From Chaos to Nirvana: How a Temple Stay Changed My Life

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery — air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
― Sylvia Plath

It’s the mysterious charm of the mountains that captures you.

Uplifting. Calming. Humbling.

We’re often looking for something that will lead us to feel this way, a place far away from the stresses of our daily lives.

Large mountains. Open spaces. Endless skies.

Mountains have been providing enchanting rejuvenation since the start of mankind. The way that the sun sets on them and the magical colours it paints in the evening sky, or the way that their rugged structure is outlined by our eyes, leads to a soft vibration in our hearts and inspires our souls.

How cool would it be to be present in a space where you feel relaxed enough to achieve nirvana? Nirvana is something that many people believe is unattainable or hard to achieve, but in reality, it’s not far from our grasp.

That’s where the temple stays come into the picture.

A part of the temple that showcases the beauty of traditional Korean architecture.

A temple stay is an enchanting journey. It is an unmissable opportunity that allows you to encounter your inner self. At a temple, you hear the sound of wind chimes that resonate within the peaceful temple grounds, rendering the ultimate relaxation in your heart. The temple becomes a shelter for your tired mind and your body feels renewed energy. It’s a sanctuary from the city life through rejuvenation by meditating in a temple nestled between quiet mountains.

Imagine this: you find yourself on a winding path into the silent mountains where you find monks praying, birds chirping, the cool winds whistling between the trees and gently touching your cheeks. You enjoy the serenity that comes with the calm atmosphere of the temple. Somehow, you don’t even realize when it happened, but you feel much lighter, as light as a feather. You view your life stress and issues in a different light and they start to weigh less on you. You close your eyes, take a deep breath, and inhale the fresh air. As you breathe out, you release all the tension that’s been building up in your body. After you open your eyes, you feel re-awakened.

“I like the mountains because they make me feel small. They help me sort out what’s important in life.” — Mark Obmascik

A temple stay in Korea is truly a unique opportunity. It’s an escape to the mountains where you can recharge your energy by immersing yourself completely in the daily lives of Buddhists and their spirituality.

My Personal Experience at Guinsa Temple

A view of one of the main buildings at Guinsa Temple. It showcases the beauty of the color in the architecture of traditional Korean buildings.

I experienced my temple stay at Guinsa, an isolated temple nestled on the slopes of Sobaeksan Mountain (also one of the many beautiful national parks in Korea) and engaged in daily monastic activities there.

Guinsa is one of the largest temples in Korea and it is the main centre for 2 million Cheontae Buddhists. It’s always bustling with monks going about their daily lives here and there. No matter where you are in the temple, you’ll find a monk, respectfully engaging in their daily routine.

I particularly liked this location because it’s settled between the mountains. Since I work a 9–5 job in the heart of central Seoul, it appealed to me the most. I felt a large amount of burnout and stress that I needed to relieve and immersing myself in a place surrounded by nature always aids in my healing process.

It takes a bit of time to get there since it’s in the middle of the mountains and you have to take a bus winding up and around the breathtaking (figuratively and literally) mountain, but I promise it’s worth the bit of dizziness! Not to mention the long walk up and down the mountain to get to different parts of the temple, but the exercise itself felt meditative and woke my body up.

The Itinerary at Guinsa Temple

Here is what my weekend looked like (It can be as many days as you’d like):

The itinerary for a temple stay at Guinsa Temple.

At a temple stay program, there are many activities that I took part in. It depends on which temple you sign up with, but here are a few things you can expect at Guinsa Temple (this varies, but is not limited to):

  1. Attending a Buddhist service.
  2. Experiencing meditation and praying including 108 prostrations.
  3. Doing communal work around the temple.
  4. Having monastic meal offerings.
  5. Taking part in tea ceremony rituals.
  6. Making prayer bead bracelets and lotus lanterns.
  7. Engaging with the resident monks. (Most speak English beautifully and are eager to chat!)

Check-in and Introduction

Upon arrival on Saturday afternoon, I checked in at the information centre. There was a group of 15- 20 individuals, mostly foreigners, taking part in this program. We all greeted each other with friendly smiles and little bows (it’s how Koreans greet people from a distance that they don’t know).

One of the monks led us to our rooms and gave us a change of clothes (a pair of pants and a vest to go on top of our shirt). Dressing in the temple is generally neat, clean, and conservative with plain colours. Luckily, I was wearing a white t-shirt underneath. The rooms were simple but tidy, and we slept on the floor with a mattress and an ondol (floor heating), traditional Korean style.

The rooms were shared with others, separated by gender. It is possible to get a separate room if you pay a little more. I went with my friends and we also met another woman and she was also our roommate. She was travelling in Korea with her husband from Europe, also teaching English like my friend and me.

After changing, we were taken to make special prayer bead bracelets, separated into groups at tables with various types of beads, both traditional and modern. I decided to make a traditional one with circular wooden beads.

This was followed up by a little museum tour in the same building. The museum explored the history of the temple starting from the mid-20th century to the present day. As a history buff, I always enjoy historical museums.

Walking Tour and Evening Ceremony

Afterwards, we were taken on a tranquil tour of the temple led by one of the temple monks. We didn’t talk during the tour. This is called noble silence. Instead, we walked and followed respectfully behind him as we wondered at Korea’s spectacular natural landscapes.

A picture of the foreigners walking in a group Guinsa Temple.

The silence allowed for the tour to be even more beautiful as we made our way around the temple from the bottom of the mountain upwards. It was quite the exercise with a lot of stairs, but observing the Buddhists go about their day as well as being able to smell the fresh air of the mountains made it such a valuable and special experience. Once we got to the top, we had the opportunity to explore a prayer room and soak in the incredible views of the mountains.

A set of stairs leading up to a traditional room at Guinsa Temple.

Later, we were taken to one of the buildings to join the evening ceremony. The building was one large room filled with many Buddhist statues and large cushions for your knees when you pray. Then, we prayed together with the monks. We followed their actions since we weren’t sure how to pray. It was one of the many new things we learned how to do.

This process was called The 108 Prostrations of Great Repentance. Full body bowing aids to cleanse your speech, mind, and body. As we listened to the monks chant and pray, first, we held our hands to our chests. Then, we bent our knees down all the way, placing our foreheads gently on the cushion in our bow in front of the Buddha statue. After a moment of our forehead being on the cushion, we moved back up to a standing position, closed our eyes, and then repeated that.

Formal Meal Ceremony for Dinner

The last thing we did was tuck into a delicious temple cuisine. This was one of the most unique dining experiences of my life. Buddhists don’t eat meat, so their food is vegan. I am a vegetarian myself, so I am used to eating similarly. They also don’t use traditional ingredients such as garlic or onions. Furthermore, their food is healthy, organic, and eco-friendly. These are all things that I try to advocate for myself.

Our dinner was a traditional Korean dish that is the main staple for Buddhists here called bibimbap. It’s white rice with vegetables on top that you mix with a spicy paste called gochujang (you can control the amount, for those of you who are not fans of spice!). It might sound bland, but it was wholesome and delicious. It’s a staple dish all over Korea! Normally, you’d add eggs and beef, but it was made vegan at the temple.

We all sat in a rectangle shape all around the room with a big space in the middle that had the food. To get the food, we had to take turns going to the middle of the room to get each part of the meal and then serve it to a few others as well. I felt nervous about serving others since you’re watched when it’s your turn. When it’s someone else’s turn to serve you, you say ‘stop’ when you’re satisfied with the amount of that part of the meal on your plate.

First came the rice, and then the sliced vegetables on top. A single grain couldn’t be wasted. My parents had also taught me to finish every last grain on my plate, so I didn’t hesitate.

Have you ever wondered what the “saying grace” is for Buddhists? Before we ate, we had a meal chant. The translation is below:

First, let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food.
Second, let us be aware of the quality of our deeds as we receive this meal.
Third, what is most essential is the practice of mindfulness, which helps us to transcend greed, anger, and delusion.
Fourth, we appreciate this food which sustains the good health of our body and mind.
Fifth, to continue our practice for all beings we accept this offering.

Wisely reflecting, I use this food not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, but only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the Spiritual Life;
Thinking thus, I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.

This prayer was thought-provoking. We were all suddenly pulled into a world where food was deeply connected to our body and mind. This was difficult for most of us to process because we’re used to indulging on our food on a day-to-day process. That dawned on us all quickly, and even in silence, we felt that as an open secret suddenly in the air.

During the silence, all I could think of were all of the steps this food took to get to the table in front of me: the cooks, farmers, groceries, transportation, and those who I couldn’t even think of at the top of my head. I felt a little guilty about not remembering the whole process and all those individuals that were involved that I should be thanking in the moment, but I knew that wasn’t the purpose of the practice that we were observing, so I directed myself to feel gratitude instead.

Food is the work of all of the beings around us. Suddenly, your meal is an act of communion, connected to those in the past, present, and future who worked together to make the food on your plate possible. Remove one of those individuals and this food wouldn’t be on your plate right now. It reminded me that everything and everyone in this world is deeply intertwined. It filled my heart with gratitude and reverence with the realization that food should be received and eaten with both the process and the people involved in mind.

This experience changed my perspective on food. From the perspective of the Buddhists, food is not just about eating, but it is a gift, a special interaction with the phenomenal universe around us. In the end, the monk that was eating with us reminded us that the only reason Buddhists consume food is that our bodies need it to survive, not for indulgence purposes.

Then came the hardest part. After completing our food and eating with mindfulness, we were given a piece of kimchi to scrape our bowl with. We were instructed to add water to this bowl with the little bits of our food left, the bits of food that were too small to catch with a spoon. Then, we were instructed to drink it all as a step to cleanse the bowl. I looked down at my bowl with a nervous gulp and a little sweat broke out. It was filled with water with bits of tiny food floating inside that we normally don’t consider eating.

Buddhists believe in eating every last crumb. Although it felt a little strange at first, I went for it, knowing that many foreigners surrounding me were new to the experience and we were in this together, silently holding hands. It was a big experience for us all, a life-changing one. I definitely never looked at small rice crumbs or bits of residue from food on my plate the same again.

Tea Time

Dinner was followed by a tea ceremony. Tea is important in Buddhism for multiple reasons:

  1. Aids meditation.
  2. Stems hunger.
  3. Clears the mind.
  4. Cultivates the body.
  5. Sharpens resolves.

Drinking tea is a common practice for monks because the lengthy process means that it’s a symbol of a precious offering. After all, the process of getting tea on the table is not a short process. After morning prayers, the monks pick the tea leaves when the fresh morning dew is still on them, one by one with their hands.

The monk taught us how to gracefully pour tea, hold our teacup, and where to place our hands during this process. After that, one volunteer went around to pour tea into all of the cups for everyone. Both the giver and receiver of the tea practiced hand positioning during this time. We also received a simple, sweet rice snack as a side with our tea.

After volunteering to wash the dishes and help with the cleanup, I went right to sleep because I knew I had to get up early the next morning, and I was definitely not a morning person.

While I was sleeping, my friend next to me was sleep-talking to me. I gulped when I realized she was sleeping while talking to me. It was pitch dark and we were in the middle of the mountains in a temple, far away from civilization. I’m not sure how, but I eventually fell asleep!

Cleaned dishes after a dinner with the monks filled with gratitude stacked in a tall triangle shape.

Early Bird Morning Routine

The 3am morning ceremony was not mandatory, but I wanted to experience it. My friend opted out and decided to sleep in.

The ceremony was in the Main Buddha Hall. The feeling of walking alongside many monks as they headed up the mountain with the dark night sky blanketed above their heads to start their morning prayers was magical.

On my way up, I heard other monks praying in various rooms. Someone explained to me that many monks chant the entire night through, not sleeping at all, that the position they sit in is how they get their rest for the night. The monk I saw doing this was sitting in a meditative position inside a small room with his eyes closed, sitting up.

It was inspiring to hear how passion-driven that was. I myself was once religious, but I don’t think I ever dedicated myself in that way. I felt inspired by that monk to drive myself and put time towards what I love and care deeply about.

After performing the morning ceremony, we went to have breakfast. It was in a communal room. It was a cafeteria where you line up and you’re served by a monk. Rice was self-serve, but the rest you had to line up for.

Breakfast was simple with rice, a soup, and a few fresh vegetables as a side. Koreans call their side dishes banchan. Just like dinner, you only put in however much you could eat and eat in silence while practicing mindfulness.

The breakfast at Guinsa Temple. It’s simple, yet satisfying. It’s rice, which is a Korean staple, seaweed soup, normally had on birthdays, and banchan, Korean side dishes such as kimchi and zucchini.

I had some free time after this. I took advantage of this and explored the rest of the temple and as much of the outskirts by foot as I could. First, I hiked up the mountain to surround myself with fresh air. Korea has quite safe and paved trails for hiking. This trail was very picturesque. The hike boosted my mood and it felt rejuvenating with feelings of happiness and euphoria bursting deep within me. With the way it cleared my mind, it felt as if I was meditating as I was hiking.

The view from the mountains at Guinsa Temple. You can see the morning mist above the mountains, causing a mysterious yet captivating scenery.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir

I felt that the early morning hike and the mountain’s distraction-free setting helped to calm down and quiet my busy thoughts. Living in one of the largest cities in the world, my mind is always preoccupied with racing thoughts. Marvelling at natural beauty enhanced my meditative journey and allowed me to live in the moment. It was a type of peace in my mind that I never achieved before, even after trying to take some meditative classes in the city, that couldn’t beat this.

During my hike, I also saw monks that were foraging, one by one with their hands. Monks cook their meals with produce grown in the mountains where the temples are located. In that moment, I remembered that the vegetables from my dinner were also picked by the monks from the mountains.

The mountains are also a safe and quiet space for monks to find a place to meditate among the serenity of the nature that surrounds them. I encountered many through the mountains at various peaks, fully immersed into prayer.

A buddhist monk praying deep in the mountains. There are statues that he is standing in front of. He is surrounded by trees.

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making eery nerve quiver, filing every pore and cell of us.” — John Muir

Later, I went to the temple greenhouse and enjoyed the plants with the stunning backdrop of the mountains. The greenhouse was a lot bigger and more diverse than I had imagined. For some reason, I was surprised that there was even a greenhouse, but of course there would be! Here, the aromas of the flower blossoms filled the air and became one with all of the vibrantly colored temple buildings.

A view of the traditional Korean building, one of the main buildings for the temple, from the temple greenhouse. It has some flowers and plants.

The temple stay was finished with walking meditation (observing noble silence during this time as well) before we headed back. The guided meditative walks through the complex and around the forest refreshed my body and awakened my mind.

Final Thoughts: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

The whole temple stay experience transformed me in unparalleled ways. By trying something new and getting out of my comfort zone, I took away more than just memories of my temple stay. I found a new inner self that surprised me as well as I learned things that I thought I was never capable of doing.

One of the most impactful ways I changed was to learn how to practice more generosity. Whenever we surround ourselves with mother nature, we return home with a special appreciation for the natural features of ourselves, others, and our Earth. This experience translated to positive emotions which lead me to feeling a heightened sense of gratefulness and increased my generosity.

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to achieve nirvana within yourself and become fully present in your life. An important lesson I learned is that if we are not deceived, we find nirvana wherever we go. This is an important skill that naturally got honed during my stay. I promised myself that I would practice nirvana in my daily life.

The next time I do a temple stay, I will be going to Gogulsa — a Korean Buddhist temple where they teach you meditation by breath control. They do this through sunmudo (a type of Buddhist martial art) and archery as mediums for shifting your focus inwards, away from the chaos of the world.

What do you think? When you relax and get away from your busy routine, do you imagine restoring your vibrant life force by breathing in nature and meditating with monks in the mountains?

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” — John Muir

The bottom of the temple. A pathway towards the exit of the temple surrounded my luscious green trees and a monk walking in the path.

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If you’re interested in signing up or would like more information about this experience, check out the Temple Stay website.

To learn even more about the compelling culture of Korea and to start planning a trip over, go to the Visit Korea website.

Want to hear more about my travel tips and stay updated on my future posts?

Follow me on my travel Instagram at @theplanetcompass.

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