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A Taste of Templestay in Southern Seoul

By Han Sang-hee, The Korea Times, Sep 24, 2009

Samseong-dong, South Korea -- A night in a temple can be a refreshing and memorable experience, but if you don't feel like traveling to the mountains on weekends, you can apply for the two-hour Temple Life Program at Bongeun Temple in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul.

<< Participants in the two-hour Temple life Program enter Bongeun Temple last Thursday. Located in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, it offers a condensed version of a templestay every Thursday at 2 p.m.
/ Korea Times Photos by Shim Hyun-chul

Located between tall buildings and hotels, the Bongeun Temple is hard to find at first, but as soon as you walk through the entrance, the tranquil atmosphere is spread out before your eyes.

The temple was built by Buddhist master Ven. Yeon Hue in 794 during the Silla Kingdom (668-935). According to historical records, the temple was built to commemorate King Jinji. The construction was planned in the reigns of King Haegong and King Seondeok, and was finally finished during King Wonseong's time.

Buddhism was not favored during the Joseon Kingdom, due to policies that preferred Confucianism. Many temples, including Bongeun Temple, were downsized and monks lost their positions as Buddhist masters during the time.

However, thanks to the support of Queen Munjeong and Ven. Bo Woo, Bongeun Temple was later recognized as one of the most powerful temples in the area and was also designated as a ``Su'' temple of the Zen sect of Buddhism, equivalent to the Vatican in Catholicism.

In 1565, with the death of the queen and the Buddhist master, Bongeun Temple faced a crisis once again. It struggled to survive and pursue Buddhist teachings in the difficult times of Japanese invasions and finally after Korea's independence, it became a temple under the direct supervision of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

Today, the Bongeun Temple has become one of the must-see spots for tourists who are visiting Seoul and also a retreat for busy Seoulites who need a peaceful and relaxing getaway from the hectic life of the city.

Temple Life Program

The Temple Life Program is a condensed version of the Templestay and includes a tour around the temple with an English speaking guide. One learns basic Buddhist culture such as the tea ceremony, making lotus lanterns, chamseon (meditation) and counseling. The program is two to three hours long, and although it may seem a bit short, the program helps a great deal if you want to learn about Korean Buddhism and temples in a limited amount of time.

The tour begins at the Jinyeo Gate ? the entrance that leads to the main temple grounds. Jason Kim, the English speaking guide, explained that ``jinyeo'' refers to the ultimate truth and that entering the gate is an act of searching for the unchanging truth.

``The statues of the four guardian kings are the temple protectors and they are in charge of the four directions,'' he said, pointing to the four statues standing inside the gate. The statues were designated as Seoul's Provincial Cultural Asset No. 160 in 2002.

Next came the ``jongroo,'' or bell pavilion, which is the home of four ancient instruments: The ``bupgo'' (dharma drum), ``mokeo'' (wooden fish), ``woonpan'' (cloud-shaped gong) and the ``beomjong'' (temple bell). The monks play these four instruments before the early morning and evening chanting.

``The drum is for all the animals on earth, while the fish represent the fish. When you walk around the temple buildings, you can find small fish ornaments attached to the tip of the traditional tile roofs. Buddhist masters believed that monks and trainees must meditate without sleep, just like the fish that open their eyes underwater 24 hours,'' Kim said.

The gong represents the animals that fly in the air, and the bell represents living beings in hell.

Walking toward a bigger building, participants then enter the ``bupwangroo.'' This building stands in front of the main temple building called the ``daewoongjeon.'' Bupwangroo literally means the place where you can find Buddha. Look up at the ceiling, and you can find colorful lotus lanterns with the names, addresses and the wishes of donors.


``There are more than 4,000 lanterns. The colorful ones are for wishes, while the white ones are used only at memorial services,'' Kim explained.

In temples, you can find monks and visitors doing half bows, where you put your hands together and bow briefly.

This is done to pay respect, and it must also be done before you come into the temple, meet monks and other Buddhists, add should in front of a pagoda at temples.

Moving toward ``daewoongjeon,'' the guide led the participants to the back of the building, where it was surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Daewoong is another word for Buddha.


Beautiful paintings can be found on the walls of the daewoongjeon, which portray the life of Buddha. Pointing to each painting, the guide explains the life of the revered religious figure, from his birth to his meditations, teachings and enlightenment.

It took a while to walk up the steep stairs to the ``mireukdaebul,'' or the Buddha of the future statue. Located higher than other buildings and pagodas, the 23-meter-high statue was built in 1996 and overlooks the whole temple.

Next came the part of the program where the participants learned about tea ceremonies and meditation.

Sitting down on dark grey cushions, the participants looked closely at two ladies dressed in hanbok who were conducting the tea ceremony. When the ceremony was finished, we were all given small cups of tea, freshly brewed by the instructors.

Drinking the tea was also part of the ceremony, as you have to hold the cup with one hand like a lotus leaf and appreciate the color and scent of the tea slowly.

``Take a sip and try to think about the tea, the people who grew and harvested the tea leaves. Try to cut down the greed, anger and ignorance,'' the instructor advised.

Right after the tea ceremony, the participants sat down to listen to a lecture given by a Bongeun Temple monk. The program wraps up with a session of lotus lantern making.

``It's incredible how the modern world can still co-exit (in the city),'' Keith Allen from Finland said after experiencing the program.

Temple Life was interesting, as it managed to bring the two-day program into a two-hour session of temple touring and lectures.

Bongeun Temple may not be hidden in the woods with towering forests and beautiful mountains, but many tourists agreed that it is a welcoming and delighting place to explore such traditional and religious culture at amid the bustle of the city.

The program is held every Thursday at 2 p.m. The fee of 10,000 won can be paid at the Temple Stay Information Center next to Jinyeo Gate. To get there, leave from exit 6 at Samseong Station on subway line 2, or exit 2 of Cheongdam Station on line 7. The temple is located across the street from the COEX-Intercontinental Hotel. For more information, call (02) 3218-4895.

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