Templestays: Korea’s Buddhist Retreat Centers

Guests try to keep up with the martial arts skills of the monks.
Guests at Beomeosa Temple try to emulate martial arts moves.

I was only a pace or two behind the monk when my crepe paper lotus lantern burst into flame. Oh good grief! What the devil was I to do with this blazing ball of fire in such a sacred setting — an ancient Buddhist temple in Korea — where reverential silence and solemn tread were the watchwords during this dark night pilgrimage. My Templestay was becoming a hazardous experience.

Templestays are all the rage in South Korea, where locals and tourists alike can tuck up into the forest-shrouded environs of hip-and-gable–roofed temples. These places are storehouses of Korean cultural treasures, as well as bastions of traditional Zen meditation and a 1,600-year-old Buddhist philosophy unique to the Korean Peninsula.

There are an astonishing 73 temples dotted throughout South Korea that offer temple stays for Koreans and foreigners; about 18 of them offer stays for individuals. No less surprising is the program’s prosaic beginnings.

In 2002, when Korea hosted the World Cup soccer matches, housing was at a premium, and some temples, noted for their hospitality to those seeking shelter, put up a number of avid fans. Thus Templestays were born, and they have become quite popular, especially with Koreans.

Foreign visitors are most welcome, too, and that’s what I and my gaggle of fellow travelers were doing at the 1,300-year-old Beomeosa Temple. Located outside the port of Busan, in southeast Korea, it’s situated in a lush wisteria-tree forest north of the city.

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