One of the best ways to get a good look at Korean Buddhism is to spend a weekend at one of the country’s many temples, often nestled deep in the mountains. My husband and I decided early in our first year of teaching in Korea that an overnight temple stay program would be a great opportunity for us to learn more about our host country.
We decided on a temple in Gyeongju, a city in southeast Korea known as “a museum without walls” for its old, scenic, and storied temples. I made reservations online at Golgulsa (Golgul temple), one of a host of participating temples that allow foreigners a unique opportunity to experience Korean Buddhism. Here’s what it looks like:
Korean Buddhists have martial arts tied in closely with their religion, which was brought in from China in the early 6th century. Korean monks were often trained in martial arts and even played a major role in resisting the Japanese invasions in the 1590s.
Golgulsa is famous for sunmudo, a Korean martial art that blends taekwondo with Buddhism doctrines. Golgulsa is also known for its temple built inside a cave and the Buddha carved in the mountainside, which dates back to Korea’s Shill dynasty in the 6th century.
On our first evening at the temple and monastery, we ate dinner with the monks. All of the men in the small room sat on the right. The women sat on the left. We ate the traditional temple meal of rice, kimchi (spicy cabbage), soybean soup, and a few vegetables.
It was after dinner when we had our first lesson in sunmudo. Sitting cross-legged on yoga mats on the floor, we bowed again and again to the head monk before we started the exercise. The men sat on the right; the women on the left.
Following our teacher, we kicked, punched, squatted, did push-ups, sit-ups, swung our arms, and twisted our torsos—all the while making it look like an aesthetic cousin of ballet.
Men and women are not allowed to share rooms at the overnight program. So I slept next to a shy 22-year-old Korean girl while my husband bunked with her high-school-aged brother. We slept on the heated wooden floors with two blankets and a pillow each. We went to bed at 9:30, immediately after our martial arts training. With her limited English and my limited Korean, my roommate and I talked. She pulled her thin blankets close to my mine, laid on her stomach, kicked up her feet and we talked like high school girl friends.
Mornings come early at temples. We were awakened by monks chanting, singing and bonging a drum as they walked past our doors at 4 a.m. We quickly got dressed and headed to the temple for morning chants and meditation.
We meditated for more than an hour, sitting quietly, reflectively with our legs crossed tightly in front of us. Men on the right. Women on the left. I spent the first few moments of my quiet meditation wondering why it’s so much easier for Koreans to sit like this. I’ve often heard that it dates back to the creation of their ondol heating system in 37 B.C., an efficient method still used in most Korean homes today. Water is heated in pipes beneath the wooden floor, making the floor and room nice and toasty. I love it. And apparently, they do to. They have been sitting, squatting and lying on the floor ever since.
After the sitting meditation, I mediated again during a half-hour walk up and down the steep hill to the temple in the pitch black. It was a cold and quiet autumn morning, but the skies were clear and the moon and stars shined brightly on us.
Sunday is a special day at the temple, where the monks have a traditional breakfast called barugongyang, a communal meal eaten in total silence where not a grain of rice is wasted. We had 30 minutes of training before we were even allowed to take part. Though I was nervous about messing up, the experience was my favorite part of the temple stay.
We sat in two perfect rows on the floor with no tables. We each had four brown bowls, which were neatly stacked inside each other. I filled one small bowl with cold water and set it aside. A monk walked by and served rice. He bowed. I bowed. Another monk served soup. He bowed. I bowed. Then I served my own vegetables, including at least one piece of kimchi. I was only allowed to take what I could eat. You cannot leave food on your tray. And here’s why: When the head monk finishes his meal, he beats a gong, the sign that you must be finished too. I learned this in the training so I ate like a prisoner on a five-minute dinner break. After ten minutes of silent, swift eating, we were ready to clean. With the water in my separate bowl, I cleaned out all four bowls, washing the sides with one piece of leftover kimchi and dumping the dirty water into the last bowl. When all the waste was in one bowl with the water, I drank it.
I really had to prepare myself mentally for this one. I absolutely hate mixing foods. I get funny when my macaroni and cheese accidentally mixes with a green bean. So I made sure that I ate everything that I possibly could. I drank my muddy water with kimchi spice, a little leftover soup and the crumbs from the other bowls. And with the one required piece of kimchi, I wiped off each bowl and then ate it.
The whole practice of barugongyang is a time of silence to reflect on the need for order and harmony as well as respect and compassion for the people who have made the meal possible.
The temple stay was an experience like none other. It was one of those times that can be a bit uncomfortable, but, in the end, offers so much culture that you consider yourself blessed for having experienced it.
Temple stays in Korea
- For more information on doing a temple stay program, visit here. An overnight temple stay usually costs around W50,000 (about $45). Longer stays can be organized. Visit the site to read about Korea’s participating temples, including those that offer English translation. An overnight stay at a centuries old temple offers a true glimpse into Korean Buddhism.
- Watch sunmudo on YouTube. I took some videos while I was there!http://kr.youtube.com/watch?v=kPrSRfulbe4