Golgulsa Temple, South Korea: What it's like being a Buddhist monk for a day (or two)

You're supposed to empty your mind of all thought when you meditate, to achieve a state of deep peace and self-realisation through clear-headedness. And yet this morning as I attempt to access this nirvana my mind keeps returning to one central thought: what am I doing up this early? Why am I pacing around a garden behind a whole lot of backpackers at 4am?

Those backpackers could well be asking themselves the same question, but I won't find out for a while, because we're all sworn to silence. I can't even exchange a knowing glance with anyone because we're making our way around in the dark in single file, staring at the heels of the person in front, following them on a ponderous and ultimately goalless journey through the forest.

And this is a holiday. It's a tourism experience, in fact. It might not seem that way at this particular moment, while I wander around trying not to fall asleep standing up, but a stay at Golgulsa Temple in South Korea is a deep immersion into another culture, a short journey into a lifelong vocation: that of a Buddhist monk.

It's not purely pre-dawn meditation that makes up this life, either. It's vegan meals eaten three times daily at an approved hour. It's taking tea with the grandmaster monk and asking him the burning questions. It's obeisance to Buddha. It's time spent communing with nature. And, here at Golgulsa, it's three hours a day of brutal martial arts training.

Consider this something akin to Buddhist boot camp. A holiday in which you abstain from alcohol and meat. A vacation that involves running around leap-frogging fellow travellers, and bowing 108 times a day to Buddha.

A temple stay might not sound like everyone's cup of tea. But it is becoming increasingly popular among travellers looking for something different in South Korea, something immersive, something soothing and yet energetic. And I want to see what it's all about.

It's a pleasant afternoon when I arrive at Golgulsa Temple, set in a forested valley in southeastern Korea, accessible by a long driveway lined with statues of monks in martial arts poses. Clearly, you think as you stare at robed monks fly-kicking the air, this is not your normal Buddhist monastery.

Check-in is like fronting up for service in the army. I surrender my passport and I'm given my uniform: baggy grey pants, Thai fisherman style, and an orange button-up tunic. The girl who's checking me in, Moon, hands over a sheet of paper with a considerable list of ground rules: lights out by 10pm; wake-up call at 4am; attend all meditation and martial arts classes. 

I meet a young Korean guy out the front who says he lives here for five days a week, using Golgulsa as a study retreat as he prepares for exams.  What do you do on weekends, I ask him? "Sleep in," he says with a smile. "And eat pork."


Part of my induction here is to learn to bow to Buddha. I'm to do this whenever I'm in his presence, Moon says. From a standing position, I'll lower myself down until I have five points of contact with the ground: lower legs, hands, and forehead. It's a deeply respectful and elaborate manoeuvre that I'll become very familiar with. 

Moon explains that today I've missed lunch, but I am in time for the afternoon session of sitting meditation. This involves gathering in the gymnasium, up on a wooded hill, and sitting cross-legged on the floor for half an hour as a monk softly chants. It sounds easy, I guess. However, if you're not used to sitting cross-legged for long periods of time this becomes as much an exercise in tolerance of discomfort as it does a journey towards nirvana.

And then it's time for dinner. At 5pm. We all file down to the dining hall and line up at the bain-marie for our meal of vegetables and rice, eaten sitting, once again, cross-legged at two long communal tables: one for men, one for women. I eat in silence, contemplating the Earth's bounty in front of me, marvelling at the fact that last night I was in the nearby town of Gyeongju eating deep-fried pork and hitting baseballs in a batting cage. This is different. This is very different.  

And then it's time for martial arts. Time for sunmudo.

It's this class that sets Golgulsa apart from some of the other Korean temples that offer accommodation for travellers. Most practise meditation. No others teach martial arts. 

This was the first Buddhist temple to allow tourists to stay, I'm later told by Grandmaster Jeog Un Sunim, who founded Golgulsa as the headquarters of sunmudo in the 1990s. His idea was to spread the word of Buddhism to foreign visitors, while also spreading the practice of his favourite martial art.

Sunmudo is a non-contact sport that its practitioners refer to as "dynamic meditation". It's a way of staying strong in body and mind. Done by the pros, sunmudo is an acrobatic and impressive show of strength and flexibility. Done by amateur Westerners who've spent the bulk of their holidays drinking beer, sunmudo is a series of almost child-like games designed to make you sweat.

It begins with a short period of meditation, before the monk who is teaching my class rises with a twinkle of mischief in his eye and invites the 20 or so foreign students before him to begin the exercise. First up: wheelbarrow races. Then a game of leap-frog. And eventually something like tai chi.

The other students today are a mixed bag, from the curious to the potentially devout. Tourists can stay at Golgulsa for just a single night, for a whole week of "healing", or even for an entire year to learn to teach sunmudo. There's a French couple here who are taking the chance to detox for a few days. An American girl is doing a week of immersion. 

Everyone dives into the sunmudo class with gusto, working up a sweat in the big gymnasium, though for me at least, the meditative aspect is difficult to appreciate when you're concentrating so hard on not making a fool of yourself. Soon enough, however, it's over, and we're free to wander back down the hill to the residences, where I'll be sharing a room tonight with another trainee monk, sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor, mentally preparing for that 4am wake-up call.  

Lights out. And then, so soon after, lights back on. It's 4am, it's dark, and it's cold. I pull on my Thai fisherman pants, slip a jumper over my tunic, and begin the walk up to the main temple, joining a stream of dazed travellers whose feet crunch softly on the gravel track. We pass by a vending machine, glowing like a beacon by the side of the path, available only to day-visitors. It dispenses coffee, I notice. What a cruel joke.

Eventually we arrive at the temple at the top of the hill, where the monks are gathered, sitting cross-legged on thin mats, ready to begin half an hour of chanting. After the chanting: half an hour of sitting meditation, a painful exercise, once again, for those not used to posing this way. Finally, there's the sweet relief of a wander through the forest, in single file, still in the pitch dark, for walking meditation.

By 6am we'll be having breakfast: vegetables and rice. By 8.30am we will be doing sunmudo training again, though this time a slower, more languid class. By 10am we'll be doing 108 of those deep bows to the Buddha, counted out by a monk slapping a bamboo stick into the palm of his hand.  

And then, my brief time at Buddhist boot camp will over. I'll be going back to the land of fried pork and batting cages, which exists just an hour down the road, but seems like a universe away. Respect, I think, to the tourists doing this for a week. Respect to those who would stay an entire year. Deepest respect, of course, to those who dedicate their entire life.

I couldn't do without the sleep-ins.







Asiana has daily flights from Sydney to Seoul Incheon. See au.flyasiana.com. To get to Golgulsa, train links are available from Seoul to Gyeongju. See letskorail.com


Golgulsa Temple offers tourism experiences ranging from an afternoon visit for a sunmudo demonstration, to two-day, one-night immersive sunmudo experiences, to longer courses that can stretch up to a full year. A two-day, one-night stay, including classes, accommodation and food, costs $72. 

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation.



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