Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Overnight at a Korean Buddhist Temple

Korea is littered with thousands of intricately and beautifully made temples. You can open up any map app, and scroll over areas looking for the Buddhist symbol, not to be confused with the swastika which is flipped around in the opposite direction.
Buddhist Temples are everywhere in Korea, and while it's easy to think "once you've seen one, you've seen them all," each one is unique in its own way and I absolutely love visiting different temples around the peninsula- sometimes returning to the same ones multiple times!
One very cool activity that many of the temples offer is for visitors to participate in a "temple stay." You can stay, living at the temple, from one night up to one year. I have now participated in two one-night temple stays in Korea, and they happened to both be at the same temple- it was that amazing of an experience, I had to go back again! The temple that I recommend everyone to experience a Temple Stay at is called Golgulsa Temple. Golgusa is located about a 45 min-1 hour bus ride away from Gyeongju center, which was the capital of the Korean Penninsula during the Silla Dynasty (57 BC- 935 AD) and where the ancient kingdom of Silla ruled for around one thousand years. If you come to Korea, you must visit Gyeongju, "the museum without walls," because it is full of so much interesting history. From Gyeongju, hop on the #100 or #150 bus and head ~20km towards the eastern sea, to find Golgulsa, the only temple cave in Korea. 
Golgulsa is set in the mountains, but the bus will drop you seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice fields. 
You have to walk about 1.2 km to get to the driveway of Golgulsa temple. You'll see this sign (below), which says "Golgulsa" in Korean. This marks the driveway to enter the temple. 

Once you walk all the way up the driveway, you will begin to see many different, beautiful wooden buildings. Some of these are housing for the monks, some are tea houses, some are housing for overnight guests, some are prayer or chant rooms, some are shops, and some are offices. The office where you need to check-in is in a large building on the right side of the parking lot.
There is always someone who speaks English working there, and she will have you fill out some forms, then will briefly go over the schedule for your stay, as well as give you the temple outfit that you must wear while on the premises, and show you to your room. 

Both times that I've stayed at Golgulsa temple, I've been given a room in the same building, so I'm not sure what all the other buildings and rooms are like, but I imagine them to be much the same. Golgulsa caters to families, especially those who are having a lot of issues or abuse in the home; they do meditation and therapy sessions with families, so you are likely to see many kids around. However, for some of the sessions, they do seperate the koreans with one monk and the foreigners with another monk and a translator. 
The rooms are traditional Korean ondol sleeping. This means that the floors have pipes just under them in which hot water pumps through, effectively heating up the room. You sleep on a thin mat, which is essentially a comforter for a twin bed, and have another one on top of you. I can't say it's the best nights sleep I've ever had, and I typically wake up with bruises on my hips from my bones pressing against the floor while I sleep. 
Outside our room, very peaceful and serene.

If you check in before 1pm, you can participate in archery, and sometimes ride the horses or to meditation therapy with them. If you check in before 3pm, you will be able to watch the Sunmudo demonstration. That's the other thing that I really like about doing a temple stay at Golgulsa, is that you get to practice the ancient Buddhist martial art of Sunmudo. 
Sunmudo Masters (not even close)
"Sun" refers to meditation. "Mu" refers to martial art. "Do" means discipline, or the way of doing something. Therefore, Sunmudo literally translates to the way of doing meditative martial arts. Sunmudo is a training method that combines mediation, yoga, and chi qong exercises, and is designed to extinguish pain and attain enlightenment. The goal of Sunmudo is to harmonize the mind, body, and breath. Sunmudo has been practiced by monks since the beginning of the Shilla Dynasty, back in 57 B.C.E. I'm absolutely shite at this martial art, because I'm definitely not flexible and maintain no balance, but it's a really unique challenge and cultural experience to take part in!
The actual Sunmudo Masters
Anyways, after you have arrived, checked into your room, and changed into your temple clothes, you are free to roam around the massive property that stretches into and up the mountain, until your next scheduled program. There are certain "consequences" if you don't follow the temple rules and schedule, such as: If you are absent from morning chanting, you must bow 3,000x to the monk as punishment. If you throw toilet paper into the toilet, you have to bow 1080x. 
 In my two stays there, I've never actually seen the bow punishment be enforced, but it is probably more geared towards those who are doing a multi-month temple stay or are there training to become monks. 

At 5pm it is dinner time! There is a large mess hall where women sit on one side of the room and men sit on the other, with the monks towards the front at their own table. You grab a plate, scoop some rice out of a communal rice cooker, and then walk down an assembly line choosing the side dishes you want to try. Everything that you take, you must eat, as one should not eat food. However, monks are all (supposed to be) vegetarians, so there is only vegetarian food available. The dinners here have been my least favorite- I don't mind eating vegetarian, but I really disliked the sides that were available on both of my stays, especially the kimchi- and I LOVE kimchi!!!!
My first visit
2nd visit, with my cousin, Dixie!
After dinner, you head up to a large gym room and view an informational video about the temple, buddhism, and the practice of Sunmudo. Following the video, an English-speaking temple host meets with you to teach you how to properly bow to the monks, how to meditate, and all about the bows and chants that you will be participating in the following morning. This is also the time when the English-speaking host asks how you're settling in, how you found the temple food, if you have any questions about the program, etc. One man reported that the food was wonderful, and that the kimchi was the best kimchi he had eaten in his entire year in Korea 😮 Homie be trippin. After this brief orientation, you set up your prayer mats, a monk enters the room, and you join him in the envening chanting service and meditation. 
Orientation on prayer mats
Next up: 90 minutes of Sunmudo training!!! You go upstairs to a large gym, the Sunmudo monk enters the room, and he leads you through some stretches, breathing techniques, and the movements. The way you move looks very similar to the elderly people in my neighborhood back in San Jose practicing their Tai Chi in the morning, which makes sense, because it is a type of martial art. Now, after almost a year of on-again, off-again Muay Thai training, I was absolutely NOT prepared for the kind of flexibility and balance that is required by Sunmudo. This class was 90 minutes of me checking the clock for it to be over- it was that challenging! But the master makes it tons of fun, he creates competition between those participating in the class, and he walks around the room and tries to push you out of your balance poses and make fun of you. It's really a blast, and again, one of the main reasons why I love Golgulsa Temple so much. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos or videos from/of the sunmudo training, other than this one I took before class when Steve and I visited the temple with Amber.
When you are finished with Sunmudo training, around 8:30pm, you should be quite tired. Which is great, because lights out in your room is recommended for 10pm. Why so early, you ask??? Because at the lovely hour of 4 am, you will be awoken by the call of someone ringing (gonging?) the large gong outside your accommodation. After announcing the time through a certain number of (gongs??) on the gong, the monks will proceed in a slow walk from the temple grounds, up a steep hill, and into the prayer room, all while chanting in unison. If you need more than about 10-15 minutes to dress yourself in the morning, then you should set your alarm for before 4am, because you need to leave about 15 minutes for you to walk up the hill and enter the prayer rooms as well. Morning chanting servive begins promptly at 4:30am, and again, if you skip this service, you owe a monk 3,000 bows, so you better get your butt up that hill!
(Video of 4am wake-up + temple views, overlayed with Monk's chant)

When you walk up to the prayer rooms on top of the hill, you will see two floors. The bottom floor is for all of the visitors. 
At the beginning of the service, you will perform the bows while the monk chants and hits his "moktak," which is a wooden percussion instrument.
 After the bows, you sit on your prayer mats for about 25 minutes while the monks chant. Following the chants, you will bow as the monks leave the room, then you will enter into a 25 minute sitting silent meditation. This is really hard for me, because I'm not someone who has practiced having a quiet mind, or just sitting in silence, at all. My ankles and bum become sore from the floor (the mat is only about 1/2 an inch thick and doesnt offer much cushion), my muscles start to ache (especially after the sunmudo training the night before and then sleeping on the hard floor), and my mind wanders all over the place (despite them teaching us a breathing and counting technique that is supposed to silence our thoughts). So again, I spend most of this time just trying to will the minutes to pass by so that I can move my body around. Maybe one day I'll get into meditation and practice stillness, but not today!
(Beginning of video: Chant service. Middle: Monks leave. Ending: Sitting meditation.
I overlayed the sound of the chants throughout)

When the sitting meditation has ended, everyone puts their mats back on the shelves and then leaves the room and goes further up the hill to a stupa, which everyone walks around in a circle. This is the walking meditation, so you remain silence, and walk slowly in a single file line. I really enjoyed this type of meditation, especially at such an early hour (around 5:30am) in the mountains; it's so peaceful, misty, and the birds are just beginning to chirp. What a beautiful moment. 
From the walking meditation, you walk down the hills and into the cafeteria, but at this hour, you won't find any tables on the floor to sit at. Around 5:50 am is when you have your first meal of the day, and this is a special ceremonial meal with the monks. This is called "Barugonyang" or Formal Monastic Meal. This is a time when all the monks and visitors share the same food in a spiritual ceremony where not even a single drop of water is wasted. Barugongyang is meant to be an expression of gratitude for everyone whose efforts has contrubuted to the food.
 Again, men and women sit on opposite sides of the room, in a straight line facing each other. The english helpers will explain exactly how the ceremony will proceed, including the special way in which the bowls must be layed out, used, and cleaned. Eventually, the monks will join, sit at the head of the room, and lead everyone through the ritual.
This whole thing is super specific. You must sit in a lotus position with the four bowls first near your right knee. Then you use two thumbs to lift each bowl in succession, without making any noise by clanging the bowls against each other. You take a bit a pure water and leave it in one bowl untouched,  then take rice, soup, then vegetables in the other 3 bowls. You should only take what you can eat. You must also take at least 1 piece of kimchi, and leave it to the side throughout the entire meal. The kimchi will later act as a "sponge" for you to scrub your bowls clean. You can start eating once the monks start, but you need to lift the bowl to your face and make sure that your mouth is covered the whole time you are eating by your bowl. You also must eat silently, not making any slurping noises, and not talking to your neighbors. After you've finished eating, they will come around with hot water, and you use this to clean your 3 bowls out. However, you should only take a small amount of hot water, because you have to drink all of it after washing your bowls. Thats right, you rinse all of your bowls in order, using the kimchi to scrub the sides and make sure that you aren't leaving as much as a single grain of rice or shred of vegetable behind, then eat the kimchi, and drink the water, in order to ensure the bowl is completely clean. After this, you will use the pure water to rinse your bowls once more, but the water has to remain pure, meaning: you should have done an excellent job washing and drinking the warm water so that nothing makes the pure water impure.
After the ceremony is finished, its around 6.30 am! You have until 8.30 to rest or wander the temple grounds before the next event. The first time I went to Golgulsa with Amber and Steve, I went back to our room and fell asleep. When they went to wake me up, I just could not wake up, and I ended up skipping the 8:30 and 9:30am activities, which I was pretty upset with myself about. At 8:30, you go to a tea house and have tea time with a monk, where he gives a Dharma talk and answers any questions you might have about being a monk, living at a temple, being a buddhist, or anything about life, really. My second time I went to Golgulsa with my cousin Dixie, I made sure to stay awake and attend the Dharma talk and tea time.
I'm really glad I went to this. The tea is delicious, the monk is chill, and it's super interesting to hear about their lives and also their beliefs about love, relationships, religion, etc.

At 9:30, after tea, you have an option of 2 different activities. The first option is to perform 108 bows and attend the Forenoon chanting ceremony. The 108 bows represent our basic mental sufferings which arise from the six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind) and sense objects (color, sound, mell, taste, touch, and concept), and then multiply these by the three reactions (likes, dislikes, neutral feeling // joy, sorrow, indifference). By combining the six sense organs with the six sense objects, and then multiplying by 3, you get 36. You then multiply 36 x 3 again, to present the past, present, and future. This leaves you with the number 108, hence 108 bows!!! Practice of these 108 bows and what each bow represents can help break the cycle of sufferings and eventually lead us to attain enlightenment... or so they say.

My first visit to the temple, as I said, I slept through this part of the program. I was quite bummed that I didn't complete the 108 bows, so I was determined to do them at my second visit the the temple when I took my cousin, Dixie. However, Dixie opted to take the 2nd option of the 9:30 activity, which is an excursion to 3 local sites around the area. That's what we did instead!

Our first stop was to Girimsa Temple, which is located in Mount Hamwolsan in Gyeongju province. This temple was aboslutely beautiful, and was build during the Silla era. When we went here, I did talk Dixie into doing at least 11 of the 108 bows with me :)
After Girimsa Temple, you head to Gameunsaji, which is the ruins of what used to be a temple site. This was built in the 7th century by one of the Kings of Silla, King Munmu. He built the temple to drive away the Japanese pirates by using the power of Buddha. Unfortunately, he died before the temple was completed, and the temple was eventually burned down, except for two pagoda towers that remain standing. King Munmu, of course being a sacred dragon of the East Sea, insisted that he was buried at sea, 500m away from Gameunsaji, so that he could protect the country after his death. Because.... you know... sacred sea dragon and such.
The third stop on the excursion is to the East Sea, so that you can see the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu!!!! There is a little rocky islet just out from the beach, which is said to be the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu, the sacred dragon of the East Sea who would protect Silla from Japanese pirates :) The rocky little island is about 200m in circumference and is divided by a cross-shaped waterway, which forms a pool at the center of the islet. At the bottom of this pool is a granite tomb, which legend says, contains the remains of King Munmu's cremated body. Who knows??
After returning to Golgulsa from this excursion, you are free to have lunch in the cafeteria at 11:30am and then check out of your room, change back to your normal clothing, and be on your way! 😀

This has been an extremely long blog post, full of almost every detail about a temple stay, so I'm going to leave it at that! If you ever find yourself in Korea, make sure you check out any of the hundreds of temple stays available @ and experience this really unique activity! Some more pictures below, including the forms explaining the Barungongyang (Buddhist Ceremonial Meal) and the 108 Bows.

Gonging the gong?
Stairs up to the cave temples
The view! 😍

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