Doing a templestay in Korea is one of those quintessential things that most expats vow to do before they leave the country. Veeran and I had both always talked about doing one but always put it on the “one day” list, rather than making a solid, immediate plan. When I returned from India in November with nothing but cold, winter months ahead before our final departure day, we knew we had to act quickly to make it a reality.
So, we took to the web to find one for ourselves. With an increasing amount of western tourists wanting to learn more about Korean Buddhism, the convenient templestay website shows temples across the country and the stays that they offer. Think of it as being a bit like booking.com for temples!
Veeran and I spent hours browsing, trying to find a good temple not too far away. To be honest, the process got pretty tedious after a while- as I’m sure you can imagine (especially if you’ve visited any number of temples in Korea), each one seemed to blend into the other. It was difficult to choose one that particularly stood out.
Our friend had mentioned a temple that offered a stay that combined some martial arts with the typical templestay experience. Finally- something that stood out from the crowd. We decided to book a stay at Golgulsa. A temple set in the historical city of Gyeongju that is famous for its sunmudo teachings; a form of Korean martial art, similar to Tai Chi.
We did an overnight taster session, arriving in the early afternoon and leaving after lunch the next day. Our stay was definitely, ahem, interesting to say the least…. If anything, it definitely gave us a bit more insight into Korea’s own unique branch of Buddhism. Here’s what we got up to during out stay!
After arriving at the temple, we started our day with a “meditative” archery session. However, what was supposed to be an opportunity for us to practice coordinating our breathing with the movements of our bodies, ended up being a pretty tense experience with plenty of negative energy to go along with it..
The staff on the templestay consisted of both Korean monks and some foreign volunteers. Sadly, I felt like the Koreans found the foreign guests to be a bit of a nuisance and I also noticed a lot of hostility between the Korean monks and volunteers. (Hmmm, this isn’t like the Buddhism that I’ve heard of before…) We were segregated into 2 groups: our group was lead by a Russian volunteer who was going to show us how to operate the bow and arrow in a meditative way.
The Koreans were up first and we watched their in-depth introduction, trying to decipher for ourselves how exactly to meditate and practice archery at the same time. I was pretty intrigued by the idea of meditative archery!
After around 15 minutes, we were up. The volunteer who was taking us looked tense as her boss looked on. After 5 minutes of her trying to explain the process to us, the monk was shouting at her to hurry up. In the end, she was obviously so broken down that she told us to just start shooting. She even apologised to us and said that this particular monk never gives her time to explain anything to foreign students. This was our first proper insight into the culture, and our first time interacting with a Korean monk. Needless to say, it was not a great first impression. The women was obviously having quite a traumatic experience and that’s the opposite of how you’d hope someone would feel if they moved to another country for a spiritual quest.
I was already feeling a bit miffed about this templestay and was not getting good vibes at all: the complete opposite, actually. Anyway, I tried to keep an open mind as we went along to the sunmudo demonstration. After all, this had been the main attraction to this particular templestay programme and I was curious to see what it was all about.
We sat packed like sardines in the hall as we watched some of the junior sunmudo students do their things. (I say watch- I watched through the guy in front of me’s smartphone.) I was impressed by their ability but had the feeling that the best was yet to come.
Up came the Korean monk who we had watched belittle the Russian volunteer earlier. While this guy doesn’t exactly have the manners of a saint, he definitely does have pretty insane sunmudo skills.
We watched him as he moved into positions that would put the most advanced yogis to shame. Having just completed my yoga teacher training, I was admitedly in awe as he moved from headstands into handstands into redonkulous arm balances. It was absolutely unbelievable.
However, the amount of ego in the room was off the scale.
The attendees of the demonstration were screaming and cheering like Koreaboos at a Big Bang concert. And, oh man, he was lapping it up like a cat getting the cream! When he was finished he was coming up to the crowd and asking them to scream louder for him while he basked in the attention like a puppy. After his performance, he announced to his starstruck audience that he would kindly allow them to take photos with him like he was some celebrity or embodiment of Buddha himself.
Um, wait a minute- is this really what Buddhism is all about?
Everything I had known about Buddhism before this had been the opposite. Where was the modesty, the selflessness and, most importantly, the lack of ego?
For the second time that day, I went back to my lodgings feeling disappointed and full of dismay. The templestay experience was the exact opposite of what I’d hoped it would be.
Meals in the temple are taking in silence and, as students, we’re encouraged to eat our food mindfully and not to waste even a grain of rice. Since being in India, I had decided to finally give up meat, after a year of being a bit of a fair-weather vegetarian. The vegan food was delicious and had that unrivalled sour and spicy taste of Korean food that I find myself constantly craving. It was definitely the high point of my day and as I was eating it in silence, my negative feelings miraculously disappeared for a short while. (The power of food, eh!)
However, I found that the “vow of silence” only lasted as long as the head monks were present. As soon as they walked out, no one seemed to care about being mindful or eating silently. It seemed like people were doing it out of habit, or to follow rules. The true intention seemed to be lost.
I stuffed my face with sticky rice cakes and sweet persimmon slices to try and compensate for an otherwise disappointing experience.
During our orientation, we watched a video (in Korean) which explained the roots of Korean Buddhism to us. Needless to say, those 20 minutes left the foreign attendees completely none the wiser.
Luckily, there was an English lad volunteering who would sit us down to talk about some of the basic principles of Buddhism and sunmudo. We talked a lot about meditation and enlightenment. For the first time in the day, I actually felt like my expectations were being met. I learned something (albeit basic) about the religion for starters and we even managed an attempt at a philosophical debate.
Our main reason to come on this templestay was to try sunmudo. From what I could understand of it, the movements encourage and follow the flow of energy within the body- like I mentioned earlier, it’s a zen form of martial art which is very similar to tai chi.
A lot of the class was basic stretches but we had the chance to learn how to do some kicks. This was my first time to try a martial art and I was surprised at how similar I found it to yoga. (Although, of course, there are no high kicks in yoga!)
There were a few things that I think we shouldn’t have been encouraged to do in an introductory class. Like, jumping in the air, doing a high kick, spinning around and landing on one foot. (Oh my god, so many injuries waiting to happen!)
After a 3:45am wake up and a 15 minute walk, we made it to our 4:30am chanting service. Half asleep, we tried our best to follow along with the Korean chants and bows. It felt peaceful to be up so early in the morning, even if I was half asleep. The punishment for missing morning chant is 1,000 bows (or something like that, I’m probably exaggerating) so I was sure to set my alarm clock!Personal meditation time, as always, was a huge struggle for me! I have the mind of a monkey and struggle to keep my brain quiet for even a millisecond. Any attempt to stay quiet turns into an astral journey where I visit my online banking page, make a few to do lists and go on random trips down memory lane. So, yeah, not really the intended purpose… but I try!
I was excited to do walking meditation as I usually find that, although I never ever manage to clear my mind, I sometimes have good ideas when I’m outside being active. However, it started trickling with rain after a few minutes and we were told to that meditation was cancelled.
Um, isn’t Buddhism about discipline? I’m pretty sure there would be no British marathon runners if we just cancelled things because of rain!
Although I was a bit miffed about the walking meditation being cancelled, deep down I was pretty excited that we could eat sooner!
Our breakfast was a traditional banquet meal that we were to have with the head monks. Although Ive lived in Korea, this was a completely new cultural experience for me. We had soup, rice and lots of banchan (side dishes.)
It’s custom for everyone to finish eating at the same time so we were told we had to eat quickly to keep up with the monks. Even for a quick eater like me, I struggled to keep up! The breakfast seemed to be over and done with in a flash and I was ready for a nap. There were a lot of rules to follow and I always find Korean dining etiquette fascinating. I feel like every time I think I’ve nailed it and have all the rules down, someone throws another one my way. On the morning of our banquet breakfast, I got about 10 more to add to my repertoire!
My spirits were much higher than they had been the previous day- this experience was more what I had imagined. I was actually getting that insight into Buddhist culture that I had hoped for.
We were given the choice between a cultural excursion around Gyeongju and 108 bows. As Veeran and I have been to Gyeongju before (and as we had come for the temple experience), we opted for the 108 bows.
I lost count after about 10 but it was over much more quickly than I had expected it to be. Maybe all those sun salutations I had done in India had paid off! Or, more likely, they might have been kind and told us we had done 108 when really it was 54. Who knows!
The day ended on a high with our talk with the head monk. He was a warm, modest man who reminded me of a big teddy bear. We had tea together and an English translator was there so we could ask him questions. Veeran asked what he used to shave his head and how frequently! So deep…
I was glad that the day ended on a high note and that I didn’t go home feeling the way I had the previous day. The head monk talk offered a lot of insight into Korean Buddhism- I had no idea that Korean monks were soldiers who fought against the Japanese! It was a very grounding experience listening to this monk who told us he had been wearing the same clothes for 20 years- this made me feel even more guilty about all of the material possessions I had at home.
Our experience with the dharma was strikingly different to our experience with the sunmudo master. This is exactly what we expected and hoped our templestay would be like. Even though it was just a short meeting, it made all the difference.
I really hate to be a moan about things but I don’t like to sugarcoat any of my experiences. I’d rather tell it like it is so you know if you hear me ranting and raving about something, then I must have loved it!
If you’re hoping to do a templestay in the future, I urge you not to let our experience put you off. There are so many temples in Korea so obviously, each temple is different. We chose Golgulsa as we were intrigued by the mention of sunmudo but the inflated ego of the monk who was demonstrating just didn’t sit well with me. Some people go and love it though- my friend Elaina from Nomadventura did the same templestay as me earlier in the year (pretty sure this girl is my Irish soul sister in Korea) and had an amazing experience. Check out her blog to read about her own unique templestay experience at Golgulsa.
If I could do it again, I would go to a much smaller temple where you can have a more intimate experience. Being herded around in segregated groups of English speakers and Korean speakers made us feel like we were tourists on a group trip, rather than students having a spiritual and cultural experience. Of course, this was also down to the fact that we were only there for 2 days. It is a tourist activity, no matter what big words you use to make it seem like more than that.
Learning more about Buddhism was something that I really wanted to do in Korea and I feel that, in the end, we did get something out of it. Even if it wasn’t exactly what we imagined. That’s okay though and something that living in this country has taught me over the past few years. Maybe I did pick up some Buddhist qualities after all!
To learn more about templestays in Korea, and to find one near you, have a look at the Templestay website. Since it’s all in English, you don’t need to worry about getting a Korean friend to book it for you!
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Let me know, have you ever done a templestay in Korea? Did your experience live up to your expectations?