered mountains and rich agricultural valleys.

Guest rooms at Woljeongsa Temple may be spartan, but the structures in which guest rooms are
located are elaborately constructed.

A Buddhist Temple stay in Korea is a highly structured experience. When I arrived at Woljeongsa, I was met by Eunyu (“Just call me Nicole”) Chong, a university student taking a semester away from school to manage the temple’s guest programs. After distributing loose fitting orange garments designed to be worn over regular clothing, she placed boxes of beads in front of each guest and told us to string a necklace with 108 beads. We later would offer our beads to Buddha at the evening prayer service.

Guests at Korean Temples begin their stay with a briefing on Temple etiquette followed by a session of bead
stringing designed to reduce stress, increase focus and minimize outside priorities and stress

As we bent to the task, Nicole explained the rules. “Try to speak as little as possible when you’re here and remain absolutely silent at dinner,” she advised softly. “Be neat and clean at all times and avoid all displays of affection.” Hello, What’s up and How you doing? Were on the list of proscribed greetings. “If you wish to greet another person just wrap your right hand over your left hand and bow.”

Guest rooms are spartan with little more than pegs on the wall for clothing and basic
bedding. Rooms are warmed by Korean “ondol” beneath the floors.

Visitors to Woljeongsa are segregated by sex and assigned to small dorm rooms unadorned save for a few wall pegs on which to hang clothes. Bedding is provided but blankets are barely needed since the “ondol” heating system under the floors keeps rooms warm even on cold nights. There are electrical outlets to recharge cell phones but don’t bother asking for a WiFi password. At 9 p.m. guests are expected to turn off all lights and go to bed.

Wooded pathways extending from the temple into the Odasan National park are lined in sections
with stacked rocks representing prayers to Lord Buddha and other inspirational thoughts.

Serenity prevails at Woljeongsa both inside the temple complex and along the trails that radiate out into the forest. For the first three hours of my stay I kept feeling I should be doing something. Anything. Slowly I began to realize as I ambled along trails leading into the forest or sat silently beside the creeks looking at pebbles stacked to resemble pagodas that Buddhism does not call temple guests to action. Instead a temple stay is designed to produce an appreciation for what Catholic theologian turned Zen philosopher Thomas Merton called the “wisdom of emptiness.”

Elaborate pavilion architecture

“Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future,” Merton wrote. “Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it the present you will never find it.”

A temple courtyard

Dinner at Woljeongsa consists of tea, rice, steamed vegetables and a few sprouts served cafeteria style. Guests are encouraged to eat quickly and leave. This is easily done when dinner lacks flavor and conversation.

Bedtime comes early in a Korean temple. So does morning prayer. At 4 am an enormous temple bell begins to toll. It is a signal for us to get up and wash since prayers begin promptly at 4:20 am. The bell sounds when struck with a heavy wooden clapper suspended from the bell tower with ropes. It takes two monks to muster the force necessary to ring the bell.

Guests are encouraged to hike the wooded trails leading into the Odasan National Park surrounding the temple. Guests are provided with loose fitting body wear that masks individual clothing styles.

After prayers I return to the forest determined to find a high point to watch the sun rise. Wind gently stirs the fir trees while a gurgling brook nearby provides the only sound. I’m one with the shadows and Gangnam feels very far away.

Pedestrian bridge leading to the Woljeongsa Temple across a rocky creek.

Twenty Buddhist temples located throughout Korea accommodate English-speaking guests for overnight stays or longer. Rules are strict. Temple etiquette demands modest attire and restrained, contemplative behavior. No smoking is allowed and attendance at Buddhist prayer services is expected. Reservations are required but are easily obtained here.

Resident monks walk silently about the temple when not meditating.

Where You Can Stay

Twenty Buddhist temples located throughout Korea accommodate English-speaking guests for overnight stays or longer. Rules are strict. Temple etiquette demands modest attire and restrained, contemplative behavior. No smoking is allowed and attendance at Buddhist prayer services is expected. Reservations are required but are easily obtained at http://eng.templestay.com.

    Temple                        Location           Telephone                      Contact

Bongeun-sa                       Seúl            82-2-3218-4826    http://www.bongeunsa.org

Geumsun-sa                      Seúl            82-2-395-9955      http://www.geumsunsa.org

Myogak-sa                         Seúl            82-2-763-3109      http://www.myogaksa.net

Centro Internacional Seon  Seúl       82-2-2650-2242    http://www.seoncenter.or.kr

Yongjoo-sa                     Gyeonggi        82-31-235-6886    http://www.yongjoosa.or.kr

Jeondeung-sa                   Incheon         82-32-937-0152    http://www.jeondeungsa.org

Woljeong-sa                   Gangwon        82-33-339-6606    http://www.woljeongsa.org

Beopju-sa                       Chungbuk      82-43-544-5656    http://www.beopjusa.or.kr

Magok-sa                        Chungnam     82-41-841-6226    http://www.magoksa.or.kr

Geomsan-sa                     Jeonbuk         82-63-542-0048    http://www.geumsansa.org

Naeso-sa                          Jeonbuk         82-63-583-3035    http://www.naesosa.org

Seonun-sa                       Jeonbuk         82-63-561-1375    http://www.seonunsa.org

Hwaeom-sa                      Jeonnam        82-61-782-7600    http://hwaeomsa.org

Mihwang-sa                     Jeonnam        82-61-533-3521    http://www.mihwangsa.com

Golgul-sa                        Gyeongbuk     82-54-775-1689    http://www.sunmudo.com

Jikji-sa                            Gyeongbuk     82-54-429-1716    http://www.jikjisa.or.kr

Haein-sa                       Gyeongnam     82-55-934-3110    http://www.haeinsa.or.kr

Donghwa-sa                     Daegu          82-53-982-0223    http://www.donghwasa.net

Beomeo-sa                        Busan           82-51-508-5726    http://www.beomeo.kr

Yakchun-sa                       Jeju             82-64-738-5000    http://www.yakchunsa.org

To read about more destinations and recommendations from David DeVoss, check out:

Text and images by David DeVoss for PeterGreenberg.com



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