There is much to learn from Buddhism and even during short temple stays, solid messages can be taken away. I could could go into detail again, but it don't think I need to. For a look at what Korean Buddhism can teach Christians, click here.
The problem, however, with temple stays in Korea is that they are often just that: a short term stay where little philosophical or theoretical instruction is given so that the Westerners visiting can take home with them something to alter their worldview and free their minds from the torment of stress, confusion, and negativity, and ideally recognize their true nature as human beings.
After years of practicing Zen in Korea and abroad, I remember vividly a conversation I had with a Buddhist nun from Europe who was practicing and living in a temple in Northern Seoul. She confirmed what I feared the most regarding the state of Buddhism in Korea….”if you really want to study Buddhism temple stays are not the place, this is merely tourism Buddhism.” I couldn’t have agreed more, sure the temple stay was a break from the fast pace of modern Korean society where time seems short and everyone wants life to revolve around them, but I was truly searching for a place to dig deep and grow roots under the guidance of a proper teacher where the full import of Zen practice could take hold.
A temple stay is clearly designed for both domestic and international tourists and I fail to see just how that is a problem. To me, the intention of the stay is NOT something meant to "alter...worldview[s] and free... minds from the torment of stress, confusion, and negativity, and ideally recognize true nature as human beings." If you were to ask a monk or even a layperson in Korea whether or not a stay is meant to be anything more than an interesting tourist activity, you'd get a resounding, "NO!"
Anyone who practices any form of Buddhism knows that not only is breaking free from foolishness in search of right-mindfulness a difficult and long-term goal, but those who seek Enlightenment by name usually fail. The goal of these retreats is not conversion and most people have no expectation (or desire) for such a thing. The goal is the same as what most people want when they sign up -a relaxing and semi-spiritual taste of something that is different from what they're used to.
In some cases, a casual tourist really connects with the retreat and chooses to stay on longer in a different capacity and study the religion in greater detail. That is always available to "tourists". From where I'm standing, temple stays don't represent Korea's departure from its already checkered past with Buddhism, but appears more as a stab at combating the rabid globalization that is consuming much of the spiritual and philosophical world. Most religions and places of worship open their houses to the curious knowing that the full experience is impossible to gain in a short time.
My own experiences with religion in Korea have easily proven this. They happily welcome me into their fold, yet put the burden on me to seek a deeper connection and understanding. In fact, some of them have even openly challenged me to engage directly with them and their text.
Why does Buddhism have to be any different? Their burden only goes so far and, until recently, most Orders haven't pursued any form of aggressive proselytism. This, to me, is a good start in the right direction.
Old photos of Jeollanam-do and Gwangju.
[image: 1941 Jeollanamdo Provincial Office]
*Taken in front of the Jeollanam-do Provincial Office, 1941.*
[image: Sajik Park]
*Sajik Park observatory in the...