Upon arriving at the Lotus Lantern International Buddhist Meditation Center in Ganghwa Island near Incheon, Uzbek Kban Igori and his Vietnamese friend Aing were given comfortable clothes and instructed in temple etiquette ahead of their stay.
During the two-day program, participants have three communal meals known as "baru gongyang" that are prepared and eaten in a ritualistic way in line with Buddhist tenets.
Kban said getting used to a strict vegetarian diet was a struggle at first but ultimately refreshing. As Buddhists take special care to avoid killing any living being, meat is not provided in temples, a monk explained.
Kban came to Korea in August to study and became interested in its long-running temple stay program, which has steadily grown in popularity since the 2002 Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup. During the global sports event, the nation's temples were promoted as fun forms of accommodation in a bid to help make up for the shortage of temporary lodgings in the country.
With bell sounds resonating throughout the temple compound after dinner on the first day, the two foreign students kneeled before a statue of Buddha and recited some phrases from the sutras. Next they were guided to a mediation room, where a monk signaled the start of the session with a bamboo clapper.
"I found it hard to concentrate in complete silence," Aing said. "The monk asked us not to think about the future or the past. But all kinds of thoughts raced through my head and it was hard for me to sit with my legs crossed for so long."
At 4 .a.m the next day a bell rang to wake the temporary guests from their slumber and signal a morning service and another round of meditation. After an hour-long break they were served rice porridge for breakfast and then asked to sweep the temple grounds to remove fallen leaves.
After completing this communal work, known as "ulryeok," they took a rejuvenating stroll to enjoy the local scenery before receiving instruction in the art of calligraphy and the finer points of the tea ceremony, another ritualistic practice.
"This is my first time to join a temple stay program, and the most impressive or memorable parts of my stay were the lesson in calligraphy, the vegetarian meals and the morning walks," Kban said.
For more information about the program, please visit the center's website at http://www.lotuslantern.net/ or call (032) 937-7033. The fees vary from W20,000 to W50,000. Inquiries can also be made to the Incheon Center for International Cooperation and Exchange by visiting its website (http://www.icice.or.kr) or calling (032) 451-1800.