Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa

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The sound of monks chanting echoes through the forest. Birds chirp in the trees. The humming sound of cicadas lowers and rises in waves. At the end of a tree-lined trail is a stone bridge covered in white lanterns known as Paradise Bridge. It crosses over a lazy stream where water bubbles over smooth stones. On the other side is a temple, sitting right in the middle of it all, where it has for centuries.

If there were a recipe for building temples, Magoksa would be it. Step 1: find a beautiful secluded spot in the middle of the forest, preferably at the base of a mountain and beside a stream. Step 2: build wooden temple with intricate carvings and paint it red. Step 3: put stone pagoda in the center. What makes Magoksa special though is not just its dreamy surroundings or intricate history, it’s the people who bring it to life: the monks and Buddhist followers.

Monks in front of bell tower Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
The monk’s robes represent simplicity and detachment from materialism.
Devotion Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
You can see monks everywhere on the temple grounds.
Meditation trail Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
A web of ‘meditation trails’ circle the temple grounds.
Quiet stream by temple Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
A small stream runs through the temple grounds.
Sign at cafeteria Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
A sign above the sink in the cafeteria.
Statue Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
One of the many temple statues.
Temple Stay tour group at Magoksa Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
Bo Hyun tells a templestay group about the drum and bell tower.
Dragon drum Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
A dharma drum sits under the 2-story tower. It’s sound is said to save rescue all living things and represent the sounds of Buddha’s teachings.
Lanterns over bridge Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
Lanterns hang over the temple’s Paradise Bridge.
Temple roofs Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
The temple sits on the eastern slope of Taehwa Mountain.
Il yang Sunim monk Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
Il Yang Sunim is the monk in charge of the temple stay program.
Tea ceremony Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
Visitors learn about the meaning behind a Buddhist tea ceremony.
Monk and Buddha Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
A monk chants inside one of the many temples.
Pagoda Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa
The five-storey bronze-tipped Ocheung Stone pagoda has Tibetan Buddhism characteristics.


Karmic Connection

It can be difficult to get to know monks and their way of life, especially if you don’t speak Korean. With the new Temple Stay and Temple Life programs at Magoksa though, learning about the temple and Buddhism is easier than ever.

Kim Hui Yeong is one of the people who works in the temple stay program, as well as assist with interpretation for the monks who don’t speak English. Her Buddhist name is Bo Hyun after Bo Hyun Bo Sal who is a kind of deity in Buddhism that represents action. During the week she lives in Seoul and teaches English. She commutes to Mageoksa every weekend. When asked why she travels the long distance every week, her devotion to the temple and her faith are clear.

“Do you know what inyeon is?” she asks. “It means karma. And I have a karmic relationship with this temple. I can’t say if it is with the temple itself or the people here. It just is, so I follow the moment.”

She now knows the temple grounds as well as anyone. One of her favorite places is the walking meditation course. She says with a smile, “If you go there you will feel something in the forest. Everything opens up.”

As if on cue, a monk hits a massive gong under the pagoda – once, twice, three times – the sound carries throughout the temple grounds. Bo Hyun apologizes. “Sorry, I must go. A new tour group has just arrived.” Ten or so tourists from around the world are waiting for her in front of the bridge. Bo Hyun greets them and then starts the tour.


Yin and Yang Balance

The site of the temple grounds was chosen because it is said to be in perfect harmony with the universe. A stream carves it’s way through the middle of the grounds forming a perfect Taegeuk or yin and yang symbol, just like the one in the middle of the Korean flag. The symbol represents the “great polarity”, the harmonious balance of the primal state of the universe. The temple, established around AD 640, is one of 24 “head temples” around Korea of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

Off in one of the temple buildings, Il Yang Sunim or monk prepares tea for the newly arrived group. But the tea is not just a polite way to welcome the group, it’s a lesson about life. She teaches them about the importance of the Buddhist tea ritual.

“Usually we don’t concentrate on our five senses when we do things. So while making and drinking tea, we concentrate our mind. It’s a kind of practice. First, look at the color, then feel the warmth, smell it, and finally taste. Then we concentrate our senses and then think in our mind about the process.”

She lived in Toronto for two years at a Korean temple there. Then she moved to another Bugwangsa temple in San Francisco. One of her goals was to learn English because she met many foreigners at the temple in Korea but she couldn’t communicate with them. It wasn’t easy for her to move to North America. In the end though, she was able to learn English and share her devotion to Buddhism. “But still my English is so limited,” she says bursting out in laughter.


Another Perspective

Before the tour finishes, the group members ask the monk questions and then take a photo with her. One of the members of the tour, Anabellia Gonzalez from Mexico, has been traveling around Korea for a month. For her, the tea ceremony was a highlight – to learn how they do it and the meaning behind it. Brad Townsend from Illinois is visiting Korea for 12 days. Their son is studying at graduate school in Busan. He’s really interested in the architecture, especially the Korean woodwork. “Seeing the temple grounds and interiors, how everything was put together, the techniques they used, it was very interesting,” he says.


Magoksa Temple Programs

It’s true that temples can look quite similar. In the end though, it’s just a structure. What makes it come to life are the people who live and practice there. It’s a side of temple life most tourists never get to see or learn about – until now. Magoksa offers two programs where tourists can interact with the monks and feel what it’s like to live at a temple. And for those looking to take a break from their busy life, Il Yang Sunim advises: “Please come to the temple to rest, refresh, and recharge yourself.” Come and walk over the bridge to paradise.


Program Name: Temple Stay (2 days 1 night)

Cost: 70,000 won adults (60,000 for 18 and under)

Itinerary Day 1

  • Arrival and registration
  • Orientation
  • Temple tour
  • Making of 108 beads
  • Dinner
  • Ringing the bell and chanting, also known as Yebul
  • Tea with a monk

Day 2

  • Yebul chanting at dawn
  • Individual practice time
  • Seon meditation
  • Breakfast
  • Team work
  • Walking meditation
  • Pack and clean up


Program Name: Temple Life (2 hours)

Cost: 20,000 won

Time: 1-3pm

Days: Friday to Sunday


  • Arrive
  • Temple Tour
  • Making Beads
  • Tea and photo with Sunim (title for all Korean monks) Q&A with monk

For more information:

Where to stay

  • The Cello Motel (T: 041-841-5800) has clean and basic rooms for around 40-50 thousand won. It’s located right at the entrance of the temple road.
  • There are plenty of motels next to the bus station in Gongju.

Getting there

  • Take a train or bus to Daejeon, then a bus to Gongju about 45 min. to the west of Daejeon. From there you can find local busses that go out to the temple. They leave just across from the main bus station in Gongju.

[This article was published in the July 2014 issue of Seoul Magazine.]

Bridge Paradise Article 900x657 Bridge to Paradise: A Korean Temple Stay at Magoksa





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