A temple stay was one of the things I was looking forward to most in Korea; which brings us back to the fact that disappointment is most prevalent when expectations are high. We had made our reservation through templestay, an organization in Korea that opens up several Korean temples to foreigners to “experience the life of Buddhist practitioners at traditional temples.”
To start with, the weather was seriously against us – it was freezing and raining and we did not have suitable clothing. We did exactly as the “how to get here” directions stated and took the #10 bus to the temple. The directions mentioned nothing further and we assumed it would be obvious where to go. However, it turns out there’s multiple entrances to Bulguksa Temple and the temple grounds are massive. Thus, Dan and I were left trekking uphill dragging two luggage’s, each with a backpack and small umbrella helplessly trying to stay dry. We had no idea where to go and the information desk at the bottom was completely useless. After being pointed and laughed at by vendors and other tourists with no luggage and large umbrellas, finally, the guard at one of the top entrances coordinated with the lady who was supposed to be meeting us. Supposedly, she was surprised we showed up and explained many people cancel last minute if it’s raining. I had no idea that was an option, we had made a reservation and I planned on keeping it. It’s not like we could reschedule for another day – our days in Korea were pretty limited.
At this point we hopped in our guide’s – referred to as “guide-lady for the remained of this post – car and she began to drive, away from the temple. She then explained that we weren’t actually staying on the temple grounds. Due to the temple’s UNESCO designation they cannot expand and only have enough rooms for a limited amount of monks so they had built a complex of rooms a five minute drive away. My heart sank, again. Wasn’t the entire point of a temple stay to stay in the temple… or at least on the temple grounds? The next thing she said sent Dan and I flying into awful moods. All of the monks were on holidays for the month we would spend the entire time with her. The only thing I had looked forward to more than staying in a temple was interacting with the monks. Turns out we were about to spend a lot of money (way more than our usual budget) and get nothing we wanted. At this point she dropped us off in our freezing cold room (again, she “wasn’t expecting us”) and gave us time to get changed and ready for the day. I attempted to cheer myself up and hope for the best. Dan and I put on our ridiculously large temple-stay outfits which guide-lady told us we had to wear at all times. Only the next morning did she mention smaller sizes were available for me….
The next stop was a visit to her office to discuss payment. To make matters worse the price that I thought was per couple was actually per person and we didn’t have enough cash. Luckily, guide-lady explained we could use the temples credit card machine at the gates. Unluckily, we were now spending way way way over budget and things were yet to improve.
I had read the online program and was expecting to spend the afternoon at Seoukgurm. Instead, she gave us no information on our “new” itinerary, we were left in the dark the entire time. She proceeded to take us on a tour of the main temple at the busiest time of day, in the pouring rain. We stopped at a few spots and she did her best to explain things but we learned more from reading the posted signs. The final irony being that the temple stay program was actually taking away from me enjoying this amazing temple at this point. I also felt ridiculous walking around in over-sized sweatpants and vest while all of the other tourists were properly dressed. The online program stated we would do the temple tour before opening hours the following morning which would have been ideal…so much for that.
Bulguksa Temple, which literally translates to Temple of the Buddha Land, is considered as a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla kingdom and is currently the head temple of the 11th district of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Our guide-lady proudly pointed out (multiple times) that the temple is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government.
The temple was constructed under King Gyeongdeok in 751 and was completed in 774 by the Silla royal court. Like many of the other sites we visited in Korea, Bulguksa was burned to the ground during the Imjin wars, later reconstructed and expanded multiple times.
The temple encompasses seven national treasures of South Korea:
National Treasures No.20 and 21
National Treasure No.22 & No.23
The Yeonhwagyo (Lotus Flower Bridge) and Chilbogyo (Seven Treasures Bridge) are a pair of bridges that are part of a stairway that leads to the temple. The pair were built at the same time as their brother bridges, National Treasure No.23: the Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge) Bridges. Guide-lady explained the stones from National Treasure 22 and 23 are some of the only features preserved from the original Silla construction.
National Treasure No.26 & No. 27
National Treasures No. 26 and No. 27 are two guilt-bronze Buddha statues. The Buddha of Enlightenment is enshrined in the Birojeon and 1.77 metres in height. The Amitabha Buddha statue is 1.66 metres in height and enshrined in Geuknakjeon. Both statues are estimated to be from the late 8th or early part of the 9th century and share stylistic features.
National Treasure No.61
This sarira pagoda, looks like a stone lantern and stands 2.1 metres tall. The artifact was at one point taken to Japan in 1906 but was returned in 1933. A sarira is a container for the relics or remains of famous priests or royalty.
In addition to the revered National Treasures, the temple grounds themselves are quite beautiful. If it wasn’t for the freezing and wet conditions I could have spent hours wandering aimlessly through them.
Supposedly, it’s good luck to touch the pig.
This was our guide-lady.
After the tour we returned to guide-lady’s office where she asked if we would like coffee or tea. Upon answering ‘tea’ she flustered about as she actually only had coffee in her office. Finally she returned with traditional Korean tea and this was the closest we got to the “tea ceremony” that both she and the online program stated we would be part of.
Most of the food we had tried thus far in Korea was heavily focused on meat and seafood; thus, I was excited to try vegan “temple food” dishes and eat with the monks. When we arrived for dinner, the few monks that were still at the temple were just leaving and we dined with the rest of the staff. The large cafeteria-style room with benches and tables looked like any other stripped down work-room cafeteria. However, there was another room slightly further down with all the lights off that appeared much nicer and looked to be where the monks ate if/when they were here. The food was laid out buffet style and guide-lady gave us very little information other than we had better eat every last grain of rice on our plates, so don’t take too much. We ate our food in silence and I have no idea what we tried, nor do I have any photos of the food. I asked guide-lady if I could take pictures and she promptly replied “no.” I did manage to take a quick picture of the buffet setup.
After dinner, guide-lady pointed to the buildings where the monks are usually living (most of which are currently empty). It appeared as though there may usually be quite a few monks living on site.
I was looking forward to walking through the temple complex after hours – after all of the other tourists had left – and was disappointed that we rushed through it barely seeing anything. I found it really strange too because earlier when I was taking photos, attempting to crop out as many people as possible from the frame, guide-lady said to wait until later when the temple was empty. But when later came she was in no mood for stopping for photos and even told me to leave my camera in her office for the evening so the few photos I did get were with my Galaxy S6 phone.
We walked over to where the evening Ye-Bool ceremony was to take place and guide-lady gave us an introduction to meditation and taught us how to bow properly. She also explained that only two monks would be attending the ceremony – the only two not on holidays I assume. The only interaction we had with them was bowing to them.
Walking back to the parking lot, guide-lady called one of the monks asking if anyone was available to chat with us but when she hung up she explained to us that we would spend the evening with her instead. I guess no one was available.
We returned to the building where we were staying off the complex. Guide-lady stayed in another building just down the driveway from us. She seemed quite happy about getting to stay away from the temple for a night – she explained she doesn’t get cable TV in her temple room and was happy to watch her shows. She instructed us to rest for a bit and then come down and join her in making meditation beads. When we came into her living room it felt more like we were interrupting her from watching her shows (she asked if we wanted them left on…) then about to make meditation bead necklaces. Making the necklaces consisted of stringing a pre-counted number of wooden beads onto a pre-cut length of string. The only semi-difficult part was the last bead which you needed to thread both ends of the string through to knot and finish properly. Guide-lady was beyond amazed when Dan completed his using a piece of wire to guide the second string through. I’m not sure how she planned on “teaching” us to finish the necklace.
The next morning she instructed us to be awake at 5:30 for breakfast. We skipped the morning ceremony (at 3:30 AM) as she said it was exactly the same as the evening ceremony and barely any monks would attend. All bundled up, we waited outside for her to pick us up. Finally, we walked down to her place and pounded on the door – she had slept in. Breakfast was in the same cafeteria as dinner, I have no idea what we ate and again, there were no monks present.
After breakfast we went straight to practice meditation (instead of enjoying the empty temple grounds in dry weather). While I have never tried to learn to meditate before, I don’t think guide-lady was doing a very good job teaching us. Dan and I understood little of what she said. She did explain that there are two forms, sitting and walking. We practiced both, the former sitting on the freezing cold floor trying to wiggle our toes to keep them from falling off and the latter walking around the Meditation Hall for all of two minutes. After 30 minutes or so we left as the temple was getting ready to open to the public.
At this point, the only remaining thing we had left to do was visit Seokguram Grotto. Guide-lady had said she would drive us up (about 4 km away) but was concerned about ice on the roads as the temperatures had dropped below zero over night. This seriously worried Dan and I as even without ice on the roads she was a horrifying driver and I am honestly astounded she didn’t hit anyone just driving between the temple and our residence. I could only think that maybe we should have stuck to the program and visited in the afternoon of the previous day. After debating the issue with someone on her phone and sitting it out in her office for awhile she said a monk told her the roads were fine. She drove much faster than made me feel comfortable, even on dry roads and thankfully there no ice.
The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and is classified as National Treasure No. 24. It is one of the best known cultural destinations in South Korea and is supposedly a popular sunrise destination, although it was nearly empty when we visited.
Seokgrum Grotto, constructed in the mid-7th century, exemplifies some of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world. The main Buddha statue is actually quite amazing, It is 3.5 metres tall and sits on a 1.3 meter tall lotus pedestal. Through months of travelling Asia, on both this trip and my last trip to Southeast Asia, I can testify that I have seen a lot of Buddha statues and this is one of the best. That said, this one is off limits for photography which honestly annoyed me.
As guide-lady explained the site to us, she pointed towards the “East Sea.” Having never heard the term before, I originally thought something was getting lost in translation. But then I remembered Korea’s long and troubled history with Japan. *Guide-lady pointed out more times than I cared to count how troubled Korea’s past was as a direct result of the Japanese and how terrible they were. I then realized that she was referring to the Sea of Japan (which the grotto overlooks). Supposedly, to a Korean, there is no such thing as The Sea of Japan, the body of water between Korea and Japan is known only as the East Sea.
Maybe my expectations were way out of line and I should have just enjoyed having the privilege to walk around a temple after hours at all. Or maybe we just got unlucky with the temple we chose. I reviewed two of the magazines published by Templestay Korea which featured other temple-stays and they looked amazing (totally inline with, if not above my expectations). And I by no means want to discourage anyone from participating in a temple-stay program – maybe just don’t do it at Bulguksa. But I do highly recommend visiting this astounding temple filled with National Treasures, just during regular hours as one of many, many tourists!
For more information on Templestay Korea, check out their website: http://eng.templestay.com/
Or specifically for the Bulguksa Templestay: http://www.bulguksa.org/4