Home to tech giants like Samsung and LG, South Korea’s capital is known as a Wi-Fi-enabled, tech-savvy city filled with futuristic skyscrapers and advanced technology. But take a closer look and you’ll find the Buddhist temples of old Seoul peeking through the concrete jungle like tiny buds. These peaceful pockets are havens of tranquility amid the frenzied city, and offer visitors a glimpse into a simpler way of life uninhabited by smart phones and Instagram.
Bongeunsa is Seoul’s oldest and most famous temple. Though the building dates back to 794, it wasn't brought to Seoul until much later. It was originally constructed 2 hours southeast of Seoul near the city of Yeoju, near the Royal Tomb of King Sejong. The temple was relocated in the 16th-century to its current location across the street from COEX Mall in Gangnam, where it’s become one of the most iconic representations of historic Korea in Seoul.
A 75-foot-tall statue of Buddha has become one of the city’s most photographed sites and the symbol of Bongeunsa. The statue appears to watch over the inhabitants of the bustling capital.
Overnight temple stays are possible, and include such activities as yoga, meditation, and scripture translation.
Bongwonsa Temple, with its tranquil lotus pond, is known as one of Seoul’s most beautiful. Originally built in 889 on the grounds of what is now Yonsei University, this picturesque temple was later moved to its current location in western Seoul in 1748. Parts of the temple were destroyed during the Korean War, but it was fully restored in 1966.
This temple has an unusual, even dark, history. In the past it was was euphemistically known as a temple for “regulating monk’s discipline,” though it’s unclear exactly that means. Additionally, the temple’s placid surroundings mask a macabre secret; in 2004 it was the unwitting burial site of victims of serial killer and cannibal Yoo Young-chul.
Cheonchuksa Temple is set amid hiking trails and unique rock formations on Dobongsan Mountain in Bukhansan National Park. According to legend, during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) the temple was given its name by a visiting Indian monk, who said the location resembled a mountain in his homeland, which translated to “Cheonchuk.” Nowadays, the temple offers moonlight meditation retreats and purifying tea ceremonies to visitors.
Tucked amid the trees and streams of Bukhansan National Park at the foot of Mount Samgaksan, it’s hard to believe that Hwagyesa Temple is only 40 minutes by subway from the non-stop buzz of downtown Seoul.
The brightly painted collection of ornate buildings topped with gently sloping roofs dates back to the 17th century (the original temple built in 1522 was destroyed by a fire), and has become an important center of Zen Buddhism in Korea. It’s renowned among expats for its popular temple stay program, where visitors can learn how to live like a Buddhist monk.
If you’ve ever wondered what the life of a monk was like (and if you’re OK with waking up at 4:30 a.m.), find out for yourself at the 600-year-old Geumsunsa Temple, complete with a scenic stone bridge spanning a bubbling mountain stream.
Surrounded by pine trees and craggy outcroppings in Bukhansan National Park, the serene, woodsy environment sets a blissed-out mood, while patient monks teach the ancient art of Zen meditation, conduct bell-tolling rituals, and supervise tea ceremonies. A variety of temple stay programs are available, ranging in length from 3 hours to three days.
Though set in what is now the tourist area of Insadong, there’s nothing fabricated about Jogyesa Temple. In fact, the poor temple has had more than its fair share of cold, hard reality. Its long and storied past began with its construction in the 14th century, but like many other important buildings in Seoul, it was burned down during various invasions over the centuries.
It was finally rebuilt in 1910 during the Japanese occupation, then subsequently torn down in 1954 as part of a program to eliminate any remaining Japanese influence, and it was in that same year that the present-day Jogyesa Temple was established. The temple now serves as the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, which is the largest sect of Korean Buddhism.
Being so centrally located, Jogyesa Temple is popular with foreign visitors and hosts a temple stay program, as well as the annual Lotus Lantern Festival.