Exploring Korean Culture Through a Unique Temple Stay Experience

홍채연, 정영훈, 이진희, 이은희l승인2023.10.11l수정2023.10.11 18:20l405호 1면

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   South Korea has witnessed a remarkable surge in popularity with record numbers of foreign visitors, and as the surveys and statistics show, interest in temple stays is growing significantly along with it. According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, foreigners consistently mentioned “traditional cultural experience” as an indispensable facet of their Korean travel adventure, with a burgeoning desire to actively partake in such activities. In particular, in the first quarter of 2023, 10% of all temple stay participants were foreigners. This notable increase can be attributed to the high interest and profound inclination towards self-reflection inherent in Korean traditional culture, which foreign visitors find both captivating and enriching. Dankook University (DKU) organized a temple stay program for exchange students during the last summer vacation, and participants shared their experiences with the Dankook Herald (DKH).

▲ ISS Program Students Are Making Prayer Beads (Photo from ISS Program)

   A temple stay is a traditional cultural experience where visitors get a glimpse into the daily lives of Buddhist trainees by staying overnight at a temple. Recently, regardless of a visitor’s religious interests, temple stays have emerged as a trend where participants leave feeling relaxed and refreshed. During a temple stay, visitors enjoy various traditional Buddhist dishes, meditation, bell ringing, tea, and conversation, and can even take part in 108 bows ritual. This is conducted by gathering scattered minds together while bowing to 108 calm karmic bonds in the body and mind. Every temple operates different programs for visitors to relax and enjoy local culture while local specialties and exploring nearby tourist attractions. Temple stays help visitors rest and heal their minds, through meditation and conversations with monks. They can share worries of their daily lives such as their love interests and social lives, and have time to reflect on themselves and recharge.

   Korean Buddhism has emphasized the practice of mercy by paying attention to the relief of others along with the dissolution of the individual. In particular, they try to strengthen the original spirit of Buddhism by persevering in the lives of the people and paying attention to saving them. The tradition of Korean Buddhism, which emphasizes mercy in terms of practice, forms the foundation of Korean thought. Korea has been an important territory of Buddhist culture since ancient times, and during the Korea and Joseon eras, Buddhist culture flourished with national protection and support. Therefore, temples are still protected as cultural assets of national importance. The structure of Korean temples integrates buildings with works of art into one and in harmony with the natural environment. These features are highly regarded internationally.

▲ ISS Program Students Enjoying a Meaningful Time at Woljeongsa (Photo from ISS Program)

   As Korean culture is naturally exposed to the media due to the popularity of K-pop, many foreign tourists are visiting temples for reasons such as experiencing Korean traditional culture and self-reflection, but temple food is also one of the reasons why they are so popular. Temple food refers to a variety of dishes made up of natural ingredients that use fermentation methods. Buddhists are vegetarians and prohibit all animal foods except dairy products. Osinchae which is made up of green onions, garlic, chives, wild chives, and asafetida is also a popular dish. As more and more people are pursuing "Healthy Pleasures," a healthy lifestyle, and continuous health benefits temple food, which is Korea's unique vegetarian food, is attracting more attention.

   In Dankook University’s recent International Summer School program, foreign students from other Western countries visited Woljeongsa Temple and participated in the temple stay program. At Woljeongsa Temple Stay, foreign students took part in cultural activities and got to experience Buddhist cultural practices such as bowing 108 times, making prayer beads, ringing bells, praying at dawn, and meditation. Global Engagement Coordinator, Mr. Woo Ji-hwan in the Office of International Affairs, who planned this temple stay activity, said the program had activities that were more interesting to foreign students from Western countries because it let them experience a part of Eastern culture beyond the religion. He said that the activity that resonated the most with foreign students was making Buddhist prayer beads while bowing 108 times. When the monk threw topics at the foreign students to think about during the activity, the foreign students were greatly satisfied that they could contemplate the issues while completing all 108 bows, and beads which was an opportunity to experience an attitude at the root of Korean culture. He said that the temple stay had let foreign students experience Buddhist culture in harmony with nature walking around the temple and meditating. Lastly, Mr. Woo suggested that more foreign students should experience the temple stay, rather than always striving to experience the nightlife culture of the country which is famous among foreign students.

▲ ISS Program Students Meditate with Monks (Photo from ISS Program)​

   The DKH conducted an interview with Andrea Generalao, who participated in the temple stay program during her International Summer School at DKU. Despite the challenge of coordinating schedules across a 10-hour time difference, the paper was able to hear about her vivid experiences during an online interview. Before she started her temple stay, she was slightly apprehensive because she had only gained a rudimentary understanding of Buddhism and was unsure of what to expect. However, after experiencing the Woljeongsa Temple Stay, she was reluctant to depart. This was her first experience with a temple stay. We asked her what drew her to the program. She said It seemed like a unique experience because I never really got involved with other types of religion except Catholicism. It was cool that I got to experience Buddhism in a country like “Korea.“ She also shared her most cherished memory from her experience. She said waking up at 5 a.m. to meditate with the monks was particularly meaningful to her because she did not think she would ever have the opportunity to do so outside of a temple stay. She found the activity of making necklaces with Buddhist prayer beads fascinating, listening attentively to the description of each bead. We asked her what was the most valuable lesson she learned. She stated, “If someone asked me what I learned during my temple stay, it would be like Buddhism. Honestly, it made me think about how other people treat me and how I treat other people so I just did not want to leave. I really agree with that and so I find that lesson was very valuable ‘just treat everyone with kindness’.” She ended the interview by recommending the experience to other foreign students, saying, “I think if someone really wants to learn about the culture, even though they are not religious, I feel like a  temple stay would be a good experience. It's something unique that you won't experience anywhere else. When else will you have the opportunity to meditate with monks? It's a very unique experience!"

   After Buddhism was introduced to Korea, temples have served as the cradle of Korean culture for generations. Beyond the religious characteristics of “Buddhism”, living within these sacred temples offers a unique opportunity for self-introspection oneself in a harmonious natural environment. Korea's temple stay program is pivotal in fostering cultural exchange and mutual understanding among people from across the world, providing valuable memories and inspiration for foreigners. Also, a temple stay transcends mere tourism. It is a journey that purifies and rejuvenates one’s mind. Why don’t you take the time to delve into Korean culture and its noble values and sign up for a temple stay?


홍채연, 정영훈, 이진희, 이은희  dankookherald@gmail.com
<저작권자 © The Dankook Herald, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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