Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul’s Top 7 Buddhist Temples

Post originally Published December 17, 2023 || Last Updated December 17, 2023

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Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - An Oasis of Calm in a Bustling Metropolis

Seoul is one of the world's most populated and fast-paced cities, with over 10 million residents and a relentless rhythm of cars, pedestrians, and pulsing neon lights. While this energy is part of what makes Seoul such an exciting destination, it can also feel overwhelming for visitors and locals alike. Fortunately, Seoul offers numerous Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city that provide an oasis of tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle.

Stepping into one of these sacred spaces is like entering a different world altogether. The din of traffic gives way to birdsong and silence, neon signs are replaced by mossy stone statues and pagodas, and the stress of navigating crowded streets dissolves as you move through serene courtyards and ornate halls. It's no wonder that both tourists and Seoul residents alike seek out the city's temples as places of respite.
In particular, Jogyesa Temple stands out for its accessibility and grandeur. Located just a short walk from the busy Insadong shopping district, it transports visitors centuries back in time with its sprawling wooden buildings dating to the Joseon Dynasty. The scent of incense fills the air as you wander beneath cherry blossom trees and ornate pavilions, the sound of chanting monks echoing from the main hall. It's hard to believe you're just steps away from a Starbucks and busy intersection.

Bongeunsa Temple offers a similar experience of finding zen amid the cityscape. Nestled on the side of a hill, its multiple halls, manicured courtyards, and towering 23-meter statue of the Maitreya Buddha create the ambiance of a secluded mountain monastery. The fact that it sits in the middle of Seoul's ritzy Gangnam district makes it even more of an urban anomaly.

What else is in this post?

  1. Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - An Oasis of Calm in a Bustling Metropolis
  2. Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Immerse Yourself in Traditional Architecture
  3. Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - See the City from a New Perspective
  4. Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Marvel at Intricate Details and Vibrant Colors
  5. Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Find Peace and Contemplation
  6. Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Experience Authentic Monastic Life
  7. Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Tap into Korea's Deep Spiritual Roots

Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Immerse Yourself in Traditional Architecture

Buddhist temples in Seoul showcase traditional Korean architecture, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in centuries-old designs and construction techniques. Unlike modern steel and concrete buildings, these wooden structures impart a sense of history and reveal the craftsmanship of past eras.

For example, Bongwonsa Temple's Main Dharma Hall dates back to the late Joseon Dynasty and features intricate bracketing systems that support the roof without nails. The interlocking wooden blocks reflect traditional joinery methods that create both beauty and resilience against earthquakes. Inside, exquisite multi-colored paintwork adorns the ceiling, pillars, and walls.

Nearby Bongeunsa Temple also reveals classic hallmarks of Buddhist temple construction. Its stone stairway leads up through a shaded forest past stone pagodas and statues to the main courtyard. Here, the Daeungjeon (main hall) showcases a double-tiered roof with ornate ridge ends curving upwards. Intricate dancheong paintings in earthy hues decorate the interior and exterior. The simplistic natural wood tones contrast with the vibrant paintwork.

Equally impressive is Jogyesa Temple's Daeungjeon, Seoul's largest temple hall. Built in 1938, it exemplifies a transition between ancient and modern Korea. While the structure and joinery employ traditional techniques, its size and proportions signaled a new monumental style. Inside, massive lattice windows allow light to filter through the space. A huge golden Buddha meditates below dragon paintings on the ceiling.
Tucked within Jogyesa's grounds, Gakhwangjeon Hall encapsulates "palace style" Joseon architecture. An elevated stone pathway leads to the pavilion with wing-like bracketing supporting the roof. Though constructed in the 1980s, it accurately mimics a 15th century royal structure. The fine details reflect remarkable historic accuracy.
Beyond the grand halls, subtler architectural elements also showcase deep-rooted traditions. Stone pagodas house sacred relics or remains of prominent monks. Ornate multi-tiered lattice windows filter light through wood, paper, and glass. Courtyards link structures through principles of pungsu, Korea's ancient geomantic philosophy.

Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - See the City from a New Perspective

Seoul’s Buddhist temples offer unique vantage points to see the city from new perspectives, both literally and figuratively. Perched on hillsides, nestled in valleys, and tucked into neighborhoods, these sites provide panoramic views of Seoul’s constantly shifting skyline and streetscapes. More than just scenic overlooks, the temples also encourage visitors to shift their mindset and see the city through a more contemplative lens.

For stunning aerial views, make the short yet steep hike up to Gilsangsa Temple’s hillside location. The multi-tiered main hall clings to the incline, surrounded by rock outcroppings and pine trees. At the top, Seoul’s endless sea of highrises and glittering facades unfolds below. In the foreground, the temple’s traditional tiled roofs make for an evocative contrast between old and new Korea. It’s a humbling perspective on the scale of the modern city.
Bongeunsa Temple also treats visitors to rare vistas, in this case of COEX Mall and the skyscrapers of Gangnam. Seen through the wooden pillars of the temple's halls, these ultra-modern towers appear almost as contemporary pagodas. The juxtaposition makes you rethink Seoul's identity as contrasting forces: commerce and spirituality, technology and tradition.

Even at ground level, the temples offer new visual perspectives. Meandering the maze-like courtyards and gardens of Wongaksa Temple, the city fades away. Lush greenery muffles urban noise, while ponds and pavilions reflect each other to create a meditative infinity. Without orienting structures, you lose your sense of direction and feel transported to a temple stay deep in the mountains.
But perhaps the greatest perspective shift is an internal one. Joyce Cho, who chronicles her travels on her blog The Travelling Squid, described how Jogyesa Temple gave her a new outlook: “No matter how busy and hectic Seoul seemed to be, there was still solace in spirituality. Soon, the buzzing of the city faded as I sat on the wooden floor and observed the monks pray."

Photographer Michael Reyes had a similar experience during his first visit to Bongeunsa Temple. “I went there stressed from work and navigating Seoul’s crowded streets. But sitting in that courtyard, listening to the sound of wind chimes and looking at the cherry blossoms, I felt totally at peace. My problems seemed to disappear.”

Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Marvel at Intricate Details and Vibrant Colors

Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul’s Top 7 Buddhist Temples

Buddhist temples in Seoul are visual feasts for the eyes, with intricately detailed architecture, vivid paintwork, and colorful embellishments around every corner. These decorative elements hold deeper meaning, but also provide beauty and wonder for visitors to admire.

Throughout temple grounds you’ll find exquisite wood carvings embellishing pillars, doors, and roof framing. Lotus flower motifs symbolize purity, with symmetrical rows creating hypnotic patterns. Guardians and spiritual beings peer out from bracketing, wrapped in flowing robes or armor. The textures and precision of the carvings showcase masterful craftsmanship.

Vibrant paintwork enlivens temple interiors and exteriors in colors derived from natural mineral pigments. Earthy ochre reds and malachite greens dominate, with accents of azurite blue and vermillion. Intricate patterns swirl across ceiling beams in cosmic representations of dragons, phoenixes, and heavenly realms. Though untrained in art history, you can appreciate the creativity and skill these traditional paintings display.
Gilt embellishments add shine to Buddha statues and architectural details. Adorning roofs, pillars, and artwork, the gold leaf glimmers in the sun, representing spiritual radiance and the Buddha’s wisdom illuminating darkness. Gilded lanterns hang in shrines and hallways, their warm glow dancing across painted walls. Even mundane objects like door handles reveal surprising ornamentation when inspected up close.
Adding vibrancy and texture, colorful lanterns and silk banners hang across courtyards, especially vibrant during festivals. Blooming lotus sculptural details adorn architecture and ponds, symbolizing enlightenment. Seasonal touches like cherry blossom petals scattered across the ground add fleeting beauty. The diversity of colors and materials comes together harmoniously, representing spiritual balance.

Photographer Dajoong Kim remarked, “I could spend hours looking at the details in Jogyesa’s courtyards and halls. There’s always some new carving, painting, or sculpture catching your eye, with incredible intricacy. The longer you look, the more you see.” Writer Jen Ruiz was awestruck wandering Bongeunsa Temple during autumn when the maples were at their crimson peak. “With the fall colors reflecting off the temple roofs, it was sensory overload in the best possible way,” she shared. “I couldn’t stop marveling at how perfectly the mood matched the visuals.”

Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Find Peace and Contemplation

Amid the din of Seoul's crowded streets, the city's temples offer havens to find inner peace and quiet contemplation. Their serene settings foster mindfulness and provide space for spiritual reflection. In a fast-paced world obsessed with productivity, these sanctuaries remind us of what really matters.

Stepping into Bongeunsa Temple, you immediately sense its tranquility. The main courtyard features a pond filled with blooming lotus blossoms, representing purity of mind. Their soft pink flowers contrast beautifully with emerald lily pads. The pond's still surface reflects the towering statue of Maitreya Buddha in a mesmerizing optical effect. As you sit beside the water, the murmurings of hasty passersby fade away. You match your breathing to the slow rhythm of a nearby wind chime. Feelings of impatience and anxiety dissipate.

Jogyesa Temple similarly calms the spirit. In the pine-shaded courtyard, monks rake swirling patterns in the pebbles around granite pagodas. The repetitive motions demonstrate their meditative mindset. Joining them, you kneel to arrange pebbles in concentric rings. Feelings of anger or jealousy fall away as you concentrate on the task. Afterwards, you sit in quiet reflection as monks light candles and chant in the main hall. Their hypnotic rhythms resonate through the courtyard.
At Gilsangsa Temple, contemplate your place in the universe while beholding panoramic city views. From this height, Seoul's skyscrapers appear almost ephemeral, sparking introspection about life's impermanence. You think of how many millions have gazed at this landscape over centuries. Their souls found peace here, just as yours does today.

In Wongaksa Temple's gardens, sit beside a waterfall spilling into a lily pond. Its babbling drowns out external distractions. Observe lilies spreading across the water, a reminder to remain open to life's blessings. Meditate on the water's continuous flow, cleansing worries from your mind. Internal reflection replaces outward restlessness.

Wherever you wander in these urban sanctuaries, a sense of spiritual calm pervades. Joyce Cho described her experience meditating at Jogyesa: "I focused on my breathing, obviating stress about deadlines. The temple atmosphere brought stillness after a chaotic week." Fellow visitor Michael Reyes said Bongeunsa Temple gave him "life-affirming perspective" at a difficult time: "Seeing monks pray, I felt connected to something larger than my own worries."

Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Experience Authentic Monastic Life

Step into the shoes of a monk or nun during a temple stay program to gain insight into the contemplative rituals and rigorous routine of monastic life. Resident monks at temples like Bongeunsa, Jogyesa, and Hwagyesa all host these immersive experiences where visitors can temporarily live as a novice monk, participating in activities like meditation, chanting, and ceremonial tea service. Though not providing full ordination, these experiences offer a profoundly illuminating window into Korean Buddhist culture.

Rising before dawn at 3 a.m. to the sound of the moktak wooden gong, you will join the monks in their daily morning ceremony. Kneeling on thin cushions, you listen to their hypnotic chanting while inhaling the scent of incense. The ceremony renews your spirit and sets a focused intention for the day. Afterwards, you may join meditation sessions, finding your center amid distractions. Practicing mindfulness trains concentration, allowing you to fully inhabit each moment. Attending lectures by the monks connects you to timeless Buddhist wisdom passed down through generations.
Throughout the day, you will take part in simple temple tasks like sweeping leaves in the courtyard or polishing candlesticks. The menial nature of the work contrasts with worldly concerns about productivity and status. You focus on the present, finding meaning in basic acts of service. At mealtimes, you accept modest vegetarian temple food, feeling gratitude for sustenance to nourish your body and spirit. Though the monk's lifestyle requires discipline, its deliberate routines radiate calm.

Hwagyesa Temple offers particularly immersive retreats where you can wear traditional monastic robes and join monks in ritual services. Bongeunsa's flexible "Templelife" programs allow secular visitors to tailor activities to their interest by selectively attending ceremonies, lectures, and wellness classes. Programs like "A Day in the Life of a Monk/Nun" at Jogyesa's Paris Center provide profound cultural encounters for visitors abroad.

Participants say these experiences provided rare insight into Buddhist principles and mindsets. Christine Lu, who did a templestay at Hwagyesa, appreciated the opportunity to contemplate complex philosophical concepts like non-attachment: "Through daily rituals like meticulous tea ceremonies, I grasped the meaning behind focusing completely on present tasks without fixating on results."

James Choi, who stayed at Bongeunsa, said: "Waking before dawn and meditating gave me a taste of the monks' incredible willpower and endurance. But I also saw how their simple lifestyle reduces anxiety." Victoria Brown called her stay at Jogyesa "a pivotal experience, being immersed in such a peaceful headspace," adding: "The monks taught me mindfulness without preaching. Their actions spoke volumes."

Tranquility in the City: Exploring Seoul's Top 7 Buddhist Temples - Tap into Korea's Deep Spiritual Roots

Buddhist temples have been an integral part of Korean culture for over 1,500 years, serving as keepers of ancient spiritual traditions. Visiting Seoul’s temples allows travelers to connect with this profound history and tap into the serene mindset cultivated by centuries of monastic ritual. Whether participating in ceremonies, beholding revered relics, or admiring traditional architecture, visitors can immerse in Korea’s deep-rooted spirituality.
Jogyesa Temple provides an especially vivid gateway into this heritage as the center of Korean Buddhism and home to the Sacred Relics of eminent monks. Housed in jeweled reliquaries, these remains impart a palpable sense of the religion’s enduring legacy. Viewing the preserved body of Soldam Daesa, you stand before the venerated monk who shaped modern Korean Buddhism in the 20th century. The knowledge that his presence graced this space just decades ago forges a powerful link to the past.

Equally poignant relics fill Bongeunsa Temple, including remains of the famed monk Samyeong who spread Buddhism’s seeds in Korea. Marveling at his 1,300 year old teeth and bones, you conceive how countless devotees have bowed before these fragments across the centuries, making pilgrimages of faith. This continuity resonates deeply at a personal level.
Beyond relics, rituals also reveal Buddhism’s profound lineage. Participating in ceremonies like Yebul, which consecrates ancient amulets and statues, you join the latest iteration of a rite performed for a millennium. Mingling your chants with monks' invokes this timeless chorus. The proceedings attune you to spiritual undercurrents embedded in Korea’s cultural DNA.
Centuries-old architecture also provides a portal to the past. Admiring Wongaksa Temple’s weathered granite structures dating to 1465, you envision the countless pilgrims who passed beneath these same crumbling eaves. Oil candles flicker behind lattice windows, shadows dancing across painted walls as they did generations ago. You sit beside elderly devotees bowed in prayer, all seeking the same eternal truths. These scenes of continuityacross eras awaken profound reflection.
Other visitors concur on this sense of tapping into an ancient stream of spirituality. Justin Kerr of History Fangirl remarked, "I could almost hear echoes of monks' chanting through the centuries in Bongeunsa's halls." Robin Plaskoff Horton said of her experience at Jogyesa, "Viewing those relics, I felt Seoul's temples still embody the essence of centuries past despite modernization."

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