Buddhism remains the dominant religion in South Korea. There are 87 temples throughout South Korea that offer unique temple stay programs for visitors, but Sudeoksa is a magical place, and one of the best to sample the country’s religious culture.
As city congestion and a hurried sense of belonging are not exactly conducive to a tranquil mind, retreating to a temple for the night is a welcoming option and one that is sure to leave lasting impressions.
Located just under two hours outside of Seoul on the verdant slope of Mt. Deoksungsan in Chungcheongnam province, the surrounding scenery is stunning. It feels worlds away.
Upon arrival we are handed uniforms – traditional monk’s clothing – and assigned rooms (women and men sleep in separate quarters). We are to explore the longstanding traditions of monks and nuns, otherwise known as biguni. An orientation session follows which focuses primarily on the nature of the program, temple etiquette, and barugongyang, the ceremonial manner of eating.
Shortly afterwards, we are given a brief tour of the grounds and led to the front of Daeungjeon, the main chanting hall. For 10 minutes the group listens to the rhythmic sounds of the traditional beopgo, the large dharma drum that is played by three monks. The drum is played before both evening and early morning chanting.
Dinner lasts 30 minutes, with the meal being rather light. Temple food is vegetarian, and is consumed quite differently from what many I’m sure are used to. Eating is seen as a way of disciplining the mind; to know one’s limits and to master self-control.
A new day begins at 3 a.m. After rising and washing, we are led to the front of Daeungjeon where the ritualistic 10-minute beopgo drum ceremony preceeds doryangseok – the early-morning prayer and chant session.
Time to pay our respects. On our individual cushions lay string, together with 108 tiny wooden beads. With each bow, or prostration, we are to add one single bead. Monks believe we experience 108 periods of distress throughout our lifetime. To free ourselves of such burden, one must bow 108 times, with each signifying a release for each period of pent up anguish.
Outside, the sky is cloaked with constellations and the wind whips through the incense-filled grounds in an unforgiving fashion. The buildings stand solemnly in the dawn’s early light. This overwhelming feeling of calm is refreshing. Despite the unearthly hour, I feel very much awake.
Getting there: Take a train from Yongsan Station (subway Line 1) to Hongseong (2 hours). From there you can take a taxi (12,000 won) or bus (1 hour).
Fee: Adults 40,000 won/ Children 20,000 won Additional information: For further inquiries, you may call (+82.41.337.6565) or visit the official temple stay Web site (eng.templestay.com). Organizers speak English.
Canada-born Gregory B. Curley is a professional photographer based in Seoul. His work has appeared in The Korea Herald, SEOUL Magazine, Elle, MTV, 10 Magazine, Morning Calm, CNNGo and CNN. His you can find his work at hermithideaways.com and on twitter.com/gregorycurley.
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