Learning Meditation in South Korea’s Golgulsa Temple

Upper temple at Golgulsa Temple, Buddhist temple near Gyongju, Korea. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We would spend a couple of days in a Korean temple, sampling the Buddhist life of meditation and prayer. My husband, after all, is Buddhist.

Meditation isn’t exactly what we got. At least not as much as I expected. Instead, it was a chance to taste Korean martial arts and watch experienced masters practice Sunmudo, a physical exercise that makes Kung Fu look like gym 101. All this did, though, come with a bit of mindfulness, vegan food and a REALLY early wakeup call.

The schedule, along with the rules, were tacked up on the wall of the communal bedrooms:

  • 4 am wake up
  • 4:30 am chanting and meditation (followed by a 30 minute contemplative walk in the woods)
  • 6:50 am breakfast
  • 8:30 am Sunmudo training
  • 10 am tea ceremony
  • 11 am 108 bows
  • 11:50 am lunch
  • 2 pm work
  • 5:50 pm dinner
  • 7 pm chanting
  • 7:30 pm Sunmudo training
  • 10 pm lights out

In Your Bucket Because….

  • You are curious about another way of life
  • You don’t mind spartan conditions or waking up before dawn
  • You are seeking a bit of peace but don’t mind some other activities
  • Good for: people who are open to exploring new things

And below this, was a warning: “No alcohol, no smoking, no yelling. Be on time. Break rules, 1080 bows. Miss morning chant, 3,000 bows.”

And a final rule: “No associating with the other gender.”

Which meant the two of us slept in separate rooms, which here literally meant separate floors. Each room was large, plain and lined with a heated linoleum floor upon which we placed our quilted sleeping mat, pillow and comforter. Heated floors go back thousands of years in Korea. With their winters, they need it.

East Meets West at  Golgulsa Temple

It’s not like Buddhist temples haven’t always welcomed guests. But this is different, maybe because at the Korean temples, you are not just a boarder but a participant.

Golgulsa Temple, in southeast Korea, is a collection of pagodas with traditional brightly painted clay tiles lining the eaves. The temple grounds climb a road lined with these pagodas. A quarter mile from the main buildings, at the bottom of a windy, steep road suitable for mountain goats or penitents, is the Sunmudo training school.

When we arrived, our English link to all this, Norwegian monk Sveinivar Ringheim, was chatting with the handful of other western visitors next to the coffee machine. Machine coffee at 30 cents a pop is one of Korea’s wonderful little surprises. And while the monks don’t partake, there’s no rule against visitors swigging enough caffeine to get them going well before dawn.

“We are getting more and more western visitors,” Ringheim said, while scratching the ears of Golgulsa’s Korean Jindo dogs. The pups, appropriately, wear Buddhist prayer beads instead of dog collars.

Dinner that night was rice, sweet potatoes and an assortment of vegetable dishes: the ubiquitous kimchi (marinated cabbage), sprouts, greens, spinach broth. Then we trekked down the hill to the Sunmudo school.

Instructor does kick during Sunmudo training at Golgulsa Temple, Buddhist temple near Gyongju, Korea. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

The training room looks like a huge gym, albeit with a shrine at one end. The floors are hardwood and around the walls are handrails, like you’d find at a ballet school.

We kneeled on cushions and the chanting began. It’s more like singing — a rhythmic, melodious roller coaster of harmonized sounds with lots of bowing. The meditation with crossed legs in lotus was a chance to empty our minds and let the extraneous worries of the day drain away, along with all sensation in our feet.

But then we started a series of stretches — toes, ankles, knees, arms, neck, waist and several backbend movements that are truly not meant for the human body and at one point had us on our backs, bent double with our toes touching the floor behind our heads.

The westerners wound up at one end of the room with Ringheim, who led us through “Bowing 101” — how to hold our hands, how far to bend, how to kneel and even where to place our toes in the process.

And then we got to watch the experts.

If you think Korean Buddhist monks just sit around praying and chanting, you haven’t seen Sunmudo. Actually, in past centuries, the monks were the backbone of Korea’s warrior army. For centuries, Sunmudo was kept secret, taught only in temples, until Grand Master Seol Jeog-un began teaching it to the public in 1992. Sunmudo done by a master looks like something from a Jackie Chan movie with weightless jumps, twists and kicks. It’s a combination of gymnastics, yoga, meditation and martial arts but with a focus on Buddhist beliefs and breathing, Ringheim explained.

By the time we hiked back to our sleeping quarters, it was time for bed. And six hours later, on the dot, the wake up drum began — an insistent clacking of a wooden block just outside our doors so strong, it seemed to pass into our bones.

The Chants of Early Morning

Morning prayers and chants take place at the temple near the top of Golgulsa’s grounds. The 20 minute meditation at this hour of the morning, surrounded by the temple paintings and the dark of early morning, was truly soothing. Then, after breakfast, there was a special, unscheduled tea for the westerners.

Grand Master Seol Jeog-un surprised each of us with a picture of ourselves from the Sunmudo training the night before, then settled down to answer questions.

Most visitors want to taste temple life and Korean Buddhism at its source. But some come with personal problems and questions. “Buddhism teaches you to see what you are and how to answer questions. This is how you can relieve stress from the outside,” another temple abbot had said earlier.

The Grand Master talked about this and also about the temple stay program, itself. It began with the 2002 World Cup games. The government, realizing there weren’t nearly enough hotel rooms for athletes, much less fans, asked temples to take in guests. The program was so popular, it never stopped.

Today, there are more close to two dozen participating temples hosting thousands of visitors. Some temples specialize in rest, others in meditation, still others in martial arts training.

After tea, we headed back down for more training. This time it got serious. We even attempted kicks and one legged balancing. But the real students, behind us, were virtually levitating in a series of split jumps where they touched their toes with their fingers.

Grand Master Jeog un Seol talks to western visitors at Golgulsa Temple, Buddhist temple near Gyongju, Korea. Photo by Yvette Cardozo.

Despite the warrior aspects of all this, instructor Sun Kyung-moon insisted, “Our aim is not fighting skill, it is to purify the body and mind and get enlightenment. You can get this not only sitting but also walking and even in martial arts. “Our purpose in Sunmudo is unifying mind and body. Western people think mind and body are separate but Eastern people think they are one. If you practice your mind, you should also practice and discipline your body.”

Mercifully, an hour later, we were spared further enlightenment through the usually scheduled 108 bows (one for each of the sufferings encountered throughout life’s stages). The monks were tied up with a group of special visitors.

Yes, I was sore. Yet in just two days I was doing stretches that I never thought possible. If this was achieved in just a couple of days, what would a week bring? It’s a tempting thought.

Practicalities

  • Temple stay programs are offered in 19 Korean temples, though not all are open to visitors year-round. Daily activities run the gamut from rigorous training to making lotus lanterns, prayer beads and temple rubbings. Some temples focus more on physical training, others on inner spirit or peace.
  • Programs range from half a day to several days with the 24-hour overnight stay being most popular. Prices range from $20 to $40 US per night for the basic overnight program. Training, prayer and meditation, crafts, food and lodging are included.
  • Lodging is usually rustic and traditional, meaning two or three people of the same gender share a room and sleep on mats on the floor. Though bedding is provided, at our temple, towels were not. And you definitely want to shower after training, so bring your own towel and soap. Food is strictly vegetarian and eaten seated on the floor in traditional style with metal chopsticks.
  • Temple stay information
  • General Korea information

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