A temple stay for the tireless

by Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

We jogged up the short hill from the main road to the Golgulsa Temple gates. Check-in was listed as between 2 and 5 p.m. It was 5:10 p.m., and our tardiness wasn’t helping my nerves. My partner Jason and I were heading into a temple stay, and I was filled with anxiety. Meditation is something I think I ought to do because of all the benefits, but the idea of 4 a.m. makes me scowl; there can be nothing beneficial about being awake that early, no matter how many centuries the monks have been doing it.

Both Jason and I have been training in martial arts for most of our lives. For the last 10 years we’ve stuck to training in hwarangdo, a style derived from the traditions of the ancient Hwarang warriors of the Silla Dynasty. Since the tea ceremonies and quiet meals of a traditional temple stay didn’t have much appeal, we found one with warrior monks instead. The monks at Golgulsa Temple train in sunmudo, another style derived from the Hwarang warriors. 

The first night started out easy. We ate dinner. We had an orientation. We met the other guests. We were told the CliffsNotes version of meditation practice. We listened to a chanting service.

Then we meditated. This was the thing I really dreaded: sitting still in an uncomfortable position and thinking of nothing. We pulled out cushions, placed them on the cold floor, sat and breathed. I made it about five minutes before my thighs started to ache, so I focused on my breathing. But my foot cramped. The back of my arm itched. My thighs hurt. I had to straighten my leg; I slid it forward as silently as I could. I itched my arm. And when the lead monk hit the drum, I folded my leg back in to hide my failure.

Next, it was time for training, the thing I was most excited about. The beginner group started with front kicks; the instructor demonstrated how to stand and kick forward with his hands moving in time with his feet, and then we copied him (or at least tried). The side kicks were harder, but I smiled as I wobbled and hopped to keep one foot off the ground. This was my version of fun!

Just as expected, our 4 a.m. wake-up the next morning came far too soon. We started with chanting, then sat in meditation for another half hour before we went outside for walking meditation. After several slow circumnavigations of the stupa, we turned downhill. This kind of meditation was much more to my taste; I was moving and outdoors, the two states I most love, and though my thoughts still wandered, I was aware of the present moment. The sun crept over the horizon, the birds murmured to each other in the trees and clouds turned from gold to white as I stood and watched. Here was my kind of peace. 

Later that evening, after watching a martial arts demonstration and eating dinner, we had our second evening training session. I thought I had an idea of what to expect and made sure to wear a long-sleeve shirt under my vest and put on a thick pair of socks. Training started as one big group. The head monk said jog, so we did. After about five minutes, I was warm, and after 10, I tossed my sweater in a corner. After 15, I was regretting the extra long-sleeve shirt. When we stopped running, we changed to walking with our hands on the ground, both backwards and forwards. We walked like ducks, did wheelbarrows and leap frogs, and with all of us sweating and panting, the lead monk just smiled.

The next morning, training started with jogging in two lines. We ducked, dodged and kicked our way to the top of that hill that had taken me 15 minutes to walk up. At the bottom of the stairs, I had sweat running into my eyes, despite the frost still melting off the grass. I prayed we were done. Instead, the senior monk crouched down and hopped up four stairs like a black-clad frog. Behind him, we hopped as well as we could: I made it to the second-to-last stair and hopped, but missed the top of the last step and went sprawling. I landed face first at the monk’s feet. He smiled, gave me a thumbs-up, then began walking headfirst down the stairs in a perfect push-up position. We gawked as the stairs turned into a series of planks and push-ups. I made it halfway down before he called us in for the bows.

If it had been simple bend-at-the-waist stuff we would’ve been fine, but instead we knelt, placed our heads on the floor and stood back up. One hundred and eight times. The first dozen or so involved a lot of popping knees and creaking joints. By the end we were wobbling; we had to use our hands to push ourselves vertical at the end of each bow. Afterwards we put away our pillows and went into a tea ceremony, and as we eased ourselves into seated positions, the monk chuckled. He said we looked like survivors.

I don’t know that I found inner peace through my temple stay at Golgulsa Temple, but it felt good to use my muscles, breathe cold air into my burning lungs and cheer on my fellow trainees. The mountain we climbed has been home to warrior monks since the Silla Dynasty, and my hops up those stairs were the same route taken by Hwarang warriors. And although sunmudo is a different style to my own hwarangdo, they share a common ancestor, one whose footsteps I was following. For a few days, I lived in that community. The daily routine of meditation and training suited me more than I thought it would, and if I have the chance, I will happily spend another few days being chased up a hill by a monk or shooting arrows into the muddy ground.

GETTING THERE

Take the KTX to Singyeongju Station, then take bus 50, 60, 61, 70, 203 or 700 to Gyeongju Bus Terminal. Transfer to bus 100 or 150, get off at Andong junction (about a 50-minute ride) and walk 15 minutes up to Golgulsa.

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