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K-pop fans turn to Korean culture

Participants attend a meditation session led by the Ven. Haein. Photo by Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald

Publication Date : 27-08-2012


It was definitely K-pop that led Athina Olaussen, a university student in La Rochelle, a western port city of France, to Korea.

“I love BIG BANG and 2NEI. I think their music is great as well as the way they are dressed. And they are not common … their music is definitely unique from the others,” she said.

“In France, we don’t have any bands … most French people find it (young idol groups) weird. But we young people want to have fun by watching shows or listening to K-pop music. They (Korean artists) know how to dance and their stage has been always perfect. This is really amazing,” she said.

But the 19-year-old never knew of the spiritual side of Korean culture beyond the flashy world of K-pop before she stepped into Jeondeung-sa, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Korea.

Overwhelmed by the solemn atmosphere at the temple that dates back more than 500 years, Olaussen and her travel mates stopped talking about BIG BANG, T-ara and Psy’s latest hit song “Gangnam Style.” As a monk demonstrated how to perform prostrations and etiquette at the temple, the European K-pop fans become serious, even tense, making sure they were following the rules correctly.

Sitting with their legs crossed was the most difficult part of the meditation session, they said.

But the experience helped them look into their inner-self, giving them a window into a religious culture distinct from the largely Christian West.

“The seunim said we could learn about ourselves through the programme. I was really curious about how that is possible since I’ve never done it before,” said Olaussen, who along with 46 French K-pop fans completed a two-day Templestay programme on August 16-17.

“It was impressive that we can find something from our inner-self through meditation,” said a French journalist accompanying the group.

The templestay programme was a part of a pilot programme, “Voyage Hallyu,” designed by the Korea Tourism Organisation to offer a deeper understanding of Korean culture.

The Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism, a cultural arm of the Jogye Order, the largest Buddhist sect here, supported the programme. Templestay, operated by the religious group, is a cultural programme that allows people to stay in mountainside temples and participate in Zen meditation, early-morning chanting and daily chores.

Participants also are offered temple food. The food that Buddhist monks eat is comprised mostly of wild vegetables, roots and husks of trees foraged in mountainous regions. Seasonings are used sparingly to emphasis the original flavor of the main ingredients.

Templestay was one of the cultural projects introduced during the Korea-Japan World Cup in 2002 as part of the government’s effort to offer the world a better understanding of the country’s traditional culture. In the last decade, however, the programmes have been gaining popularity both at home and abroad for their unique roles in delivering Korean culture as well as offering a rare chance to contemplate the meaning of life and heal the tired mind while surrounded by nature.

The popularity of K-pop, in particular, has led foreign eyes to traditional Korean culture and also to Korean Buddhism, a major contributor to the development of the country’s art and culture.

“By visiting the temple you can clearly understand how Korean culture has developed to what it is right now. I now can see that Korea has a mix of traditional culture and K-pop and this defines its culture today,” said Olaussen.

A couple from Luxembourg agreed.

“I knew that there are a lot of religions in Korea, particularly with strong (presence of) Christian (communities). I could see that there’s tolerance in relation to (different types of) religion. And Buddhism seems to be very open,” said Vincent Tronet, who is on a three-week summer vacation in Korea to make his daughter’s dream come true ― meet K-pop stars.

“Our daughter wanted to come to Korea because she loves K-pop. Since she cannot travel alone, we decided to travel together. We are not fans yet, my daughter is,” he said.

Waking up at 4:00am on day two, the participants went through the 108 prostrations, showing reverence to the Triple Gem ― comprised of the Buddha, his teachings and the spiritual community. A formal and ceremonial breakfast that was designed to avoid food wastage followed. A walk in the woods was the highlight of the programme, according to participants, saying they experienced the calm of mother nature.

“What people can learn from the templestay programme is how to control their bewildering mind in the peaceful surroundings at the temple. By discovering the relationship between the nature and the self, one can stay calm even after they go back to their daily lives,” said Ven. Beomwoo, chief monk at Jeondeung-sa.

By appreciating the philosophy behind the architectural beauty of hanok surrounded by nature, one will realize that the building is a part of nature as well as we are, the monk added.

Jeondeung-sa, located on Mount Jeongrok, is believed to have been built by Monk Adohwasang of Goguryeo. It was named Jeondeung temple after Queen Jeonhwa presented a jade lantern to the temple during the reign of King Chungryeol (1274-1308).

The cultural department of Jogye Order said they picked the temple because it is one of the oldest temples in Korea and it is quite accessible ― it is only some 60 kilometres away from Seoul where most of the participants are staying.

The temple is home to significant architectural work, including the main building Daeungbojeon. The building is decorated with delicate carvings that represent the architecture of the mid-Joseon Dynasty. It is also known as the battle site where the Joseon army protected the island from the French invasion in 1866.

Jeondeungsa is one of 16 selected temples for foreigners around the country. The 16 temples run foreigner-friendly programmes and offer English translation services.

The number of temples offering Templestay programmes across the country has surged from 33 in 2002 to 118 last year. About 1.9 million people have participated in the programme as of late last year. In 2011 alone about 190,000 people, including 25,000 foreign travelers, joined the programme, officials at the group said.

For more information on templestay, visit or download the free templestay app offered for iPad users.


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