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Travel: When Zen Beckons

The temple stay programme in South Korea is a trendsetter, especially for corporate honchos and businessmen who want to pause from their hectic routines to experience meditative calm

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Breathe deep, relax your mind,” she says. I obey.

Outside, heavy rain continues lashing mercilessly. “Rain signifies a new lease of life,” she continues saying in her soft, gentle voice. It’s at that moment, I find myself pondering on an important understanding — how we perceive a situation is what, perhaps, makes it positive or negative. Only minutes ago, we (a group of 20 women journalists from India), clutching our umbrellas, even shivering a little from the cold wind and rain were complaining quietly amongst ourselves of how the rain had ruined an otherwise beautiful day, how we would be unable to walk in the midst of the otherwise lush green, picturesque surroundings…

We are in Jingwansa, a traditional Buddhist temple in Seoul, which we are exploring as part of the ‘temple stay’ programme that’s an initiative of the Korean Tourism Organisation. Considered one of the best temples near Seoul (less than an hour’s drive from the city), situated in the midst of the lush green Bukhansan National Park, Jingwansa’s immediate appeal is the quietude that’s broken only by the sound of rustling leaves on trees; the burble of the nearby stream; chirping of the birds on window sills; the arresting howl of a lone dog in the far distance. Inside the temple’s main hall, which has a mesmerising Buddha statue, one experiences a calming stillness.

I focus on my breathing, and with every breath, I feel lightheaded. Monk Seon Woo, a corporate professional-turned-bhiksuni (nun), encourages us to look at the lashing rain in a new way. “You brought with you rain,” she says, continuing, “it depicts life. Look how the stream flows with water.” “Faith,” she says in a soothing voice, “should keep flowing. It can’t be still.”

Continuing to share with us her own life’s experiences, Monk Seon Woo, who is currently pursuing her research in Indian philosophy in a college in Seoul, tells us how Buddhism helped her through the darkest days, including the untimely death of her sister (with whom she had earlier studied a year-long diploma course in Buddhism). It’s through her experience, she urges us to understand Buddhism — “being happy, no matter what sort of crises you encounter in your lifetime. Yes, it is easier said than done but one just needs to try it,” she emphasises. Buddhism is seeing a revival of sorts in South Korea, even though the majority of citizens do not follow any religion.

From the glitz, glamour and busyness of Seoul, Jingwansa (the temple facilitates only women Buddhist monks) is starkly different. I’m reminded of the previous night when I had shopped for numerous cosmetic products and devoured different street food items from one of Seoul’s bustling markets. That was me, the hoarder. Now, as I listen to Woo’s guidance on Buddhist philosophy, and look around me, I appreciate the sparseness of this delightful temple. The sparseness is everywhere – in the room, which I share with two other colleagues; in the delicious monastic food; in the simple, comfortable clothes we have worn in keeping with the temple’s uniform. Only nature, I observe looking at the area, surrounded by lush green trees and mountains, is in abundance.

Our spacious room, lined with a self-heated linoleum floor, has a quilted sleeping mat, pillow and comforter that the temple has provided us. “You’ll get a glimpse of the monk life,” we are told by our guide, who adds quickly, “Their day-to-day routine, of course, is stricter than what you will experience.” She’s right. The monks wake up around 3:00 am and by 3:30 am, they start with their prayers, chants and other rituals. Throughout the day, they busy themselves with various activities related to the temple and what they pursue in their daily lives. Woo, like other Buddhist monks, has her head shaved (“Initially, it took me some time getting used to the ways here,” she confesses to us caressing her bald head) and laughs at the suggestion of makeup and dressing up.

I find out a little more about the temple over dinner, which starts at 5 pm! As I delight in the simple, delicious temple food, including deep fried seaweed, steamed tofu chunks served with kimchi, a bowl of clear soup, sticky rice, among other delicacies, I learn about the significance of Jingwansa Temple. It is one of the four major temples around Seoul — dedicated to Preceptor Jingwan in 1010 BC by King Hyeonjong, the 8th king of the Goryeo Dynasty. Later, during the Joseon Dynasty, King Sejong built a library in Jingwansa for Confucian scholars. Though it was destroyed and reduced to ashes during the Korean War (fought between North and South Korea from 1950-1953), a decade later the various buildings were painstakingly restored. The craftsmanship of the pagodas, the aesthetics and the discipline in the architecture is worth noting. The pagodas in many of the Buddhist temple complexes, represent Buddha’s teachings and house important symbols; relics of the Buddha, an important sutra or other religious artifacts. Though initially influenced by the design of Buddhist temples in China (remember, Buddhism reached Korea via China in 372 AD), over the centuries, Korean pagodas have developed a style distinct from the pagodas of China. The inside area of the temple is highly ornamented and decorated to enhance the beauty of the temple complex’s architecture.

The next morning is almost like the prelude to spring. Our day begins at four am; though bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, hunger and no caffeine in my system, I am soothed by the chants. Next, we are told to do 108 prostrations to the Buddha to ensure that our body and mind are in sync. Here’s why: According to both, Hinduism and Buddhism, there are 108 defilements in the mind. Each bow, done with complete reverence, takes away one corrupt habit, thus, cleaning your mind and strengthening your body. This is tough, we complain. Woo smiles and tells us to do whatever is comfortable for us. The experience is uplifting. After the session, some of us seek guidance on various issues bothering us — financial, relationship, health. Feeling rejuvenated, we step out to make our way to the cafeteria. Along the way, Woo says: “Soon there will be cherry blossoms here. You see, you have to undergo some harsh seasons to finally blossom.”

A week later, in the midst of the chaos, pollution and maniacal routine of New Delhi, I think of Woo’s statement. That rich thought, an important slice of Buddhist philosophy, along with so many other beautiful memories, is what I have carried back from the temple stay and the rest of my trip.

Before you go...
When to Go: Best time to visit is April to end June when it is spring. This is the time to see cherry blossoms in full glory.

How to Get There: China Southern Airlines flies via Guangzhou to Seoul. The airline arranges for overnight accommodation of passengers in plush, clean and safe hotels. Air India also has a direct flight from Delhi to Seoul.

Visa: Visas are typically valid for three months, unless specified otherwise. It takes four-five working days to apply for the visa.

Temple Stay Programme: South Korean tourism authority’s temple stay programme gives a glimpse of the rich cultural heritage of the country. It allows you to live alongside Buddhist monks and engage with them. Though 120 temples run this official programme, only 16 temples offer it for foreign tourists.

Duration: From a four-hour package to two-day stay inside the temple’s premises, the temple stay packages include Buddhist rituals, Zen meditation, tea ceremonies, and barugongyang (traditional Buddhist meals). Additional activities may include mountain trekking, lotus lantern making, and rubber stamp making.

How to book: The best way to book a temple stay is through the official website for the programme. You can also visit for more information. Make sure you book in advance and spell your requirements clearly.

Suitable for: Most temples encourage children (grade one onwards) to participate in the programme and engage them in a range of sessions, including simple meditation techniques and communal tasks in the kitchen gardens. Tip: Specify your requirements to temple programme coordinators for a curated, bespoke experience. You can experience this holistic programme as a family (men and women, however, have to live in separate premises), individually or even in corporate groups.

Cost: The cost of a temple stay ranges between Rs 3,000 and Rs 10,000, or more, depending on the duration and the activities conducted. This would include meals.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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magazine 30 may 2016 travel south korea Guangzhou tourism

Abhilasha Ojha

The author is a Delhi-based freelance writer

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