Kicking Back (and Kicking) Like a Monk in Korea
Story and photos by Michael Buckley

To gain insight into the lifestyle of South Korean monks who practice martial arts moves—but solo—Michael Buckley tries on their underfed life on to see how well it fits.

monk mural

The tiny temple structure parked on the ridge–top bears some curious murals on the exterior walls. Monks taking flying leaps. Monks posing in fighting stances. Monks with spears, ready to do battle.

These are unlike any other temple murals you will stray across in South Korea, for two reasons. The first is that the ancient temple on this site burned down about twenty years ago. The present structure is entirely rebuilt: the murals are modern. And the second reason: Golgulsa is headquarters for practitioners of Sunmudo—a branch of Zen Buddhism that employs a unique mix of yoga, meditation and martial arts moves.

The Zen tradition of Sunmudo, which traces a long history in Korea, was nearly lost due to adverse circumstances. It was revived in the 1960s, and continues on a small scale. At Golgulsa, about ten monks study under the supervision of the Grand Master. Historically, Korean monks were trained at special temples like this as a fighting force—ready to be called up for patriotic duties. But over time, this particular lineage was alternatively disrupted or forced into secrecy. The practice was banned when the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910, occupying the nation until 1945.

For me, travel is as much about experiences as sights. With a temple stay at Golgulsa in South Korea, you get both: sight and insight. Set in lush greenery here is the oldest cave–temple in Korea, dug straight into a mountain–side to shelter Buddhist statuary. It is thought to be over 1,500 years old. Honeycombing the surrounding area are a dozen smaller recesses. Presiding over all this is a large standing Buddha, carved out of a sheer rock–face.

The setting is extraordinary, but just looking at the temples is superficial. To delve deeper—to find out what goes on behind the scenes—you need to see the temples in action, with monks practicing, and ceremonies in motion. These activities mostly take place in the evening or at dawn, when tourists are not around. That way, distractions are minimized.


Living the Monk's Life
I have checked into Golgulsa for the weekend, along with a handful of other Westerners. Although Golgulsa is exclusively for monks, it accepts visitors of both sexes for short stays, with the proviso that men and women are kept strictly apart—for meals, for lodging, all aspects.

Our motley crew comprises Lisa and Martin, Dutch backpackers; Ian, an American teaching English in Seoul, along with his friend Nick, a lawyer visiting from the US; Kimberley, another American teaching English; and Karen, an earnest Canadian who is taking part in some high–powered conference and wants a quiet weekend break from the big city.

On arrival on Saturday afternoon, a Frenchman who has spent considerable time at the temple gives us a brief orientation. He coordinates activities for visitors—apparently because of his command of English. He explains all the arcane temple rules: if you are late for activities, you must do a thousand bows as punishment. Seems a bit harsh.

Dinner is vegetarian, just rice and a few vegetables. A simple meal, bland to the taste and not filling, nor fortifying. The monks are eating in a curtained–off section, hidden from view, which strikes me as decidedly odd.

Korea taekwondo

The evening moves into gear at the main practice hall. At the front sit shaven–headed monks in grey robes, with a few novices in dark–brown robes. Further back are the visitors, wearing orange vests and baggy orange pants supplied by the temple. Sutra chanting proceeds in Korean, but a translation guide is provided.

Evening exercise: the head monk is beating a stick to keep time. We copy the yoga moves being demonstrated up front. The pace picks up, with more strenuous balance poses. The monks move to an outside platform, out of view again. The French instructor takes over. He explains that focus is key. As the intensity mounts, you need to maintain the focus. As a demonstration of this principle, we whirl arms like propellers. Slow at first, to warm up, then much faster, as if about to take off.

He outlines some faster kicking maneuvers—the signature moves of Sunmudo. Combined with balance poses, these are tough to get right. Feeling wiped from the exertion, I stagger back to bed—which consists of a thin quilt on a wooden floor. Lights out at ten.

Meditated Walking in the Forest
Up bright and early, feeling awful. A gong announces that it's 4am. I'm struggling to make my way in the dark, back to the meditation hall for another round of chanting, led by one of the monks. At the conclusion of this, seven bleary–eyed Westerners follow the monk out, bound uphill for the dining hall. He indicates that we are to proceed in single file. There's no particular rush; he is moving in slow motion. This is walking meditation, with the focus on each footstep. In the dawn light, it's a bizarre experience. I'm wondering if I have hallucinated the whole thing and am actually sleep–walking in a trance, like a zombie.

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