In a Monk’s Shoes: Living in a Korean Buddhist Monastery

A two-day programme puts a lens on the desires of normal life.  
Monastery South Korea
Pagodas are a typical feature of Korean temples and are used to enshrine Buddha’s relics. Monks chant as they walk around these structures in a clockwise direction to reaffirm their faith. Photo courtesy Korea Tourism

On the road toward Mount Hwangak, Hally the temple employee who has come to pick me up, slows the car beside a gushing river that swerves around large boulders. She pulls up outside the elaborately carved gate of the Jikji temple, a monastery in Gimcheon, South Korea, where I am going to spend the next two days. Jikji or Jikjisa is a temple of the Jogye Order, one of the traditional orders of Korean Buddhism, and the home of over a dozen treasured artefacts, including three spectacular pieces that are considered national treasures.

A standard feature of Korean temples is the iljumun before me—a one-pillar gate that consists of a pagoda with a gently curved base, resting atop twin pillars. When viewed from the side, the two red pillars appear to be one. This illusion symbolises the singular path of enlightenment of Buddhist philosophy, the idea with which one must enter the temple. I’m here for a two-day temple-stay programme that was recommended by a friend’s Korean business associate. Korean temples opened up to visitors upon the request of delegates of the 2002 FIFA World Cup who felt that tourists would enjoy a taste of the life of a Korean monk. I believe it is a unique cultural experience programme that will allow me to sample the country’s Buddhist cultural heritage.

The road ahead of us is carpeted with amber maple leaves, and the grounds of the temple complex are painted in shades of hot orange that contrast with the winter chill of the mountain air. The four peaks of Mount Hwangak provide the backdrop to the ornate 300- and 400-year-old buildings of the temple. Twenty of the 40 original structures, dating back to A.D. 418, were rebuilt after the Japanese invasion of 1592 left Jikjisa in flames. The invaders were searching for Samyeong, a militant-turned-monk who had sought sanctuary and was ordained here.

Meditation Buddhism Monastery

Meditation sessions are an important part of South Korea’s temple stay programmes. Participants also get a Q&A session with the head monk, in which they can discuss spirituality and the benefits of meditation. Photo: Photononstop RM/Indiapicture

As we walk towards the office, I gawk at the fine detailing of the carvings and the Buddhist paintings that adorn walls. “Some of the relics and artefacts have always been here, but many were brought here from other temples,” Hally tells me. “Jikjisa is like the father temple with a hundred sons.”

Hally had lived in London for a few years, and her close-to-fluent English makes her an asset to this organisation. Of over a hundred Korean temples that have opened their doors to visitors since 2002, only 20 extend their programmes to foreigners, mainly because of the language barrier.

Communication is imperative, because there are clear rules to be followed while I am inside a working monastery. Hally shows me how to greet a monk with a half-bow, or banbae, and how to keep my hands crossed in the chasu(pronounced “ghassu”) position while within the complex. Meals must be eaten in silence, and a gong that sounds at 4.30 a.m. serves as a wake-up call. We run through the schedule of services, I receive a seung bok (“chung-pok”), the saffron uniform that I must wear: a pair of baggy pants called paji, and a short, wide-sleeved working jacket calledchoksam, both stitched out of a coarse heavy fabric, that’s not warm enough for this weather. Earlier that morning before I’d boarded a comfortable train in Seoul, I’d picked up some heat-radiating patches. They will come in handy, I’m certain.

By late afternoon all the visitors to the temple have settled in, and get a quick tour of the halls before the evening rituals. At the entrance to the daeungjong, or main hall, we take our slippers off before stepping in. We join hands and bow at the waist, eyes on the golden triad on the altar, just as we’ve been taught. The statue of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is at the centre of the altar, flanked by the Medicine Buddha and the Infinite Buddha. Hally lifts a pillow off a stack, sets it down before her feet. She kneels, then bends forward with her arms stretched out before her until her forehead touches the floor. Her hips rest comfortably on her heels and she retracts her arms so her palms are besides her ears, and turns them up to the ceiling. As she sits up, she brings her hands together at her chest in a Korean namaste (hapjang), which symbolises the unification of the Buddha’s mind (right hand) with hers (left hand). Then she’s on her feet again, and presses the hapjang to her forehead and to her chest to complete one prostration. Hally performs this thrice, in reverence to the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (order of monks). Then, she pulls three large pillows off a stack and hands them to us, one by one, so she can take us through the steps. We practice our bows on the left side of the hall, leaving the rest of the space for the monks. Monks may meditate any time of day and some choose to do so in this hall. They kneel before the tiered altar, the upper three levels of which form the sumidan. The word is derived from Mt. Sumeru, the central mountain of the world according to Buddhist scriptures. The tiers that represent it are adorned with elaborately carved figures of creatures like tigers, turtles, or fish, that would reside on the mountain.

 Jikjisa Temple South Korea

As part of their temple stay regime, visitors walk along paths that wind through beautiful, forested mountains, pausing to catch their breath or for nuggets on Buddhist cosmology. Photo courtesy Jikjisa Temple

The next morning, during the 5 a.m. yebul ceremony, we start our day with 108 prostrations. We then walk through the temple museum, full of amazing Buddhist art and antiques too delicate to be photographed. There are engravings on traditional hanji paper, an intricately carved stone bell with a dragon-shaped clasp, and stunning paintings of guardian spirits whose forms combine human and animal features.

Mealtime in the monastery is called baru-gongyang, because monks traditionally eat their meals out of a baru, or bowl. In keeping with the Buddhist principle of harmony with nature, the menu includes two kinds of kimchi, a vegetable broth, rice, seaweed, radish, and tofu seasoned with a mildly spicy sauce. Minimally seasoned, the vegetables are as close to raw as possible. The preparations contain neither onion nor garlic. The principle is not to relish food, but simply to satiate the hunger that might otherwise distract a person from meditation. This point is driven home by the prayer we’re asked to recite at the start of each meal: An apology to the powers that be for succumbing to the human need for nourishment.

Once we wash our dishes we head for the nightly music ritual. Only priests are allowed inside the fenced hall where it takes place, so we line up outside and listen. Hally explains that, “The sound of the drum, made of hide, is a prayer for all animals. The bell, which represents the Vedic creator of the universe, Brahma, is a prayer for humans. The sound of themoktak, a wooden fish-shaped instrument is a prayer for marine life, and the closing gongs are for all other creatures.”

Jikjisa Temple South Korea

At the morning doryangseok ceremony, monks walk around the temple and chant, accompanied by the sound of a wooden gong called the moktak. Photo courtesy Jikjisa Temple

It’s time to retire for the night and I find my room behind a shoji screen door, a neat 8×7-foot space fitted with floor heating, and a wardrobe that holds a blanket, a quilted mat, and two slim, hard beanbags, which I assume are meant to function as pillows. It’s luxurious in comparison to most temple-stay schemes, where visitors share rooms with at least three other participants, and use communal showers and bathrooms. Jikjisa is one of the few temples with en suite facilities. With only two other people currently on the programme, I get a room all to myself and all the peace and quiet I could possibly want.

Despite the restful night, I struggle to keep from nodding off during the 6.30 a.m. chamseon, or Zen meditation, the next morning. I snap back to attention at the sound of three claps from the wooden clapper that announces the end of the service. After breakfast, Hee Pong, the head monk escorts us to a comparatively new shrine at the peak of the mountain. Along the way, we learn about cause and effect, and about hatu, the ability to control the mind. He tells us that later in the day we will be stringing 108 beads, which signify the 108 delusions that lead to human suffering; some of these are desire, wrath, contempt, and pride.

Though he is older than all of us, neither his tone nor his pace waver during the rigorous half-hour trek up some sharp inclines. The icy November rain beats down on us, making the descent quite treacherous. But I feel invigorated both by the trek and the dado tea ceremony that follows.

Jikjisa Temple South Korea

Nestled amid pine forests, ancient hardwoods, and a pristine river, Jikjisa is one of the most picturesque of South Korea’s temples, with excellent trekking opportunities. Photo courtesy Jikjisa Temple

Later, we sit down to string beads. Some temples require one prostration for each bead strung, but Jikjisa takes a more casual approach. Hally directs us to focus on the things we wish for, each time we pull a bead through the string. I’m deeply conscious of the fact that I find myself with nothing to wish for, nothing that I feel is lacking in my life. Whether that’s a result of the hours of meditation, or just being surrounded by this serenity, I cannot say, but it is an incredible feeling.

After two days of eating a Buddhist monk’s diet, sleeping on hard floors, meditating, hiking and prostrating, I am entirely refreshed and lighter. I’d love to stay longer, but I have a train to catch, to get back to my 108 delusions.

Feast Days

On some days, the temple hosts special celebrations with music, chanting, and free meals for the poor.

The Buddha’s birthday: 14 May, 2016 (the date changes every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar)

Day of prayer for ancestors: 15 July

New Year: 22 December

Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “In A Monk’s Shoes”


The 108 yeomju (prayer beads) threading ritual is an essential part of the programme. Photo: Anjana

The Guide

Getting There There are direct flights from New Delhi/Mumbai to Seoul on most days of the week. From Seoul, there are several daily trains to Gimcheon (adults from KRW16,400/₹915, children from KRW8,200/₹450; duration 3 hr). Frequent buses connect the two cities (adults from KRW14,100/₹785, children from KRW7,050/₹390; duration 4-4.5 hr).

Visa The application form for tourist visas is available online ( The completed form and supporting documents have to be submitted at the consulates in Mumbai or Chennai, or at VFS offices in New Delhi and Kolkata (₹2,400 for a single entry tourist visa, plus ₹860 VFS charges.)

More about Temple Stays Temple stay programmes are offered across South Korea, but each location has a different programme. Some include classes such as traditional envelope making or cloth dyeing. Programmes at different temples may run through the week, only on weekends, or on select weekends only. The 2-day/1-night stay at Jikjisa costs KRW50,000/₹2,860 per person. To sign up, fill the selected temple’s form on the temple stay website, but do make sure you have a confirmation email before you pack your bags. You may have to call the listed number to follow up. Heavy make-up and outlandish clothes are not allowed at temples, and there’s a complete ban on cigarettes and alcohol ( 

  • Anjana is a freelance journalist and an author of children's books. Passionate about world cultures and cuisines, she also enjoys hiking and diving with her daughters.

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