The monk’s bones appeared to melt, turning him into a rag doll instead of an actual person. He wrapped his legs into a pretzel and pushed himself onto his fingertips. The crowd hooted and hollered as they took photo after photo, enthralled by the spectacle. I was at Golgulsa (골굴사) for the weekend, and we were starting the temple stay with a demonstration of sunmudo.
The purpose of meditation is to make our mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. But if our mind is not peaceful, we will find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions.” – Kelsang Gyatso
After a busy month involving a trip to Jeju Island, an E2 visa run to Fukuoka, and a gradually increasing workload, I needed a couple days off. A temple stay seemed like just the ticket. Since I first heard of the concept back in 2011, I’d been curious about what it would entail. After some research into different temple stay options, I thought I’d found the perfect fit: Golgulsa (골굴사) Temple. A mere 30 km outside of Pohang, Golgulsa is extremely easy to access and happens to be the center of a Korean martial art known as sunmudo (선무도).
After booking the temple stay, all I had to do was show up. Much of the time I would be spending at Golgulsa was regimented: chanting services, sunmudo demonstrations, and training were all scheduled. Of everything included in the experience, I was most eager to try my hand at the archery. I’d come for peace and relaxation, but — let’s be honest — it’s not often I get to shoot a bow and arrow.
The archery was already underway as I arrived — a sunmudo master and apprentice showing Korean temple stayers the fundamentals of sunmudo archery. As with other aspects of sunmudo, archery is not strictly a martial activity, but a meditative one as well. Making a shot involves breathing technique, precise movements, and calming the mind — all of which must be completed before the arrow is let loose. I took to it quickly and was soon able to hit the target on most of my shots.
A brisk hike up the hill took us to the main shrine, built below a cave-speckled cliff. Walkways criss-cross the rock face, and a seated Buddha is carved into the peak.
Several students came out and demonstrated various sunmudo routines. I watched closely, noting how balance and control seemed to be valued over speed and power. Some of the routines were almost like sequences of yoga moves, but on closer inspection, it was easy to see the martial applications.
Then, the master made his appearance. The crowd greeted him like he was Maximus riding into the Colosseum, and he egged them on as he began his routine. I tried to tune out the showmanship and focus on his sunmudo. It was truly impressive and one of the most mind-boggling displays of human ability I’ve ever seen.
Dinner afterward was a simple affair, but a delicious one as well. Korean temple food is legendary, and Golgulsa’s was certainly no disappointment.
But throughout dinner and the short break which followed, I couldn’t help but dwell on the upcoming sunmudo training. Would I be able to handle it? I hike a lot, but that’s about the extent of my exercise. A full body workout would destroy me, I knew. The real question was how much of an idiot I’d make of myself in the process.
As it turns out, just as much as everyone else. I did well with the stretches, but drilling the actual sunmudo sequence was a different story. The instructor walked among us, carefully correcting postures and movements as we went through the sequence. By the end, my arms and legs were shaking with exertion and sweat was dripping down my forehead.
Considering how simple the workout was, I have a new appreciation for those who train in martial arts. It’s not nearly as easy as it looks!
Morning came all too soon. Perhaps my least favorite part of the temple stay was waking up at 4 am for the chanting service. As I mentioned above, I was more interested in the martial arts and cultural aspects of the temple stay — Buddhism only holds a passing interest for me. Simply put, waking up at 4 am and listening to a monk drone on and on while banging a wooden block for 30 minutes WITHOUT having any coffee in my system led to a very non-zen Nathan. There. I said it. Some people have their morning chants. I have my cup(s) of java.
After the chanting service came meditation. I’d been under the impression we could be outside, but everyone filed into the training room to sit for more chanting and bowing. I tried, I really did, but all I wanted was to be outside in Nature, smelling the crisp spring air and watching the sun break over the hills. When meditation finished and we’d eaten our ceremonial breakfast, I scrambled up the cliff paths and found a vantage point just as the sun burst into view. My annoyance with rote and ceremony faded as I breathed deeply and savored the fresh air.
Now that was meditation I could get behind.
By the time our Dharma talk and 108 bows of supplication came about, I was ready to go. I’d affirmed something I’d always known. Chanting, incense, and strict meditation may work for some people to attain inner peace. Me, not so much. Give me a mountain peak bathed in the golden light of dawn, give me a forest creaking and rustling as the wind blows through it, give me a seashore stinking of brine and roaring with the sound of the surf…
Nature is my sanctuary. It always has been. If I need a weekend to recharge, I’ll go on a hike and bask in its splendor for a while. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t do a temple stay again. I genuinely enjoyed my experience at Golgulsa. It’s just that if I did another temple stay, it would be as another cultural experience.
Booking a Temple Stay
Eager to book your own temple stay in Korea? Head over to the website for Temple Stay Korea and have a look at the ones available. You’ll need a Korean bank account to book online, though I emailed the temple contact directly and booked through her.
How about you? Have you ever done a temple stay in Korea? Where was it, and what was your experience? Any reason you wouldn’t consider doing one? Share it all and more in the comments below!