Have you ever wondered what living in a Buddhist temple is like?
The last few countries on our journey all have something in common. Their culture is strongly influenced by Buddhism. Especially in Laos, there are numerous Buddhist temples wherever you go. Naturally, this made us curious and interested in Buddhism a bit.
Among other things, we were wondering how life at a Buddhist temple might be. While reading up on this topic, we were excited to learn, that Korea has a really well-developed temple stay program. Many of their temples offer lodging and some have courses and programs especially for foreigners. The temple stays range from a few hours or days up to many months.
We decided to start easy with a two-night temple stay. This would give us a full day at the temple, where we don’t have to worry about arrival, departure or any other worldly issues. Much harder than deciding on a duration was deciding on a temple though. They are all over Korea and even if you just look at the ones that have programs for foreigners, the list is still long.
Luckily, we found just the right temple for us: Golgulsa. The temple is in a beautiful mountain region and features a huge Buddha carved into a stone wall. But besides all that, Golgulsa is also the world Sunmudo practice center. Sunmudo is maybe best described as Korean Shaolin. It’s a form of martial arts with a heavy emphasis on harmonizing mind and body with the breath (similar to Yoga or Qi Gong).
The monks at Golgulsa not only practice their mind and live a monastery life. They also engage in regular, active, and physical training to complement their meditations. And they are eager to show and teach their skills to everyone interested in it.
You can book your temple stay online, pay with credit card at the site and we got a long and detailed explanation via email how to get to the temple and what to bring. As I said, the temple stay program is really well developed in Korea.
Getting to the temple from Seoul was surprisingly easy. We took a high-speed train to Gyeongju. The Korean train network is easily accessible even to foreigners. There is an online booking site, the trains run on a frequent and regular schedule and the cars are well marked and comfy. There is even wifi available throughout the journey.
From Gyeongju, you need to take a bus into the city center and another bus to Golgulsa. The bus network is not as easy to comprehend as the train network, but still no problem. You pay at the driver when you get in and the busses all have very visible numbers. From the bus stop, we needed to walk about 15 minutes to the temple. Apparently, there is even a shuttle from the temple available. But we thought it was more fitting to hike into the temple.
At the temple, we were greeted by a friendly lady, that handed us some paperwork, the daily schedule, and our clothes and linen for the next days. It’s a bit weird… our day started with a nice breakfast and some coffee in Koreas busiest Metropol and only a few hours later, we found ourselves in weird clothes surrounded by a beautiful mountain temple, wondering if we really thought this plan through.
The daily schedule is not very tightly packed. A lot of time to reflect and relax. However, the day starts at 5 am with chanting and meditation. There are two workouts, one in the morning and one in the evening. Lights out at 10 pm. Three mealtimes and more meditation fill the gaps.
Demonstration of Power and Grace
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and there were many Korean tourists at the temple, eager to join the regular demonstration of the monks’ skills. Most days of the week, there is a performance of the monks in the afternoon. Attendance is free but donations are encouraged (this appears to be a significant source of additional income for the temple). This was our first glimpse into what to expect over the next days.
There were some graceful choreographies rapidly switching from slow and controlled movements to explosive jumps and kicks. The highlight was a demonstration of one of the Sunmudo masters showing nearly superhuman levels of flexibility and body control. We were extremely impressed. Afterward, we’ve been told, that we were also extremely lucky. It is a rare event that the master joins the demonstrations.
What a Buddhist monk is allowed to eat differs widely depending on the region. The Korean approach is comparatively relaxed. Korean temple food is strictly vegan and even avoids some strong vegetables (like onion or garlic). Nonetheless, it is really tasty (see also Michelin-recommended Korean temple food).
Our meals in the temple were mostly rice, kimchi (pickled and spicy vegetables) and tofu. Not too far from what we usually eat in Korea.
Korean Buddhism encourages a grateful attitude towards food and mindful appreciation. We were free to take as much as we liked, but were strongly encouraged not to waste anything. Eat everything on your plate and don’t waste a single grain of rice.
Meals are also usually enjoyed in complete silence – however, this was sadly not really followed by other visitors to our temple.
We were asked not to eat anything outside of the three daily meals. The common belief is that irregular eating habits might interfere with your meditation ability.
During the meals, the only beverage available is water. However, there is a daily tea ceremony were all the apprentices have a cup of tea with a high monk or sunmudo master. This session is also an opportunity to ask any question about the life at the monastery, the history of Buddhism or the path towards enlightenment.
We enjoyed two such tea ceremonies and the atmosphere was refreshingly relaxed and open. Even though there was a lot of respect in the room, it had a friendly vibe to it.
Training for the mind
Every day starts and ends with chanting and meditation. Before we had our first meditation session, they were kind enough to give us a brief introduction to Korean Seon Meditation (Very similar to Japanese Zen). This was very helpful as an unguided half hour meditation can be really difficult if you’ve never done something like this before.
Letting go of your thoughts instead of clinging to them and aiming for a certain inner peace of mind is a difficult practice. It’s not easy and takes a lot of training. But I really enjoyed those sessions. There is something really calming in it and outside of an environment like this, it is really challenging to take the time out off a day for mindful practice.
The chanting, on the other hand, wasn’t really introduced to us. We were given texts (even with translation) of some Buddhist sutras but it was difficult to follow along. Chanting in Korean works really well due to how the syllables and donation can be chained. It’s hard to describe, but really catchy. Listening to the chanting alone can get you into a meditative state of mind.
Training for the body
Our daily schedule had two workouts in the gym. One in the morning, that is more relaxed and focusses more on flexibility and mobility. And another, more active workout in the evening. The evening workout included jumps and kicks. However, there was no real fighting. Sunmudo contains a few movement-flows, that can be used for a kind of moving meditation (very much like Tai Chi or Qi Gong). The training was more focussed on that. Although some long-term apprentices told us that there is more focus on the martial arts if you stay longer in the temple.
The level of the workout was challenging but adapted to the skills of the participants. We felt our body afterward but were not destroyed by it.
There was an additional body workout in the form of moving meditation called “108 bows”. The name is pretty much spot on. You go down to your knees, bow your head to the ground and get up again – one-hundred-and-eight times. It is repetitive, it is exhausting and this is pretty much the whole point of it. The 108 wasn’t random, it had something to do with your senses multiplied by different paths to enlightenment multiplied by something else… I didn’t really understand the full explanation, to be honest.
On the third day, our time in the temple was already over. And we had very mixed feelings. Should we be glad to head back into our real lives? Or should we extend our stay?
Life at the temple was incredibly easy. For me, the biggest difference was not having to make any decisions. Throughout the last months, we were constantly forced to make many important decisions. What do we do today? What do we eat tonight? Where do we sleep tomorrow? Where do we travel to next week? And also back home at work, we were used to making decisions all the time.
Yet, here at the temple, there was no need or pressure to make any decisions. The day had a fixed schedule. Every day is the same. You eat what is offered until you have enough. You practice what you are asked to practice. This gave me unbelievable peace of mind.
Also, life at the temple felt extremely healthy – to both, body and mind. Korean Seon Buddhism (at least at Golgulsa) had a certain kind of friendly playfulness to it. The monks had a positive vibe and presence that is hard to put into words. The best I can come up with is, they seemed further ahead than us in their pursuit of true happiness. You could feel that and it was contagious.
Even though we were missing some things, we could have stayed a lot longer at Golgulsa. Well… We missed mostly us, to be honest. For the first time in months, we had to spend the nights separated (in gender-split three-bedroom dorms) and of course, we were also not allowed to show too much attention to each other.
But then again, there was also this feeling that we set out to see the world, not spend weeks and months in a single temple. This might be something for another journey of ours, but not this one. So with a heavy heart, we made the first decision after three days: to not stay any longer at Golgulsa. Even though it was offered to us and we would have loved to…
Our guiding rule for the decision (as well as many times before on this journey) was: Move on while it is difficult – if it feels easy to move on, you stayed there too long.
Back to The Real World™
And so we packed our bags, got back into our own clothing and stayed long enough to enjoy the presentation of the Sunmudo masters to snap some cool pictures.
Then we walked back into the real world… or to be more precise, we walked to the nearest bus stop and then took the bus back into the real world.
As usual, we also made a gallery with some more pictures from Golgulsa.