All the monks have gathered in the dining hall today. Sunday is the day for a special ceremonial breakfast. There's lots of ritual involved—too much ritual for my liking. The bowls are stacked in a certain order, the food has to be eaten in strict order, and the bowls cleaned and re–stacked. No talking is permitted. Another bland meal: no juice, no grains except for rice, minimal vegetables, and tofu. I have learned that blandness comes with the territory: spices like garlic are avoided in temple life. There is one exception, it seems—kimchi (fermented cabbage) adds a sharper taste. Can't survive in Korea without kimchi.
The tea–time interlude that follows later in the morning is much more pleasant and open. The whole idea here is to talk, to ask questions. The head monk whisks the green tea, and hands out bowls of it. Question and answer proceeds in translation. What's the biggest group that has visited Golgulsa? The US Army, says the monk. Two hundred soldiers—but just for an afternoon.
Let loose from the constraints of silence, we pepper the head monk with questions: about monastic beliefs, about the temple lineage, about how novices are recruited. His frank answers cause ripples of laughter. I throw in a question alluding to the meager vegetarian food at the temple: how can this minimal diet sustain high–energy exercise? For strenuous physical activity you need lots of carbohydrates and protein. Is tofu enough to fuel all this? The head monk dodges the question, but the French instructor reveals that he sometimes goes out of the monastery for a protein hit. I'm not sure if he has translated that back into Korean for the head monk.
And here's the biggest puzzle of all, for me: if Sunmudo promotes martial arts, why are all the exercises done solo? Surely some of them need to be interactive, with a sparring partner, like the Korean national sport of taekwondo. Or the Cambodian martial art of bokator, or the secret Brazilian fighting art of capoeira. The head monk tells us that Sunmudo practice is a form of dynamic meditation, but to my ears, the explanation falls short.
Every Sunday afternoon at Golgulsa, at the outdoor wooden deck at the top temple, the monks put on a demonstration of yoga flexibility and martial arts moves. Executing extreme yoga moves, they are mimicking the rapid movements of animals, like tiger or monkey. The novices take acrobatic leaps, flying through the air. The temple murals come to life.
I have great admiration for the novice monks. It must take great powers of endurance, focus and discipline to practice here for months—or years. Just staying for a day has worn me out, but that's more than a physical reaction: I'm chafing at the bit when it comes to the stringent rules and rituals. There's no scope for individualism here: the temple rules are structured around complete uniformity. Yet I learn that in the past some Westerners have stayed at Golgulsa, like the monks, for months or even years.
My brief time at the monastery is up. So what do I take away with me from this? Well, definitely an altered vision of what monastic life is like. Not as calming as I thought. Not as contemplative. More regimented and disciplined than I imagined, and more austere. One thing I really liked was the method of holding focus, no matter what the speed of the exercise. What is focus? Why do we lose it so easily?
I liked the zombie walk—the slow focus of walking meditation—the slowing down of a normal activity to make it suddenly seem extraordinary. A few other things I take away with me: a sore back and strained leg muscles. And a strong desire to head for the nearest pizza parlor in nearby Gyeongju.
Golgulsa Temple is located 20 km from the town of Gyeongju, which is about five hours by rapid train service from Seoul. Overnight stays at Golgulsa are 50,000 won (roughly US$50). Gyeongju (also spelled Kyongju) is a popular tourist destination, with a number of key temple sites scattered in mountain zones within reach of the town, like stunning Sokkuram Grotto at Bulguksa.
Golgulsa is the only Sunmudo temple on the roster of over a hundred Buddhist temples in South Korea that host guests on a paying basis. The basic program is an overnight visit; longer stays can be arranged. Activities range from sitting meditation and tea ceremonies to helping with community work at the temple. The temple stay program grew out of pressing demand for extra accommodation at the time of the World Cup in Seoul in 2002. The program is coordinated from the Temple Stay Information Center, in Seoul. Located opposite Jogyesa Temple in the capital city, the information center serves tea brewed from leaves grown at different monasteries. To find out more, there's detailed information in English at www.templestay.com/.
Guidebook author Michael Buckley often writes about the Tibetan form of Buddhism. He has a book website at himmies.com, plus another website devoted to problems with rivers and dams in Tibet at: meltdownintibet.com/.
Tibet, a Third Eye, and Our Journeys Through Time by Michael Buckley
Monks on a Cliff Top at Ethiopia's Debre Damo by Steve Davey
Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon by Tony Robinson–Smith
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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