Who could have imagined that an Olympic Games 70 kilometers from North Korea would be so exciting? The Olympics are less than half over but already spectators have seen California teenager Chloe Kim perform snowboard aerobatics high above an icy half-pipe, elegant ice skaters spin like Sufis, skiers battle frigid, gale-force winds in pursuit of gold medals and a small company of chiseled North Korean cheerleaders who served, if nothing else, as visible proof that not everyone in their country is starving.

One of the best things about the Pyeongchang Olympic Games is that getting there is half the fun. Every Asian capital has excellent seafood restaurants but at Seoul’s Gwangjang night market you can order quivering fish fresh from the sea. Gangnam style literally comes alive on the south side of the Han River in trendy Apgujeong-dong, where the young and fashionable saunter between designer shops.

Many visitors walk through one of the Moon Gates of Gyeongbokgung Palace and rest beneath the trees surrounding Cheong Wa Dae (the Blue House) where Korean President Moon Jae-in lives, before starting the uphill climb to Buckchon Hanok Village, a sprawling outdoor museum of sorts where residents live in traditional tile-roofed homes of the sort that were common across Seoul before the Korean War.  

To gain real insight into Korean culture, however, try to spend at least one night at one of the country’s 20 Buddhist temples that accommodate English-speaking guests.

For people attending the Winter Games, the closest temple to Pyeongchang is Woljeongsa, an artfully crafted Buddhist retreat located beside a rippling creek in the middle of Odasan National Park. From PyeongChang it takes one hour to drive to Woljeongsa through forest-covered mountains and rich agricultural valleys.

A seated Bodhisattva playfully attends the Goryeo pagoda. Photo: David DeVoss/Asia Times
A seated Bodhisattva playfully attends the Goryeo pagoda. Photo: David DeVoss/Asia Times

A Buddhist temple stay in Korea is a highly structured experience. When I arrived at Woljeongsa, I was met by Eunyu (“Just call me Nicole”) Chong, a university student taking a semester away from school to manage the temple’s guest programs. After distributing loose-fitting orange garments designed to be worn over regular clothing, she placed boxes of beads in front of each guest and told us to string a necklace with 108 beads. We later offered our beads to Buddha at the evening prayer service.

As we bent to the task, Nicole explained the rules. “Try to speak as little as possible when you’re here and remain absolutely silent at dinner,” she advised softly. “Be neat and clean at all times and avoid all displays of affection.” The list of proscribed greetings included “Hello,” “What’s up?” and “How are you doing?” We were instructed: “If you wish to greet another person, just wrap your right hand over your left hand and bow.”

Guests at Korean temples begin their stay with a briefing on temple etiquette followed by a session of bead stringing designed to reduce stress, increase focus and minimize outside priorities. Photo: David DeVoss/Asia Times
Guests at Korean temples begin their stay with a briefing on temple etiquette followed by a session of bead stringing designed to reduce stress, increase focus and minimize outside priorities. Photo: David DeVoss/Asia Times

Visitors to Woljeongsa are segregated by sex and assigned to small dorm rooms unadorned save for a few wall pegs on which to hang clothes. Bedding is provided but blankets are barely needed since the ondol heating system under the floors keeps rooms warm even on cold nights. There are electrical outlets to recharge cell phones but don’t bother asking for a WiFi password. At 9 pm guests are expected to turn off all lights and go to bed.

Serenity prevails at Woljeongsa both inside the temple complex and along the trails that radiate out into the forest. For the first three hours of my stay I kept feeling I should be doing something. Anything. Slowly I began to realize as I ambled along trails leading into the forest or sat silently beside the creeks looking at pebbles stacked to resemble pagodas that Buddhism does not call temple guests to action. Instead a temple stay is designed to produce an appreciation for what Catholic theologian turned Zen philosopher Thomas Merton called the “wisdom of emptiness.”

A seated Bodhisattva playfully attends the Goryeo pagoda. Photo: David DeVoss/Asia Times
A seated Bodhisattva playfully attends the Goryeo pagoda. Photo: David DeVoss/Asia Times

“Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future,” Merton wrote. “Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.”

Dinner at Woljeongsa consists of tea, rice, steamed vegetables and a few sprouts served cafeteria style. Guests are encouraged to eat quickly and leave. This is easily done when dinner lacks flavor and conversation.

Bedtime comes early in a Korean temple. So does morning prayer. At 4 am an enormous temple bell begins to toll. It is a signal for us to get up and wash since prayers begin promptly at 4:20 am. The bell sounds when struck with a heavy wooden clapper suspended from the bell tower with ropes. It takes two monks to muster the force necessary to ring the bell.

After prayers, I return to the forest determined to find a high point to watch the sunrise. Wind gently stirs the fir trees while a gurgling brook nearby provides the only sound. I’m one with the shadows and Gangnam feels very far away.

Temples that host English-speaking guests

Twenty Buddhist temples located throughout Korea accommodate English-speaking guests for overnight stays or longer. Rules are strict. Temple etiquette demands modest attire and restrained, contemplative behavior. No smoking is allowed and attendance at Buddhist prayer services is expected. Reservations are required but are easily obtained at http://eng.templestay.com.

 

   Temple               Location   Telephone     Contact

Bongeunsa     Seoul 82-2-3218-4826    http://www.bongeunsa.org

Geumsun-sa    Seoul 82-2-395-9955      http://www.geumsunsa.org

Myogak-sa     Seoul 82-2-763-3109      http://www.myogaksa.net

Centro Internacional Seon  Seoul 82-2-2650-2242    http://www.seoncenter.or.kr

Yongjoosa  Gyeonggi 82-31-235-6886    http://www.yongjoosa.or.kr

Jeondeungsa     Incheon 82-32-937-0152    http://www.jeondeungsa.org

Woljeongsa  Gangwon 82-33-339-6606    http://www.woljeongsa.org

Beopjusa  Chungbuk 82-43-544-5656    http://www.beopjusa.or.kr

Magoksa  Chungnam 82-41-841-6226    http://www.magoksa.or.kr

Geomsansa   Jeonbuk 82-63-542-0048    http://www.geumsansa.org

Naesosa   Jeonbuk 82-63-583-3035    http://www.naesosa.org

Seonunsa   Jeonbuk 82-63-561-1375    http://www.seonunsa.org

Hwaeomsa   Jeonnam 82-61-782-7600    http://hwaeomsa.org

Mihwangsa   Jeonnam 82-61-533-3521    http://www.mihwangsa.com

Golgulsa  Gyeongbuk 82-54-775-1689    http://www.sunmudo.com

Jikjisa  Gyeongbuk 82-54-429-1716    http://www.jikjisa.or.kr

Haeinsa Gyeongnam 82-55-934-3110    http://www.haeinsa.or.kr

Donghwasa    Daegu 82-53-982-0223    http://www.donghwasa.net

Beomeosa    Busan 82-51-508-5726    http://www.beomeo.kr

Yakchunsa     Jeju 82-64-738-5000    http://www.yakchunsa.org