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In its 10th year, Templestay still growing, diversifying

Lee Ho-lim, like all the other Templestay participants at Myogaksa in the last weekend of July, stood before the staff and the other visitors to introduce himself.

Describing how he chose the English nickname of “Tiger Woods,” he explained that “Ho” is the first syllable for the big cat’s Korean name, while “lim” comes from the Chinese character meaning “wood.” Furthermore, just as Woods once dominated professional golf, Lee wants to be No. 1 in his own profession of pharmaceuticals. 
Lee Ho-lim (foreground) and other Templestay participants make rosaries on a recent morning at the Myogak Temple in Jongno, Seoul. (Rob York/The Korea Herald)
Lee Ho-lim (foreground) and other Templestay participants make rosaries on a recent morning at the Myogak Temple in Jongno, Seoul. (Rob York/The Korea Herald)

The real Tiger Woods has, of course, gotten much more attention of late for the disintegration of his reputation and personal life than for his golf game. Lee didn’t mention this, but it was something not lost on his audience, including the temple’s head nun, Ven. Yeo Yeo.

“Tiger Woods has had some problems,” the perpetually smiling nun said after Lee’s intro. “He should spend one night and two days at Myogaksa.”

Two important details about Ven. Yeo Yeo: For one, she believes quite deeply that Buddhism and the Templestay program can help people. Secondly, for a religious devotee who lives in a temple, she really knows popular culture.

To illustrate the idea that attachment leads to greed and greed to suffering, she frequently quotes Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings,” saying “This is my precious!” all the way to his fiery death. The sound of this petite lady with the shaved head assuming the deranged hobbit’s gravelly voice must be heard to be believed.

To explain the secret of attaining enlightenment, she references the scene in “Kung Fu Panda” where the titular character’s father explains the secret ingredient for his noodles: “Nothing!” This is something she insists on exclaiming, and since the character she is quoting is a crane, she feels it must also be said using a birdlike voice.

“Believe you could be happy,” she told participants. “Don’t search for some special way. What is important is just to do it. Like Nike.”

Myogaksa (Myogak Temple), located on Mount Naksan near Dongmyo Station in Jongno, Seoul, is one of the temples that opened its doors through Templestay in 2002. That year, as Korea co-hosted the FIFA World Cup, foreign visitors were provided with inexpensive accommodations through the cultural program, as well as with a chance to see the inside of Korea’s temples and learn about life as a Buddhist monk or nun.

According to Templestay’s organizers, 33 sites were opened to the public in the beginning, and about 3,000 people took part. Now in its 10th year, those numbers have swelled, with 118 Templestay locations that have welcomed a cumulative 500,000 participants (including 20,000 foreign visitors last year alone).

Ven. Yeo Yeo said that in 2010, Myogaksa was visited by 1,200 foreign visitors, and that 1,500 are expected before 2011 is over. The group attending in the last weekend of July was particularly large; 40 is a more typical size, but this group had about 55 members.

One reason for that is the participation of more than 20 students from Gachon University of Medicine and Science in Incheon. Within that group was yet another unit of eight students from Peking University in China attending Gachon for the summer.

“The environment (in the temple) is quite familiar to Chinese people,” said Tang Hao, 23, one of the Peking students. “(But) I think the idea of the commercial development of Buddhism is a good one. In fact, in China we don’t have this experience to stay in a temple for one night. I think that’s what we should learn from Korea.”

Lee, the Tiger Woods fan, is a 43-year-old Seoulite who had taken part in Templestay programs several times before. On previous occasions he had gone to locations catering more to Koreans, but this time chose Myogaksa, one of about 40 temples offering programs for foreigners. In fact, the presence of so many non-Koreans at Myogaksa was one of the main reasons why he attended.

“I want to share Korean culture with foreigners,” he said. “A temple is one of the best places to explore Korean culture.”

At the Templestay website, those searching for a temple can choose one based on criteria such as why they want to visit and how much time they can spend there. Both one-day and overnight stays are available, and both longer and shorter stays can sometimes be arranged based on the time of year and size of the group.

Activities common to the temples where they may visit include:

― Morning and evening chanting services ― Everyone has the potential to become a Buddha (or “enlightened one”), Ven. Yeo Yeo said, but first they must overcome the three kinds of “bad minds”: the greedy mind, the angry mind and the foolish mind. In the two chanting services (one of which takes place after waking up at 3:30 a.m.), visitors spend time searching for their inner Buddha nature hidden among these flawed tendencies.

― The tea ceremony ― Before modern times it took Buddhist monks and nuns hours to prepare “the best tea in the world,” Ven. Yeo Yeo said, but thanks to modern filtration systems the process is much shorter now. During the tea ceremony, visitors can learn how to make this tea together, which monks and nuns have used for centuries to, in her words, “escape sleepy.”

― Monastic formal meals ― Participants eat healthy food together quietly, and show gratitude by not wasting even a morsel.

― The 108 prostrations ― Here, visitors join the temple staff in their daily bowing rituals as way of humbling the ego. The ego isn’t all that’s affected: Beginners may find that prostrating one’s self and getting back up even a few dozen times leaves them sore for a couple of days.

― Seon meditation ― Meditation is meant to clear the mind of the outside world and find one’s true self, but how long can you sit perfectly still, especially in the Lotus Position, with each foot on top of the opposite thigh? Fortunately for this group at Myogaksa, participants only did so for two 20-minute periods separated by a one-minute break, and those who could not manage the perfect Lotus were allowed more comfortable alternatives.

Poseng Vang, 25, visited Myogaksa because she wanted to take part before her teaching contract expired and she returned to California two weeks later. She found the whole program enjoyable, and said the meditation was most interesting aspect.

“I didn’t realize how hard it was,” she said.

Despite the early rise, the strict etiquette that must be observed and the lengthy bowing sessions, Templestay appeals to people trying to get away from the stresses of their daily routines. Though beginners are not expected to achieve enlightenment in their first weekend, it’s hard to come away from the program unaffected by the atmosphere, as well as the devotion of temple staff. “I will guide you to make our happiness your happiness too,” Ven. Yeo Yeo said. “It will be a delicious program too.”

To learn more about Templestay, visit, offering information in Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese, French, German and Spanish. Templestay can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

By Rob York (