A Seon Templestay in Korea
buddhism korea Zen
My girlfriend and I had arrived at Golgulsa the previous evening, after a bullet train ride to the ancient Korean capital of Gyeong-ju. Moving in steps to a simpler lifestyle, we transferred from high-tech train to city bus to a rickety country bus that took us far into the mountains outside of the city and dropped us at a nondescript intersection. We grabbed some delicious steamed dumplings to keep the mountain winter winds at bay and hauled our suitcases a kilometer down the road until we came to the temple entrance.
Golgulsa Temple is famous as the home of Sunmudo, a Korean martial art akin to Shaolin Kung Fu. The monks at Golgulsa practice a wide variety of methods for seeking enlightenment: Seon meditation, Buddhist chanting, and Yogic-martial arts (Sunmudo).
Templestays are popular among overworked Korean businesspeople who want to get away from the rush of modern life to a simpler lifestyle. They are like religious spa retreats, and many temples have programs completely devoid of ritual to attract this demographic.
For those foreigners living and working in Korea, a templestay is considered an essential part of the experience. My girlfriend and I have been interested in Buddhism for a long time, and this templestay was to be our first experience practicing Buddhism formally.
Korean parents also send their children to temples to learn discipline and to connect with their Korean heritage. There were two such youths at Golgulsa, both the epitome of cynical, smartphone-addicted teenagers. The simplicity and rigid schedule was painful for them, and they did their best to make it clear just how much they were suffering.
From Dawn to Dusk
Temples are known for starting the day early, but the schedule was very simple, and mostly involved chanting, meditation, and martial arts training. Here is what our itinerary looked like:
- 4:00: Wake-up
- 4:30: Morning chanting service
- 5:00: Sitting and walking meditation
- 6:30: Breakfast (all vegan, rice with fermented vegetables and that inescapable Korean chili sauce)
- 8:30: Sunmudo training
- 10:10: 108 bows, meditation, or tea with a monk
- 11:50: Lunch
- 14:00: Meditation
- 15:00: Community work
- 17:30: Dinner
- 18:30: Evening chanting service
- 19:00: Sunmudo training
- 22:00: Lights off
The day was fully accounted for, but time seemed to crawl by at a leisurely pace. We had lots of time to ourselves within the larger structure. Each morning, my girlfriend and I climbed the mountain to watch the sunrise over the peaks and pay our respects to a Buddha carved into a vertical rock face.
The discipline was a welcome change from our hectic schedule of the year, and it gave us a chance to let ourselves simply be carried along.
I've always been somewhat skeptical of ritualized religion and the practices that go along with it. To me, they are often divorced from their original meaning and people become too concerned with simply following the rituals.
Of couse, rituals evolved because they have real power, and at Golgulsa, I got a taste of the power of ritual that is strongly tied to its original meaning. There were two practices in particular that had an immediate affect on how I perceived the world.
Bows were offered before and after all chanting, meditation, and Sunmudo training, as well as within the various practices. However, it wasn't until we did the 108 bows that this act of self-humbling, so rare in modern society, really affected me.
Each bow is accompanied by a short reading, explaining what the bow is for. When we came to a bow dedicated to the health of fathers, it was as if I had been suddenly awakened with a splash of cold water; my father had just been diagnosed with a serious heart condition, and was at that moment in surgery.
As I touched my head to the floor, I felt tears welling up in sincere submission to the possibility of losing my dad - what could I do? - but also in hopes that I would be able to share many more adventures with him. It was as if the prayers were touching my raw heart directly, with all the pain and intimacy that implies.
Since coming home, I've written up a list of 24 things to bow for. I do 12 in the morning, mostly hopeful bows for a good day, and 12 at night, mostly bows of gratitude.
When I started caring about my health, the quality of my food, and the ethics of eating animals, I considered making a habit of saying grace before meals, but never felt comfortable with it. I associated it with restrictive family traditions. At the temple, we would bow briefly before eating, and once again after. I found that taking a minute to be grateful for my food at the beginning of the meal helped me eat more mindfully and enjoy the meal more.
When we got home, I composed a short grace:
Thanks to the beings that died so I could be nourished today. I will honor their sacrifice by directing my energies to bettering the world.
I'm still getting used to it, and I often forget, and I feel awkward when I'm around other people, but I carry on.
Simply taking a moment to feel gratitude for my meal has significantly impacted my relationship with my food. I no longer feel desperate to eat, like I need to eat as much as I can all the time for fear of starving.
This isn't really a ritual, and I'd meditated before and am fully aware of the benefits. However, I'd dropped off in my practice. The templestay helped me reestablish the habit and place it into a context of spiritual development.
The Contemplative Life
The most wonderful thing about the templestay was the sense of contemplation. The hours moved slowly, but every moment seemed ripe with possibility and meaning. Because we were not rushed, we could give our full attention to our conversations, our meals, and our steps. There wasn't much to distract us, so our mind wasn't constantly flitting about, being anywhere but in the moment.
I tried to bring this lifeway back to my life outside the temple, but even with the adopted practice of bowing and saying grace, I realized that slowing down is important. I can just rush through the bows in the morning and night, but they don't hold much meaning unless I bring presence of mind as well. Instead of the rituals themselves, I feel that it is extremely important to simplify and minimize my life, to give space for contemplation. Then, even if I don't do the rituals, I still express their intent: contemplative mindfulness.