Korean Temple Stay Experience and What to Expect: Seoraksan National Park-Sinheungsa Temple
I finally got to check off 'temple stay experience' from my Korea bucket list! A few weeks ago after catching the smallest glimpse of spring, JD and I took advantage and booked our first temple stay. This post features our experiences during our stay at the Singheunsa Temple in Seoraksan National Park, and will hopefully answer general questions you may have about Buddhist culture, and temple stays in Korea. I highly recommend giving a temple stay a shot if you're interested in taking a break from the hustle and bustle of life, have a love of nature, or interested in exploring meditation, or Buddhism.
What is a Temple Stay?
A temple stay is essentially a chance for someone to take a step back, relax, and even reflect on life. Temple stays offer a small window into not only Buddhist culture, but also meditation, and personal wellness. Some programs offered are structured with activities laid out for you for the length of stay, and others are more free-form in that activities are optional and you can spend the time as you wish. The great thing about temple-stay programs is that they can be as short as one day or as long as a couple of weeks! For the longer programs, you actually get to sleep in the temples. Activities can include; free time to hike and explore the surrounding nature, meditative walks, participation in Buddhist chanting, and bell-ringing, intentional boughts of silence, mandala bead bracelet making, paper lantern making among others.
Briefing and Introduction
After travelling a couple of hours by bus, we arrived in Sokcho where we took a taxi to the beautiful Seoraksan National Park. Before being allowed entry into the park we gave our names at the ticket booth. The great thing about booking the temple stay was that park entry was free for the weekend!
Check in for the program was 3:00 pm, so we met up with the temple stay coordinator where he showed us to our room, handed us our gowns, and went over the itinerary for the weekend. We watched a brief video on proper temple stay etiquette and had time to ask any questions.
Free Time Chasing Waterfalls
After getting settled into our room, we headed out to explore the park before sundown. Our coordinator suggested we check out the waterfalls that were only a short hike away from the temple. JD and I managed to reach all the waterfalls within 40 minutes. We hung around, and filled our water bottle with the fresh mountain water before heading back down the mountain. It felt really relaxing to be out there since there was virtually no one else around at that time.
Mindful Eating and Etiquette
After getting back it was time for dinner with our coordinator and other temple stay guests. We had heard mixed things about temple dining, the main factor being that no meat would be served. It is against Buddhist culture to consume meat so most of the temple meals are vegan-friendly. Since many temples in Korea are situated in the mountains, most meals consist of natural resources such as wild roots, stems, leaves, fruits and flowers. Don't food be a deterrent though because though there is no meat, there is an abundance of delicious food, and you can take as much as you need as long as you leave no leftovers. Staying at a temple did not mean all we ate was salad (thankfully). We ate hot prepared meals which included rice, noodles, and amazing soups. We walked to the dining hall and served ourselves buffet style. Before eating, we all read a Buddhist prayer thanking the food, and the environment that provided it. It was also encouraged that rather than talking during dinner, that we instead focused on experiencing the taste of the food we were eating. We were honestly pleasantly surprised by how good everything tasted! After dinner, we were responsible for washing our own dishes.
After dinner we hastily made our way over to the Buddhist temple where a bell ringing ceremony happens each evening at sundown. We gathered as the sun was setting and watched as a Buddhist Monk (who had somehow acquired some fresh Nike's along his journey), pulled back on a tree log that was harnessed to the roof of the pagoda, and let go. The log swung forward and struck the giant metal bell; the sound buzzed in our ears. We then lined up to give it each a try!
Evening Buddhist Chanting
Due to the type of programming we chose. Participation in any Buddhist related activities were completely optional. Of course, Jd and I were interested so we entered the main Buddhist temple in the complex. There were small cushions lined up throughout the space, with a bigger cushion out in front for the monk. In front of the cushions, there was a giant shrine of Buddha with offerings of fruits, candles, incense. Paper lotus lanterns hung above the ceiling perhaps with names of those who donated to the temple. Upon entering the temple, out of respect, we were to bow 3 times. The monk led the evening chanting as we sat criss-crossed on the cushions. We tried our best at meditation during this time and to follow the chanting, though we didn't chant ourselves. During certain parts of the chant we noticed cues from the coordinator to get up and bow. Tip: We learned that when in the presence of a monk, we should bow to them and avoid eye contact out of respect. It's also important to never expose the bottoms of your feet to a monk.
Early Night's Sleep
After the chanting ceremony we headed back to our rooms to chill for the night. The accommodations were cozy, yet comfortable. Our rooms actually seemed newly built. We had our own bathroom, closet, and were given all the linen we needed for bedding.
The park and all the shops in it had closed for the evening. We had brought books, and snacks to keep us occupied. I brought my phone too, but wanted to avoid using it other than to take photos for the weekend. We had an early morning the next day to participate in the morning chant at 4:30 am so we set up our bedding, hung out for a bit then went to sleep. We slept on the ondol heated floor which was a nice change!
Rise and Shine
Thanks to the alarms set on our phones, and paranoia of missing it, we were able to wake up before the sun was even awake. Yep, 4:00 am. We walked a couple minutes to the main Buddhist temple, bowing towards the giant Buddha statue outside our room along the way. What I immediately noticed was how many stars I could see in the sky. It may have been the most I have ever been able to see in a long time. There were no bright lights, buildings, or clouds covering the views. When we arrived, it was the same procedure as the previous ceremony. We started with a couple of minutes of meditation as the monk chanted before doing a series of bows. It was more difficult to sit in stillness the second time around. We sleepily headed back to our rooms for some free time afterwards. Again, this portion of the stay was optional but we were happy to be a part of it.
It's not every day you say you were able to fit in a nap before breakfast. We had about an hour or so of free time between the ceremony and breakfast. Our sleepiness got the best of us; after the morning chant ceremony we drifted of to sleep again before breakfast. The ondol (heated floors) was really warm which made it impossible not to drift to sleep. We set alarms again for an hour later and passed out.
Last Meal Together
After our second wake-up call of the day, we walked together as a group for the last time on the way to a 6:00 am breakfast. No one really talked since we were all still sleepy but it was really beautiful to see the sun rising throughout the park, and to hear nothing but our footsteps and a few birds making sounds.
Creating 108 Beaded Mandala Below the Giant Buddha
Another optional activity we chose to participate in was the mandala making. When we told the coordinator we were interested in trying it out, he stared at us wide-eyed as if to say are you sure? Everyone else in the group had opted for bracelet making. A mandala is a beaded loop or necklace consisting of 108 beads. The number 108 is significant in Buddhist and other cultures because it represents the desires of mankind. Typically the beads are used to help keep count as mantras during mediation are repeated. After breakfast around 8:00 am we were led to a temple underground beneath the giant Buddha in order to create our mandalas. In order to create them we had to do a full bow for each bead. We would stand up, kneel, bring our foreheads to the ground, and raise our palms to the ceiling before being able to place a bead on the string. I don't know if it's the competitive nature in us, but JD and I were determined to finish and did so in around 40 minutes. To keep myself distracted from the pain of bowing 108 times, I tried to focus by creating a different intention for each bead. Just as we had finished a monk had come in to do some mid morning chanting, so we like to think our beads are lucky. This was a really unique and fun experience that I'm glad we could be a part of.
Free Time Exploring Via Cable Car and Hiking
The temple stay program ended early around 9:00 am on Sunday. We enjoyed some warm tea while taking a small survey then were free to go back home or explore the park! We opted to take the cable car up the mountain, do some hiking for great views, and then ended our time by getting food at one of the many restaurants in the park.
I hope to be able to experience another temple-stay in another location before my time in Korea is up. Here are some suggestions that may help you when preparing for your 1st temple stay.
Booking Your Temple Stay
Bookings for Shingheunsa, or any other temple stay in Korea can be done easily online at Templatestay.com On the website you can search temple stays by region or by temple name. If you're interested in booking Shingheunsa, here is the direct link. Registering is easy because for most programs, you can just select the dates you're interested in booking, enter your information, then pay in cash upon arrival. Also, our coordinator spoke English so we were able to ask him any questions we had about the program which was great.
How to Get to Singheungsa Temple
From Seoul, get to Express Bus Terminal and find the bus to Sokcho. After about 2 hours, you will arrive to the Sokcho or Intercity Bus Terminal in Sokcho where you can easily grab a bus or taxi to get you to Seoraksan National Park. Once at the park, give your name and mention you are there for a temple stay. You will see signs leading you to the temple where you'll check in with your coordinator!
What to Bring
You honestly don't need much, especially if you're staying for the weekend. Here is a list of suggestions: -Cash for payment and additional activities: Singheunsa was 50,000 won per person and included accommodations, activities, and meals.
-A set of clothes and pj's: you will be given temple stay clothing and you'll wear your regular clothing underneath. -A warm sweater and hat: The air gets cooler faster in the mountains so it helps to have a sweater to wear during the evening and morning chants at the temple. You won't need it for the room because the ondol heats things up quickly.
-Basic toiletries: deodorant, toothbrush, and toothpaste is really all you need. Soap for showering is provided. -Towel for showering
-Phone charger, journal, pen, and your favorite book: These are optional but are great for when you have down time.
-Water bottle and snacks: Each program will usually offer a place to refill your water bottle and snacks are great if you are concerned about the temple food...but don't be because it's amazing and you will get enough.
There you have it! If you have ever been to a temple stay what was your favorite? If you have never been and still have questions, please feel free to reach out!
Thank you for reading!