Anna Corbett experiences a temple stay with a difference in South Korea. Trudging up a freezing mountain at four in the morning I tried to remember whose stupid idea this had been. ‘Yours,’ replied my mutinous brain. Oh yeah. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.
When I moved to South Korea to teach English for a year, a stay in one of the country’s many Buddhist temples was high on my list of priorities. Buddhism has been present in Korea for over 1,500 years and likely reached the peninsular via trading links with China and India. Some temples have more fantastical foundation myths which boost their Buddhist credentials. One of the most interesting of these comes from Mihwangsa temple on the South West coast which claims that a stone boat from India, loaded with Buddhist scriptures and statues, landed nearby almost two thousand years ago. The legend says that the man who intercepted the boat followed instructions he received in a dream and led a black ox out into the surrounding mountains. Where it stopped to lay down he founded Mihwangsa. It was at this temple that I took part in my first temple stay in Korea. It was only for a single night and, though a beautiful experience, I felt I wanted something a little more immersive before my year was up. I soon learned that not all Buddhist temples are haven of chiming bells and soft music.
Golgulsa temple is set in the mountains around the ancient Korean capital of Gyeonju in the East of the country. Its history is as impressive as the legends surrounding Mihwangsa. Founded in the 6th Century by Korean and Indian Buddhist monks, the site contains the only cave temple in Korea as well as a four meter high sculpture of Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. These are reached by scrabbling up rock stairs and through arches on paths cut into the mountainside, smoothed by centuries of passing feet. The temple is also the world headquarters for the Korean martial art Sunmudo. In retrospect, that should have been a clue.
After arriving we changed into our baggy Sunmudo trousers and orange waistcoats and began exploring the temple. The site was a collection of dormitories, training centres and small shrines with the main temple sitting at the top of a steep hill. It is a popular tourist site among Koreans and our conspicuous uniforms drew interested stares as we wandered around. The mountain air made a pleasant change from the smog of the city and the beauty of the site began to calm our cluttered brains.
Following our simple vegetarian dinner we met in the main training hall with the other temporary residents to learn about Sunmudo. Throughout Korean history, Buddhist monks have taken up arms to defend their country from invaders. Thankfully the modern style of martial arts training is more focused on self-discipline and extreme muscle control than carnage. We were shown a video of gravity defying monks who used their impressive skills to leap into a mid-air split from a cross legged position and back again. Assuming that it would take me less than one night to achieve such things, I began the work out. An hour and a half of extreme squats, kicks, punches, jumps, stretches, lunges and clenches later I staggered from the hall in a sweaty haze, desperate for the warm floor and pile of blankets that would be my bed.
By 4am the next morning, the steep hill which led the main temple had transformed into Everest. We trudged up, shivering against the cold and too tired to talk, and ducked into the low room for the service and meditation. The monks had laid out paper next to each cushion with a translation of the chants they repeated each morning. The western perception of intelligible, melodic noise is transformed when you realise the chants are actually prayers to the Buddha in the local language. Korean speakers visiting the temple must go through a completely different experience to those who sit bemused at the language barrier.
The ceremony and very sleepy meditation were followed by walking meditation down the hill, a traditional Buddhist breakfast and more training. The meal was particularly enlightening. You had to be aware of every morsel you took onto your plate as the Abbot would check the water that the bowls had been washed with and, if a single piece of food was floating there, it would be divided back between all the diners to be drunk. Scraping your bowl clean of every grain of rice cannot help but force you to revaluate your attitude towards food and remind you of how much is currently going to waste in the recesses of your fridge.
After a welcome yoga session our group was encouraged to perform 108 bows in the Buddhist tradition, which involves kneeling, laying your forehead on the floor, returning to a kneeling position and then standing. Buddhists believe that by laying your forehead down on the floor you are humbling yourself in front of the universe and ridding yourself of arrogance. Whether you believe this or not it’s hard to feel anything but humble when you’re hobbling around for the next three days.
During the preceding ceremonies, meditations, long walks and training we began to sink into a rhythm at the temple. During tea with the Abbot we learned more about the central beliefs of Buddhism; that the desire for outward things ultimately leads only to suffering when we are denied them or they are taken from us by life. While monks take this revelation to the extreme by cutting themselves off from the outside world (though the Abbot mentioned that a young monk would occasionally fall for a young lady and leave the monastery, and he himself seemed to take great joy in his pet horse which he had named ‘beautiful horse’), they encourage the general population to be more aware of their internal selves and to remember that true happiness comes from within. In this way Buddhism is a truly inclusive system of belief. As the Abbot said, “there’s enough wisdom for everyone”.
Ridding yourself of your outward desires and becoming truly aware of your place in the cosmos is not something that can be accomplished in a long weekend. Most people will not accomplish it in a lifetime and many feel that the basic principles of Buddhism are flawed; that outward things such and love and family can bring as much joy as they can sorrow. Whichever side you fall down on in the debate, it is hard to deny that a period of relaxation and self-reflection can be beneficial for most people; like taking a deep breath within the clutter of your daily life. Even if your screaming knees take weeks to forgive you. Anna Corbett