Friday, 11 August 2017

Buddhist for a Night: South Korea Temple Stay


When I visited South Korea in 2014, courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation, I spent a lot of time in Seoul. The capital turned out to be a fascinating city, defying its stereotype of bland modernity.

The one big trip I took to the countryside was to stay overnight with a media group at the 9th century Haeinsa Temple, located in the leafy southern interior of the country.


It was an unconventional travel experience: wearing special pyjama-like clothing, getting up at 3am for chanting and bowing, and sleeping on thin mattresses upon heated floors in gender-segregated dorms.

One activity which my companions disliked was eating a vegetarian dinner in complete silence in the communal dining room.

For some reason though, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Maybe I do so much talking, that it felt refreshing to have an enforced break from it.

It was an interesting sleepover, though I was in two minds about some elements of the experience.

On one hand it was stimulating, taking place within an ancient temple in a beautiful natural setting.

We learned a fair amount about Buddhism, via an early Q&A session with a monk.

On the other hand, our subsequent 'training' sessions with the monk felt as if we were pretending to be Buddhists for the night, basically spiritual impostors.

It was an interesting tension, forcing some reflection on spirituality.

And I was glad I'd had the opportunity to visit the temple, especially to see its 700 year old collection of Buddhist texts on wooden printers' blocks.

The one big negative of the experience is that was that I managed to catch a hideous fast-acting sinus infection from a random pilgrim.

It stayed with me for months, through the rest of this trip and a subsequent trip to Oman.

Buddhists would no doubt tell me that such physical suffering is an inevitable part of existence; and a hazard of frequent travel.

Find out more about South Korea's Templestay program at its website: eng.templestay.com.