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[Weekender] Can't get a date? Try a temple ... or city hall

Buddhist organization and local city governments step in to create opportunities for singles to find partners

Dec. 2, 2023 - 16:00 By Hwang Dong-hee
Participants attend a mass blind date event called "Solomon’s Choice," in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Sept. 23. (Seongnam City)

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, a group of people dressed in Buddhist vests and pants strolled slowly around a pagoda at Jogyesa, making wishes and touring different corners of the Buddhist temple in Jongno-gu, Seoul.

What seemed like a customary temple stay turned out to be an unusual affair.

The 20 men and women were participating in a “dating” temple stay. They were gathered for the purpose of finding potential romantic partners over the weekend.

"Meeting Temple Stay," organized by the Korean Buddhist Foundation for Social Welfare, affiliated with the Jogye Order, is back after a three-year break during COVID-19 pandemic. The two-day event, held Nov. 18-19, welcomed participants in their 20s and 30s regardless of their faith.

The response was overwhelming. The organizers received a staggering 1,600 phone inquiries and 500 registrations. More than 1,000 additional inquiries poured in even after the application deadline.

Ven. Myojang (right) greets participants of the Meeting Temple Stay program held at Jogyesa Temple in Jongno, Seoul, Nov. 18. (Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism)

When the 10 male participants settled into their seats in a row with a large table at the center, the 10 female participants followed suit, facing them. At first, an awkward tension hung in the air. Not making eye contact, most just gazed into empty space.

During the first self-introduction, nervous voices and blushing became noticeable. With the guidance of a relationship coach, however, the event gradually warmed up.

A 37-year-old female participant, wearing a red Rudolph headband, introduced herself. "Although we’re in a (Buddhist) temple, I brought this (headband) to embody religious harmony. I hope to find someone with whom I click and spend this Christmas together," she said.

Participants took turns talking briefly about where they live, what they do for a living, and their hobbies.

The participants' ages spanned from 28 to 37, with the majority in their early 30s. Occupations varied including government officials, police officers, elementary school teachers, as well as software developers and researchers.

They spent time getting to know each other in pairs, selecting partners based on initial impressions and engaging in conversations to discover similarities. The room quickly filled with the lively sounds of chatter and laughter.

Participants clap during a game at the Meeting Temple Stay program held at Jogyesa Temple in Jongno, Seoul, Nov. 18. (Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism)

A 32-year-old male participant surnamed Won said, “My life is quite monotonous -- it usually revolves around work and home, with few opportunities to meet new people. I applied because I wanted to meet some people outside of my usual social circle,” he said.

“I didn’t expect to have so much fun. This feels like I’m in one of those reality dating shows,” said one female participant. “I often go on temple stays on my own as I’m a Buddhist. I applied for the program because I saw it as an opportunity to meet new people, and at the same time, I could spend a night at a temple.”

The event continued with a temple food dinner and then a tea party. After an early bedtime at 8:30 p.m. and a morning stroll in a nearby park the following day, the participants were seen exchanging numbers and making plans for future dates.

The “Meeting Temple Stay,” which began in 2012 and is now in its 32nd edition, saw an unprecedented level of interest this year, prompting organizers to close the applications within half a day. Due to its popularity, the Jogye Order opened another round of dating temple stay for December.

“While monks are single, we live in a communal setting. I am concerned about the growing number of young people living alone,” Ven. Myojang, president of the Korean Buddhist Foundation for Social Welfare, told The Korea Herald.

“We are astonished by the response. I believe it is also linked to the popularity of temple stays. Participants come to meet new people, enjoying a retreat without the pressure of feeling obligated to date.”

Participants attend a mass blind date event called "Solomon’s Choice," in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Sept. 23. (Seongnam City)

Another unlikely modern-day matchmaker is the local city government.

Many small and big cities have been organizing mass blind dates or similar events in recent years, targeting 20- and 30-somethings who live or work in their communities. Jinju and Gimhae in South Gyeongsang; Andong and Daegu in North Gyeongsang; Cheongju in North Chungcheong Province, to name a few, offer such programs.

Korea has recorded the world's lowest birth rate for three consecutive years, reaching a record low of 0.84 in 2020, 0.81 in 2021 and 0.78 in 2022, according to Statistics Korea.

Such figures have spurred an increasing number of cities to take matters into their own hands, actively sponsoring dating events.

One that is in the spotlight is Seongnam in Gyeonggi Province. The city recently organized its fifth and final round of mass blind dates, this year, called "Solomon’s Choice," held in a fancy hotel ballroom decorated with pink balloons, on Nov. 19.

The latest event yielded 23 couples from a total of 100 participants, the city said.

A total of 460 people have participated in five rounds of mass dating events, resulting in 99 matches this year. That is, 198 individuals left the event as "couples," agreeing to exchange contact information. A total of 2,571 people signed up for the event.

“A negative attitude toward marriage continues to spread in Korean society. It is the role of city governments to create comfortable conditions so that people who do want to get married can find partners,” said Seongnam Mayor Shin Sang-jin at the Nov. 19 event.

Seongnam City is planning to organize another series of mass dating events next year.