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Not quite Eat, Pray, Love


To view all of the images from Golgusa Temple Stay, please visit my Flickr.

Thanks to Miss Julia Roberts and the infamous Eat Pray, Love, I believe all women have fantasies of what a temple stay might be like. I imagined peace, serenity, silence and discipline. I imagined isolation and hours of mediation. Prior to my temple stay, I anticipated that a weekend at a temple would be a physical and intellectual challenge that would reset my mind and body and leave me feeling intellectually and spiritually stimulated and awakened.

Perhaps because I had all of these preconceived notions, really based on nothing but a novel and accompanying movie, my temple stay experience was nothing like I imagined.

After a 4-hour bus ride at an absurdly early hour, myself and three friends arrived in Gyeongju, a south eastern providence populated with green, lush rolling hills and a, most beautifully, the ocean. From the bus terminal, we caught another smaller, shorter bus to what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. With one large billboard on the side of the road as our clue, we walked to where we hoped the temple would appear. A short 15 minute walk later, we crossed an inconspicuous road and headed onto the temple grounds.

From the first building we walked into, I knew the experience was going to be different than I had anticipated. The check-in building (there is a check-in building?!)  was scattered with what I assumed were employees, a few computers, a mini kitchen and other guests who, as we had, just arrived. I suppose unrealistically, I expected an isolated community devoid of technology. We were given name tags, temple clothing, a schedule of events, a temple map and a rundown of how the next day would go. Don’t drink, don’t eat any meat, be respectful… the basics.  We got the keys to our room and headed to drop off our bags and change into our temple gear.

The clothing was a bit absurd; the temple wear consisted of brown, huge, scrub-like pants that wrapped and tied at the top and velcro-ed at the bottom, paired with a bright orange vest. Fantastic! Our room was incredibly nice; it was a big, empty room for three of us girls with a big bathroom complete with a shower and toilet! The accommodations were a nice surprise as none of us had any idea what we were getting ourselves into.

After changing, we attended the first temple event on our itinerary: archery. Here, we met a few of the inhabitants of the temple, a young frenchman studying to be a master at the temple and his girlfriend, also hailing from France. We met a young Polish girl studying martial arts at the temple for one year and a few other individuals simply experiencing the temple for an evening. Archery was entertaining and amusing. After archery, we had two hours on our own, something else I did not expect from a temple stay (I expected discipline, remember?). We walked around the temple, got our bearings and enjoyed the outdoors, a welcome change after being stuck in Seoul for weeks.

The temple grounds themselves were beautiful. Situated on the side of Mount Hamwol, as we walked up the paved roads of the temple and passed several different buildings, we ascended the mountain. The main shrine was near the top, only topped by seven rock caves used as prayer sanctuaries and a stone sculpture of a Maya Tathagata Buddha. The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. Unexpectedly, on my part at least, it was then that we found out just how popular of a temple Golgusa Temple actually was. It is one of the most visited, popular temples in Korea. So, on our particularly beautiful fall Saturday afternoon, we were amidst a sea of tourists, cars and (gasp!) even large tour buses. Isolated and serene? Perhaps not.

After our “break” spent wandering the temple grounds, it was time for our first temple meal. Girls and boys were to sit at separate tables, on the floor, of course. The food was simple, fresh and vegetarian, which is exceedingly rare in Korea. At the temple, you can leave absolutely nothing in your dishes. Everything you take, you must consume. No questions asked. Luckily, the food was not too spicy. That had the potential to be an unpleasant disaster.

Post-dinner called for an orientation of sorts. We learned how to bow correctly and watched a video on the history of Sunmudo, an unlikely pairing of activities. Golgusa Temple is especially known for it’s practice of Sunmudo, a cross between martial arts and meditation. Golgusa Temple is one of the only places in the world where Sunmudo Masters are trained and their art is practiced. In front of the main shrine, performances are held daily for onlooking tourists. Here is a video of the Sunmudo Masters at Golgusa Temple, in front of the main shrine: Sunmudo Video.  After our incredibly compelling introduction to Sunmudo, we had the pleasure of participating in night chants and watching a Sunmudo test.

Night chants consisted of monks chanting, other members of the temple chanting and lots of bowing. The actual number of people residing and practicing at the temple permanently, or, at the very least, semipermanently, was actually rather small. Maybe fifteen people in addition to the monks? These individuals were mostly twenty and thirty-something Westerners. Embarassingly, I spent a significant amount of mental energy during my temple stay trying to figure out what they were doing living at Golgusa Temple. I was so curious! What life events led them to choose this path? Was it temporary? Permanent? Were they Buddhist? I sincerely wish I had had the opportunity to chat with someone.

The Sunmudo test was really, incredibly, incredibly intense. The individuals were the aforementioned Westerners residing at the temple. They spend their days learning this craft from the masters and they were being tested in front of the head of the temple, a Sunmudo legend of sorts. It seemed as though his responses to their performances were priceless. The older masters were laughing, those being tested were red faced, sweaty and, in some instances, crying. As in many moments of my life as of late, I wish I could have understood what he was saying.

The finale to our evening was a brief, but nevertheless challenging, Sunmudo training. Our lack of flexibility proved to be detrimental to

The Sunmudo test was the finale to our evening. Lights out at 10:00 PM.

3:45 AM wake-up call. As perhaps you can imagine, this consisted of a monk walking around the grounds banging what appeared to be a small pot. As we had not been able to fall asleep until significantly after our 10:00 PM lights out, the wake-up call was a harsh reality. In the pitch black, frigid night we made our way up to the main shrine for morning chants, meditation and a meditation walk. The morning chants and meditation were more what I had envisioned my temple stay would be like. Lit by candles and led by the temple monks, it was relaxing and awakening. It was surreal, to be kneeling in a small shrine, with no more than twenty other bodies, all devoted to a life of prayer and discipline. This is what I came to experience.

The meditation walk was disappointing at best. Assembled in a line, we made our way back to the bottom of the temple grounds at a painfully slow pace. Not in the woods, not off the beaten bath, on the same paved roads which we had taken to get to the morning chants.

Post-slow walk was an epic experience. The Buddhist Ceremonial Breakfast. While this is not my photo, it gives you an idea of what we began with: Flickr.  Everyone was seated in two long rows on the floor facing each other. We were handed a set of bowls, chopsticks and a napkin. Following the lead of the heads of the temple, seated at the front of the room, we disassembled and assembled our bowls and napkins in an extremely purposeful, mindful manner (in complete silence, of course). Everything in this meal occurred in a very specific order. The bowls were to be placed in specific locations in front of us, each one designated for a different purpose: one for water, one for soup, one for rice and one for sides. We were to take a piece of kimchi, dip it in our soup to clean it off and keep it to clean our bowls after our meal. We were served my monks-in-training. Every single morsel and spice was to be licked clean off of your bowls before beginning to clean your bowls and silverware with hot water and a clean piece of kimchi. If the monks were to see a single grain or speck of anything left in the water, the entire temple would have to drink the “dirty” water. It was a surprisingly intense, long meal.

Truth be told, I spent the meal absolutely terrified I was going to do something abominable at any moment, like drop a bowl on the ground, break the silence and waste an entire vat of food. Whew!

Post-meal was nap time, followed by a tea ceremony with the head monk of the temple, which was more interesting than I anticipated. He spoke to us about the core values of Buddhism. At my own core, these definitely resonate and ring true.

Tea time was followed by a somewhat awkward, rushed visit to three “tourist” attractions in the area, all three of which now escape me. It was awkward for a few reasons. One: it was just Jacey, Suzanne and I with a personal driver in what seemed to be a van cab. Two: We were in our temple gear in public, looking like prison inmates. Or worse, escapees from a mental institution. Three: We were rushed around not really understanding what we were doing with our little cab man.

However, the entire trip was worth it just to see the ocean. Having spent just over one year living in the Bay Area, I developed an addiction to the water. I didn’t realize how much I loved the open space and the water until I was in, apologies for the cliche, a concrete jungle. I never want to live away from the water again.

All in all, the temple stay was a unique, interesting experience. However, even weeks later, I still have this nagging feeling that it all just wasn’t genuine, which is the reason I think I was so disappointed. Maybe I went into it with too many unrealistic expectations. Maybe it was the presence of tourists. Maybe my suspicions are correct and it is all just a tourist sham. Or maybe, just maybe, it is, in fact, truly genuine.

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