Taking a few days off to wind down at a Buddhist temple in South Korea promises to be a very special experience: staying in a tiny, bland room without a bed or wardrobe – the mattress on the floor will have to suffice. Some 130 monasteries in the country welcome visitors through the Templestay program, including Beopjusa Temple, beautifully nestled on the slopes of Songnisan Mountain.
Like everyone else in this Buddhist monastery, from here on visitors wear a simply-cut robe of rough linen, which just barely keeps one warm in the cool mountain temperatures.
Still, visitors may have a bit of an advantage over the permanent residents: Their chamber has floor heating and a small bathroom with a toilet – sheer luxury in the Beopjusa Temple in the heart of South Korea. People come here to spend two days with Buddhist monks, to meditate and pray.
Dubbed "Templestay," the program offered by some 130 South Korean monasteries to both locals and tourists from around the world is marketed as "a wonderful way to recharge oneself."
Interestingly enough, the idea was born during the 2002 World Cup, when hotel accommodations became tight and temples offered to host football fans. Since then, hundreds of thousands of visitors, mainly Koreans, have taken up the offer every year.
Put politely, the daily routine in a Buddhist monastery takes some getting used to. The alarm clock goes off at 3 a.m. Anyone who oversleeps will soon be standing straight up in bed from the pounding of the mighty drum sounding through the temple.
It's the call to the first morning prayer ceremony, the "Yebul," in the grand hall. The Yebul consists of 108 "Baekpalbae" – dropping to the knees and standing back up again – to honor the teachings and sufferings of the Buddha.
Because everyone knows what torture the kneeling-and-standing exercise can be, nobody will hold it against visitors if they give up with severe back pain after performing less than half the required Baekpalbae. During Templestay, it's up to the guests whether they participate in every ceremony and meditation or choose to have some time for themselves.
According to Visit Korea, other activities can include communal work and learning how to make a lotus lantern, "a form of Buddhist art."
A good two-hour drive southeast of the capital Seoul, Beopjusa Temple is beautifully nestled on the slopes of Songnisan Mountain in the national park of the same name and very popular with tourists.
The monastery became famous in part thanks to its 33-meter-tall (108-foot-tall) Buddha statue which towers over a total of 60 buildings. However, visitors also come to see the temple's five-story wooden pagoda, the only one in South Korea that looks exactly as it did when it was built about 1,500 years ago.
In its heyday, as many as 3,000 monks lived at Beopjusa Temple. Today, at most 40 remain, still following the old strict rules and rituals. Prayer and meditation are only interrupted by work and the three meals each day, which are strictly vegan. Three times a day the monks are served vegetables, rice and kimchi, washed down with water or occasionally, tea. They eat in strict silence.
At sunset Jl-O, one of the leaders of the temple, invites guests for tea. A quiet, calm man in his mid-40s, Jl-O gladly answers visitors' questions. What he relates shows that time hasn't stopped in Beopjusa. While in earlier times the monks used to exist on food and donations from people in the area, now the monastery's income is derived from the temple property itself, parking fees and admission tickets – enough to comfortably make ends meet.
While outside the lights of the dormitories are turned off at 9 p.m. – signaling bedtime for the young monks – the tea party with Jl-O isn't over yet. "Like my older brothers I don't have to go to bed so early," he says with a laugh. Sometimes they will watch a football match on the TV. "We turn the volume down very low so that we don't wake the others," he explains.
According to Seoul National University Hospital scientists, temple stays have a definite therapeutic effect. A three-year study concluded that people who made even a short temple visit felt happier and less fearful or stressed out afterward.
Jl-O can confirm this without reservation. Before he joined the monastery, he worked as a camera operator, but at some point he asked himself the question, "what is the purpose of this hectic and consumer-oriented life?"
Sometimes Jl-O will meet up with friends from his earlier life. "Then I am happy, but I do feel that we are living in two worlds," he says.