Seonunsa Buddhist Temple Stay

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A few weeks ago, I decided to visit Seonunsa Temple for another temple stay. I wanted to try another Buddhist temple stay, and I was intrigued by Seonunsa Temple in particular. The temple is deep within Seonunsan Provincial Park, in the Jeolla-Do province, which is located in the deep southern part of South Korea. In particular, the temple is renowned for its 500-year old red camellia trees that bloom in early spring. Being a sucker for beautiful nature, and beautiful flowers in particular, I had to visit Seonunsa at some point before I left Korea.

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Like all other major Buddhist temples in Korea, Seonunsa Temple offers their own Temple Stay Program. They offer a weekend experience program the second and fourth weekends of the month, so I went the second weekend in April, figuring that it would be maximum bloom season for the camellias.

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I took the train and then a bus to Seonunsa Temple and arrived on site around lunch time. I took the available hours before check-in to do some hiking in the area. There are numerous trails in the park, and I selected one that wasn’t very long, but ended up at a nice viewpoint. Most of the trail was surprisingly easy, with the exception of a very short, very steep incline up some stairs to reach the top. The weather wasn’t that great, so it was a bit hazy, but at least it wasn’t raining.

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After my hike, I toured around Seonunsa Temple grounds on my own. I saw the camellias, but I think I missed peak blooming season. Like every other flower this spring, it bloomed early. But there were still enough beautiful, red camellia flowers in huge trees to get a hint of what it likely looked like at peak bloom (plus I’ve seen pictures, which is why I wanted to visit Seonunsa Temple in the first place).

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The temple stay program for Seonunsa Temple is very similar to the program at Haeinsa Temple. I checked in mid Saturday afternoon and was given my own room for the night (only because there weren’t any other female single travelers). I thought I would be about the only one on site, since Seonunsa Temple is not as popular as Haeinsa Temple, but there was a group of high school students from the USA participating in the same program as I was.

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After orientation and dinner, we had the evening drum ceremony and the evening service in the temple. After that, we retired to a ceremonial hall for the 108 bows. I don’t know if I was just fitter than I was at the Haeinsa Temple, or if it was just mentally easier, because there was a countdown with the presentation, but it was much easier this time around. After the 108 bows, we all made a Buddhist prayer necklace as a souvenir.

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The morning dawned very early at 0400 with the morning ceremony and breakfast. Originally, the morning program included a hike to the Dosolam Hermitage, but since it was raining pretty heavily, I decided to cut my trip short and head back to Seoul early. It is amazing how long your day can be when it starts at 0400, but I made it back to Seoul in time for an early afternoon showing of Captain America: Winter Soldier (my backup plan). So everything worked out for the best. If I had known the weather would be crap on Sunday, I would have done the Dosolam Hermitage hike, but the one I did was enjoyable enough, so it wasn’t a total loss.

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Getting to Seonunsa Temple is fairly easy. I chose to take a KTX train from Yongsan Station in Seoul to Jeong-eup Station. From there, I walked a few blocks to the Jeong-eup Bus Station to catch the bus to Seonunsa. There is a direct bus from Jeong-eup to Seonunsa about four times a day, and takes 50 minutes. However, the bus only comes every two hours, so depending on when you arrive, it might actually be quicker to take a bus to Gochang and transfer to another bus to Seonunsa. It is the same coming back, because there were earlier buses connecting through Gochang that got me back to Jeong-eup quicker than waiting for a direct bus from Seonunsa to Jeong-eup.

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Haeinsa Buddhist Temple Stay

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When I first knew I was moving back to Korea, I bought myself the latest South Korea guide book to plan all the different places to see and visit. One of the things that caught my eye was the Temple Stay program. South Korea has a special program that enables individuals and groups to stay in a wide variety of Buddhist temples for a specific time, usually a weekend.

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The Temple Stay program offers up the opportunity for experience and relaxation programs. These programs typically involve at least one overnight at the temple, along with some organized temple activities. Based on my guide book’s recommendation, I selected the Haeinsa Temple Stay program.

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Haeinsa Temple is one of the “Three Jewel” temples of South Korea, and the temple was founded in C.E. 802 by two monks. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is located in Gayasan National Park. The temple is home to the famous Tripitaka Koreana, which is the Buddhist equivalent of the Bible or the Koran. The Tripitaka Koreana is comprised of 81,340 wooden blocks, the oldest of which are over 770 years old, and is housed in four halls in the temple complex.

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I elected to visit Haeinsa Temple in the fall of 2012, and it was my first overnight trip this tour in Korea, and certainly my first overnight to a Buddhist temple. I combined the trip with some hiking in the Gayasan National Park. I visited in early October, so the leaves were just starting to turn colors, but it was a couple weeks off from peak foliage. I arrived at Gayasan National Park around lunch time on Saturday and spent a few hours hiking toward the Sangwangbong Peak, until I had to return to Haeinsa Temple to check in for my temple stay program.

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The Haeinsa Temple Stay program consists of two days and one night. I checked in to the temple at 1600, and was given a gray temple uniform (you can still wear your clothes underneath to stay warm, because it can get very cool at night). There was a fairly large group of us for the program and we first got some basic instructions on the timeline of activities and proper temple etiquette. Then it was dinner time, and since this was a Buddhist temple, dinner was purely vegetarian, and it was rather tasty. It was an all you can eat buffet, with the caveat that you had to eat everything on your plate and not waste any food.

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After dinner, the evening program commenced. The first thing was the playing of the drums and gongs by the monks for 10 minutes. I had never heard anything quite like it before, and it was very resonant and peaceful. After the drum ceremony, we participated in the evening service in the beautiful main temple, and finished off with a tea service before going to bed at 2100.

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Yes, bed time is needed to be super early, because we woke up super early at 0300. Dawn service started at 0330, which is very similar to evening service. Then we retired to a separate hall for 108 bows and meditation. The 108 bows are exactly what they sound like- 108 full body bows where you drop to your knees (thankfully on a thick cushion on the floor), bow your head to the ground, hold for a few seconds, and then stand up and do it again. I am reasonably good shape, but I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t feeling it by the end. I was sweating, and my thighs were sore and shaking from the exertion. So I enjoyed the peaceful meditation afterward to relax.

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After all that, it was only 0600 and time for breakfast. After breakfast, we got an extensive tour of the temple grounds. The temple complex is one of the larger ones I have visited. There were multiple gates and stone stelae, that were engraved with the history of the temple on it. The buildings were very colorfully decorated like most Buddhist temples, but these colors were particularly bright and intricate. We also were able to see the Tripitaka Koreana, and it was quite amazing to see all the wooden blocks that comprise the collection.

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After the tour, it was late morning and the rest of the program consisted of simply cleaning up and then leaving around lunch time. After that I did some more hiking in Gaysan National Park. It was Sunday, so the trails were filled with Korean hikers. The day was sunny and bright and I was surrounded by beautiful trees and a river, and there were enough color to give a hint of autumn.

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Traveling to Haeinsa Temple is pretty easy. Take a train (preferably a KTX since is quicker) to Dongdaegu Station. The train station is a stop on the Daegu Subway Line 1. Take the train to Seongdangmot subway stop to Seobu Intercity Bus Termina. Take Exit 3 and the bus station is right next to the exit. There are buses to Haeinsa that depart from Seobu approximately every 20 minutes, and the trip takes about an hour, and is the last stop.

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If you like beautiful nature and beautiful Buddhist temples, I highly recommend Haeinsa Temple, even for a day visit and a short hike. If you are really interested in experiencing in a taste of Buddhist temple life, I recommend the Temple Stay program. The program makes it very easy for visitors to experience temple life. Simply visit their website, Templestay.com, find a temple that suits you, and sign up via their website. Different temple programs cost different prices, but the Haeinsa Temple experiential program costs 60,000 won for the 2 day, 1 night program, and that includes everything. I am glad I did it, because it was something new and different. It gave me a window into a different world and a different way of thinking and being.

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