Korea Destinations: My Experience at Beomeosa Temple in Geumjeong
As the nationwide ‘Temple Stay Weeks for Foreigners’ program has come to an end, I reflect on a tiring but very enjoyable overnight experience at Beomeosa Temple in Geumjeong. Situated high up the eastern edge of Geumjeong Mountain, Beomeosa Temple is one of the three most famous temples in the Yeongnam region of Korea.
Temple stay programs take place all across the nation, designed to combine the beauty of the Korean countryside with the rich history and culture of Korea and Korean Buddhism. There are many different experiences to be had at a temple stay, but most include a temple tour, tea time with Sunim (a Korean Buddhist monk) and a taste of temple culture.
I arrived at the temple grounds (by taxi – I was running late) alighted, and climbed the steep incline towards the temple stay quarters at the northwest side of the temple grounds. I was greeted by Jeongyun (Jamie), the manager for foreign participants and visitors, and an expert on Korean Buddhism and temple culture.
We gathered in a beautiful pagoda building that would double up as our bedroom for the night and changed into our Temple clothes. Traditionally during temple stay participants are given trousers (or pants to all you non-Brits) and a vest to wear over their own clothes.
According to templestay.com, “dress in the temple should be clean, neat and conservative. One should avoid bright colored clothes, outlandish clothes, heavy makeup, strong perfume, and excessive accessories.” So there we go.
There were some construction works going on outside, and the juxtaposition of peace meets progress was pretty strange to see. You never imagine a temple being ‘under construction’, especially when the many temple buildings are so exquisitely and intricately crafted.
Beomeosa temple is one of the oldest temples in Korea. The temple was originally constructed by monk Ui Sang in 678 during the reign of King Munmu of the Silla Kingdom. Most of the original Beomeosa Temple site was lost during the Imjin War (1592-1598) but was restored in 1613 and has remained until now. Construction is ongoing as the temple continues restorations and development, but luckily did nothing to hamper our experience.
During the 1 night 2 days temple stay we met with a number of Sunim, and learned the basics of temple etiquette, the proper way to carry out your prostrations (bowing) and had a tour of the ground with the head Monk, who explained in detail tales of the grounds and the many Bodhisattva and Buddha statues and shrines proudly displayed inside.
After the tour, we headed to the dining hall, where a feast of temple food awaited. Guests are encouraged to put onto their plate only what they can eat, so as to avoid waste, and after our meal of veggies, rice and soy-meat we had to wash our own dishes, as is the way in the temple.
We climbed the hill to the Jongru (Bell Pavilion) where we watched a mesmerizing drumming ritual – a display of rhythm meets strength – performed by 3 monks, then continued to another prayer hall where we carried out our prostrations.
This was the real deal, and I was very glad to have Jeongyun in front to follow. My feet were cold, and the equally cold, hard wooden floor of the temple building was playing havoc with my tootsies. To my relief, a few of my fellow participants seemed to be having the same issues. I was very impressed with the strength needed to maintain the proper kneeling position for any length of time.
To bring our evening to an end, we had a meeting with Jang San Sunim, a Korean American monk who currently studies at Beomeosa. He talked us through the 108 prostrations (108 bows) and then casually mentioned that we were going to do it ourselves.
Despite the initial flash of silent despair, they passed surprisingly quickly, although afterward (and for the days following) my legs burned with every slight movement. I considered myself to be fit, but clearly not ‘monk fit’.
After we all lowered our aching legs and tired bodies onto our mats, we started making prayer beads, 108 in total, including one ‘mother bead’. This is also offered as part of the temple stay program at Beomeosa. Whilst carefully threading the beads onto the elastic string, I spoke with Jang San Sunim about the Templestay program.
“The [nationwide] temple stay program itself was designed for foreigners, and it started in 2002 when we had the world cup. It was originally started to promote tourism, but now we have Korean people come as well.”
He continued on to tell me that while international guests come for a variety of different reasons, usually the Korean visitors attend temple stays for one thing;
“For Koreans, most of the people come here for healing. They’re tired from their regular daily lives, and the image of the temple is quiet, its really peaceful and it can really calm your mind. A lot of people come here to basically just relax.”
I continued on to ask more about the benefits of a temple stay, and what kinds of things people can get involved with while doing one.
“There are certain temples that have temple stay programs specific to healing, but our program is more catered towards foreigners, where we try to introduce all aspects of Korean life. For example the 108 bows, we take you on a temple tour, we do meditating, we have tea time…We try to have a variety of things that you can experience.”
He finished off by mentioning that while Koreans like to come here to heal, foreign visitors like to experience the cultural aspect of the tours, giving each visitor an experience that fits them.
After our time with Jang San Sunim, we prepared for bed, girls in one room and boys in the other. Mats, pillows, and blankets are provided, and everyone sleeps on the heated floor for a remarkably comfortable and peaceful rest.
The next day at 5 am we were woken abruptly (not my favorite) by our leader Jeongyun reminding us it was time to get up for morning meditation. I’m an early riser by nature, but there was no lulling me to wakefulness, lights on, everybody up! I hid under my duvet for ten more minutes.
We were joined by the head monk once more who led us through a morning meditation, then went for an early morning ‘walk’ which was more like a hike up what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of stairs. At the top, we came to another temple, named the ‘Crying Chicken Temple’ due to the shape of the mountain it is built upon.
The story goes, that during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) some Japanese military noticed the shape of the mountain, a chicken, and the direction in which it faced. The so-called beak of the chicken pointed toward Japan, which in relation was said to resemble the shape of a worm. Distressed at the metaphorical power of the mountain, the Japanese military ordered the beak and the crest of the chicken (cockerel) demolished, and so it was.
We entered the temple, carried out our prostrations, then hiked down through the beautiful, vibrant foliage and into the hall for breakfast. After we filled our bellies we concluded our experience with tea time and conversation with the head monk. He answered all manner of questions and had some sage advice to offer.
After tea time we went back to change our clothes and say goodbye and departed with a souvenir and lots of smiles. It was a wonderful experience and I would absolutely recommend it to everyone (in spite of the early morning wake up call).
The temple stay program at Beomeosa is available all year round to groups and individuals. Themes for the temple stay include Trekking and Resting programs.
Generally, adults cost 7,000 won, teenagers unto 18 years old 6,000 won and children under 13 years old just 5,000 won.
Beomeosa temple offers custom-made temple stays and temple tours for groups of 10 and over, and inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org