Last Saturday, Therese and I packed overnight bags and made our way to the inner city bus terminal in Pohang to take a forty minute ride to Gyeongju.
The nearby city is known as a religious hub in South Korea, with the largest collection of historical temples and ruins in the country. Therese and I were on a mission to find one temple in particular, Golgulsa, where we would spend the night and experience the daily routines of buddhist monks.
When we arrived at the temple we were greeted by a friendly fellow named Scott. Originally from California he had come to Golgulsa for a temple stay and enjoyed it so much he signed on as a volunteer.
He was in his fifth month at the temple and helped us sign in, assigned us a room and gave us our uniforms for the weekend – brown Thai fishermen style pants that are quite baggy but fitted around the ankles and a yellow tunic vest.
The temple is located in the hills of Gyeongju with buildings placed along a winding path up a mountain. At the top stands a massive Buddha that was carved into the rock face in the 6th century by Indian monks. Although there are many temples in the city we made Golgulsa our destination partly because of the statue and partly because it specializes in Sunmudo training. Sunmudo is a buddhist martial art that combines elements of yoga and meditation. To be a monk at Golgulsa you must also be a master of Sunmudo, teaching and training others.
As soon as we were checked in we started up the hill to one of the buildings for archery practice. We were greeted by about 10 other temple stay guests including some young Korean boys staying at the temple with their fathers over their winter holidays. One of the Sunmudo masters was leading the archery course, and with some help of one of the Korean guests who spoke English, managed to tell Therese and I how to stand, position our bows and aim. I think we were both surprised when our first arrows hit the target 30 metres away and were even a little smug by the time the session concluded.
Following our archery lesson we had some free time to explore so we walked to the top of the hill, past statues, dormitories, the dining hall and various shrines to Buddha on the way. We arrived at the top in time to join other tourists for a Sunmudo display, an hour-long demonstration of the martial art.
Three male masters and one female performed different aspects of Sunmudo, from the yoga-inspired stretching, to traditional Korean-style dance to acrobatic high kicks and back flips. I was particularly taken by the beauty of a knife dance that was performed, the bright colours of the hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and the sharp edge of the knives contrasting with the natural setting of the stage that overlooked the neighboring mountains.
At five o’clock we headed toward the dining hall for dinner, joining the other temple stay guests and sunmudo masters for the meal.
The food was vegan fare, some potatoes, rice, kimchi, pickled bean sprouts and radish, a muddy soup with chunks of soggy tofu and a sugared rice cake. Guests sit on the floor around raised platforms and are supposed to eat in silence as a form of meditation. The men and women sit on separate sides of the narrow dining room and everyone must eat everything they are given.
Following dinner we bundled up for a walk back down the mountain for our official orientation. During this time we were taught about the temple’s history and hierarchy as well as how to meditate, bow and follow along during chanting services held throughout the day.
By 6:30 our orientation gave way to our first chanting service lead by one of the temple’s monks. All the guests knelt in rows on small brown cushions facing a shrine to Buddha while the monk pounded a gong and a wooden block signaling the different portions of the chant. Whenever we heard multiple hits of the woodblock in concession we knew it was time to do a formal bow which involves a half bow standing followed by three full bows from standing to kneeling with your forehead touching the floor then back up to standing.
The evening chanting lasted about half and hour. I struggled for 27 of the 30 minutes to find my place on the printed Korean chanting words while Therese tried not to giggle whenever we got lost.
We spent the rest of the evening in our Sunmudo training, working up a sweat stretching, doing ab work, kicking and punch the air. For the training the temple stay guests were joined by Sunmudo masters and trainees who counted out our movements and assisted with our form.
I found my regular yoga practice aided in my flexibility and balance for Sunmudo, but I struggled with some of the fighting movements, loosing rhythm and timing for the multiple punches with threw. At the time I didn’t feel worked to hard but the next day both Therese and I were surprised to find our core quite sore.
After Sunmudo we called it a night turning into our cozy little room in time for lights out at 10 o’clock. I was surprised to find Therese and I had our own room at the temple, rather than dormitory style sleeping like I had anticipated. Instead we had a small bathroom and heat bedroom to ourselves with blankets laid on the heated floor.
The next morning we awoke at 4 a.m. to the sound of a woodblock and chanting outside our window. Each morning one of the monks started at the massive Buddha carving at the top of the mountain winding his way down the hill chanting and hitting the wood block rhythmically signalling the start of the day. We knew we had to be at morning chanting at the top of the mountain at 4:30 a.m. or face the punishment of completing 3000 bows so we rolled out of bed, put on as many layers as we could and started the trek up the hill.
Despite the early hour I think the morning chanting and meditation was my favourite part of the Golgulsa experience. Walking up the mountain by moon light and entering the small temple area with its colourful altar was a unique experience I will recall for years to come.
All the temple’s monks (there are only 5 or 6), the Sunmudo masters and temple stay guests attend the morning chanting followed by half an hour of sitting meditation and half and hour of walking meditation outside. I had much more luck with my chanting the second time, following along with my lyric sheet and getting most of the bows in the right places without having to look around for confirmation.
During the siting meditation Therese and I both struggled to stay awake, but we were both engaged during the walking meditation which had almost a trance like vibe as we followed a monk in circles around one of the many statues on the temple grounds.
By 6 a.m. we had already done three forms of worship and we were ready for Baru Gong Yang, a special Buddhist Dharma meal practice in which we all sit on the floor and receive our food in four different bowls, keeping each part of the meal separate and eating in complete silence, cleaning our bowls with warm water then drinking the water so as not to waste a single morsel.
Therese and I were quite nervous for this portion of the temple stay as it is quite religious and a sign of disrespect to make a mistake in the very regimented order of events. You have to receive clean water first in your largest bowl, which you use to rinse each bowl pouring the water from one to another without making a sound.
Next you receive rice in your largest bowl, soup in the second, and side dishes (like kimchi and sprouts) in the third leaving the fourth with the remaining cold water. You then eat your food with your bowl held up against your face so no one can see your mouth or your chewing, eating in a limited amount of time before the head monk signals the end of the meal and hot water is passed around to wash out the bowls that MUST be empty.
Luckily we both managed to make it through the meal without making any mistakes and had accomplished more by 7 a.m. than I do most days by noon.
At 8 a.m. we returned to the dining hall to participate in a tea ceremony and lecture from the temple’s head monk. During this time we were invited to ask him any questions we had about Buddhism, the temple, the culture – it seemed no topics were off-limits.
We asked about how he became a monk and why, we asked what women’s roles are in the Buddhist religion and we asked if he had ever completed 3000 bows (he had – twice!) We also asked about Sunmudo and its significance to Buddhism and to that temple in particular. It was an interesting hour of candid conversation where he asked about us, where we were from and what brought us to Golgulsa, and we in turn to talk about anything with him.
By the time this portion of the temple stay had finished it was 9:30 a.m. and the sun was finally up so we took some time to climb back up the mountain to the massive Buddha carving where we completed our bows and took in the landscape.
It was 11 o’clock when we wandered back down the hill toward our room and Therese and I were exhausted. We had planned to visit a nearby city, Busan later that day but instead opted to pack up and take the bus back to Pohang where we spent the afternoon napping, watching Gilmore Girls and drinking tea before calling it an early night.
I know this is a longer post but thank you for hanging in! The experience was so unique I couldn’t resist sharing every aspect with you here.