One thing that was on my Korean bucket list I finally get to check off is participating in a Temple Stay at a Buddhist Temple. There are a couple different options available at various temples in Korea but the most common choice is to stay overnight at a temple at get a glimpse into what temple life is like for the monks who live there.
When I finally decided to just pull the trigger and register I didn’t necessarily do the most research, I found a website, templestay.com that allowed me to book a temple stay at various locations so I picked what I thought was a temple in Seoul, did a little research on the schedule and booked it.
Two days before my actual temple stay I found out that I had not booked a temple close to me…I booked one that was about 7.5 hours away…. At this point I thought about canceling and then decided it should still be worth a trip even if I would be spending half my weekend at the actual temple stay and the other half getting to and from the temple stay.
To get to Haeinsa Temple from Seoul via bus option you will need to take a bus from the Express Bus Terminal to Daegu (Dongdaegu Station). Once in Dongdaegu you can take the subway to Seobu Bus Terminal (Seongdangmot) and then take a bus from Daegu to Haeinsa. All in all it took about 7-8 hours to complete each journey, so if you can sleep well on buses it really isn’t so bad.
The bus ride to Haeinsa is kind of a strange one since you start off in a big city and then end up in the mountains. I would recommend telling the bus driver where you are going so he can make sure to take you to that stop.
Once you get to the temple’s stop you will need to walk 1 km up hill to Haeinsa Temple where you can find the registration office for the temple stay. This part of my journey kind of confused me…I honestly thought I would get off the bus and a monk would be waiting to help me out, not the case.
Once I had checked in I was given my temple attire, a pillow case, mat to sleep on and a blanket. The room I was staying in was occupied by two other people but it was a decent size and came with a pillow made out of cut up straws (much more comfortable than it sounds) and a floor mattress!!! I had read sleeping on the floor was most likely so this was a welcome surprise. At Haeinsa each of the temple stay rooms had its own bathroom, and the bathroom is bigger than the bathroom in my apartment. I read that other temples have a group bathroom setup.
I was given a schedule when I registered, but the actual activities varied a little with the schedule. We started off the templestay with an instruction on temple manners from one of the monks who lived at the temple. There were 13 other people completing the templestay, 2 of whom were not Korean. The monks instructing us during our time there didn’t speak any English so there were two staff members who helped out with the translations to the non-Korean speakers.
After getting dressed in the temple attire all the participants met with a monk to go over temple etiquette. After this we were instructed on how to perform the three prostrations as we would be doing these in the ceremonies we participated in. We also went over meditation and meditated for a little while. After this we had dinner at the cafeteria. The food was vegetarian and very tasty in the first meal the options were: rice, kimchi, mushrooms and tofu in a spicy soup, some leafy vegetables and a soup with mushrooms. From the research that I did I found out you are supposed to eat all the food that you take, getting seconds is fine so long as you don’t let any food go to waste.
After dinner we made prayer necklaces with 108 beads to help us count the 108 prostrations we would be completing the following morning.
Once the necklaces were completed we had some tea and were encouraged to listen and ask the monk questions.
After tea time we went to bed around 9pm. Although the accommodations at the temple stay were very comfortable, I couldn’t sleep too well through the night because the floor heating was pretty high. Apparently there are a lot of complaints in the winter time about the floor heating being too warm. So I tossed and turned all night until being woken up at 3 am to go listen to the drum ceremony. This was an impressive ceremony…apparently the monks at Haeinsa are award winners for their drumming skills and listening to their drumming at 3 am in the dark with no one else around was definitely an experience. After the drumming ceremony we went into the temple for the morning service.
Following the morning service we had an early breakfast before having some free time to wander around the temple. After a wander around the temple in the early morning before any non-temple stay visitors we re-joined in the main temple stay room to complete the 108 prostrations (bowing 108 times). The bows were pretty intense…having to bow down 108 times seemed daunting but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. After the bows we meditated in silence and then got up and did some walking meditation. This part of the temple stay was really enjoyable for me, it really took me away from the day to day life and just made me focus on what was happening right then and there. Once this was completed we had some more free time to rest before getting a private tour from some of the monks at the temple.
Haeinsa is famous for the Tripitaka Koreana which are ancient wooden blocks in which the Buddhist scriptures have been carved. They are highly valued for being the oldest Buddhist scriptures in Chinese writing in existence. Apparently the temple was almost bombed during the Korean war, but the pilot remembered the Tripitaka Koreana were kept there and refused to drop bombs on the temple.
After our private temple tour, we were given a couple of hours to tour around the temple or rest before checkout time at 12:30pm. All in all it was a great experience. I would highly recommend completing a temple stay during a visit to Korea and if convenience Haeinsa would be a great choice!