Eun Yoo Chong, hard at work on a set of sandalwood prayer beads // © 2015 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): Travelers can experience traditional Buddhist living at Woljeongsa Temple, located in South Korea’s Odaesan National Park. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
It turns out Buddhist prayer sessions at the Woljeongsa Temple in South Korea can be quite a workout. Bowing now, with my knees, elbows and forehead planted firmly on my own temple-floor cushion, I’d lost track of how many times I made the transition from standing to kneeling in the last few minutes. The last count was 12 total bows, but I’d been up and down again a few times since, and my thighs were starting to burn.
In fact, if it weren’t for Eun Yoo Chong, a Korean woman in her early 20s who had given us a brief traditional bowing demonstration earlier that afternoon and was now kneeling on the temple floor in front of me, I would have been entirely lost. As it was, however, my assignment proved relatively simple: When Eun Yoo stood, I stood. When she knelt down onto all fours, forehead on her cushion, I did the same.
There were probably a couple dozen people following the evening prayer ritual inside the brightly lit temple. Most were in tightly formed lines, facing a colorful altar dominated by a stout Buddha. The altar was flanked by wooden pillars, decorated with twisting dragons. A haze of sweet incense hung in the air while the traditionally dressed prayer leader droned an increasingly hypnotic incantation into a microphone, and an assistant kept time on a handheld drum.
Founded in the seventh century, Woljeongsa Temple is located in the low hills of South Korea’s Odaesan National Park. Surrounded by forest and fronted by a slow moving stream, the facility was destroyed in the 1950s, during the Korean War, but has since been rebuilt. The temple offers travelers surprisingly comfortable and clean overnight accommodations along with terrifically tasty, although vegetarian, Korean cuisine and a wonderful contrast to the bustling metropolis of Seoul.
Guests at the temple begin their experience with a costume change, dressing in a provided wardrobe of loose-fitting, orange trousers and baggy, sleeveless orange vests. From there, it’s off to group orientation, led by Chong in English and followed by a chance to make your own prayer necklace from 108 sandalwood beads — one for each worldly sin, according to Buddhist belief.
Before dinner, free time offers quiet moments to explore the grounds solo, taking in the vibrant color of the surrounding forest’s autumn leaves and a determined melody from the talkative stream. Guests are also invited to sound the temple’s massive bell, bowing first to a pair of monks before swinging a thick, suspended wooden beam and sending a solemn ringing into the hills.
Woljeongsa is also the starting point for a number of walking paths through the forest, offering another excellent chance for quiet contemplation and more time for travelers to settle further into the rhythm of the temple stay. Walking time is actually scheduled into the morning program for foreign visitors, following the early morning prayer session, which begins promptly at 4:20 a.m.
Only a couple of hours from Seoul by car, stays at Woljeongsa Temple start at $74 per night for adults and $37 per night for children.