From our partners: The South Korean Temple Stay Program offers a unique chance to experience monastic life.
South Korea’s bustling capital never slows down. No matter the hour, day or night, you will always find something to do. But for those looking to escape the stress of city life, there is another way to immerse themselves in Korean culture. Beyond towering skyscrapers and bustling streets, hundreds of ancient Buddhist temples wait to be explored.
For those looking to experience the tranquility of monastic life firsthand, many of these spiritual sites are open to the public for overnight stays as part of the country’s official program. Temple stay program. Whether you want to embark on a journey of self-discovery, connect with nature, or simply learn more about Korean Buddhist culture and history, the program is welcome to everyone.
Although the activities at each temple vary, you can expect traditional tea ceremonies, meditation sessions, prostrations (bowing to the Buddha), outdoor walks, cooking classes, and plenty of dishes. local vegetarians. Throughout your stay, the idea is to become fully present in the moment, achieving the ultimate Buddhist state of inner peace.
With so many choices, deciding where to start can seem overwhelming. Here are the best temple trips South Korea has to offer for every type of traveler.
Located in the foothills of Samgaksan Mountain in the north Seoulit is easy to forget that you are in a city Hwagyesa Temple. Away from the crowds and surrounded by trees, this is the perfect setting for those who wish to explore a spiritual sanctuary without having to leave the capital. Built by the monk Shinwol in AD 1522 during the Joseon dynasty, the temple was destroyed by fire in 1618 and later rebuilt in 1866 by King Gojong. Next to the temple you will find Oktakcheon, a small spring famous for its supernatural healing powers. During your stay, you can expect plenty of meditations, mountain hikes, drinking tea, and on the last Saturday of each month, practicing 3,000 reclines in front of the Buddha.
For food lovers, a visit to Baekyangsa in the beautiful Naejangsan National Park is a must see. The temple was established by Zen master Yeohwan in AD 632 and is located just three hours from Seoul by high-speed train. The third season of the Netflix show Chef’s table features Chief Monk Jeong Kwan preparing delicious vegan meals for the temple community. Those inspired by the tour can join a traditional cooking class with Kwan herself, to learn more about her spiritual cooking philosophy and how to fuel the body for optimal mental clarity, while avoiding artificial flavors, animal products and pungent ingredients like onions and garlic. Other highlights include communal meals, making your own rosaries, and meditation classes with Kwan. Make sure to climb the mountain towards the Unmun Seon Hall to take in the stunning views of the temple below.
[See also: South Korea’s Regional Culinary Delights]
At the foot of Hamwolsan Mountain, just outside the ancient Silla dynasty city of Gyeongju, lies Golgulsa. The sacred site is Korea’s only rock temple – with 12 large caves – and is home to many precious relics, including a giant Buddha carved from limestone that dates back to the 9th century. Golgulsa is also famous for sunmudo, a traditional Korean form of moving meditation and martial art that harmonizes mind, body and breath. During your stay, you will have the chance to participate in sunmudo training, prostrations, sitting meditation and chanting early in the morning – the perfect antidote to the stress of modern life.
For those who wish to learn more about the history and culture of Korean Buddhism, look no further than Bulguksa. Located on the slopes of Mount Toham on the outskirts of Gyeongju, the temple has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture and art in the Age of gold from the kingdom of Silla. Bulguksa is home to six of Korea’s national treasures, including two gilded bronze statues of the Buddha, Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and the stone pagodas Dabotap and Seokgatap. Activities during your stay include a guided temple tour, tea ceremony, and lotus flower lantern making.
According to legend, Haeinsa was first built in 802 AD by King Aejang as a token of gratitude for the Buddha’s mercy after two monks helped cure his wife’s illness. The temple burned down in 1817 but was rebuilt the following year and still houses the Tripitaka Koreana (the entirety of Buddhist scriptures engraved on more than 81,000 wooden printing boards) that managed to survive the blaze. Located in a beautiful secluded area of Gayasan National Park, just hours from Daegu, Haeinsa is perfect for those who want to fully immerse themselves in nature while soaking up traditional Korean Buddhist culture. The two-day program includes formal monastic meals, Seon meditation, and a visit to the mountain hermitages above the temple, which are home to many respected monks.
As one of the few temples not to be destroyed during the Japanese invasions of Korea, The main hall of Sudeoksa is South Korea’s oldest wooden building, dating back to 1308. Other cultural treasures include a scroll painting of Rocana Buddha and the three-story stone pagoda. Located on the southern slope of Deoksungsan in South Chungcheong Province, it is worth taking an early morning hike to the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise. Early morning prostrations, meditative woodland walks, and tea ceremonies are some of the activities you can expect during your stay.
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Image: Korea Tourism Organization