In South Korea, Immersion in Buddhist Austerity

Be forewarned — the point of the temple stay is not, as the pictures on its Web site might make it seem, to lounge next to a brook nibbling crackers as you consider what it means to reach nirvana. The point is to live like a monk. And monks, it turns out, keep strict schedules, are vegetarian and spend a lot of time silently meditating in positions that can become, quickly and without much warning, incredibly uncomfortable for those unused to them. I got my first hint of this austere lifestyle when I arrived and was greeted by Cho Hyemun-aery, who introduced herself in fluent English. In the guesthouse, she showed me the communal bathroom and the small room my friend and I would stay in, which was unfurnished except for sleeping pads, blankets and small pillows. Then, after we’d dropped off our bags, Ms. Cho handed us our clothes for the weekend: two identical extra-large sets of baggy gray pants and vests, along with sun hats and blue plastic slippers. We looked like we’d stepped out of a propaganda poster for Maoist China.

On a trip to South Korea, I decided to participate in a Korean temple stay, and wrote about the experience for the New York Times.