Our phones are worth shit?

That’s what the sign says…

Our phones are worth shit, literally

The word after the poop means ‘value; worth; merit.’ I’m not sure what kind of a message that’s supposed to send to your customers.

As seen in Taewha-dong, from the bus en route to Busan.

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Energetic challenge of bulls! Sparkling crash!! Shouting for joy!

(Title taken directly from the English brochure**, in case you couldn’t tell.)

Last weekend was the long-awaited Bullfighting festival in Cheongdo. It had been delayed for a month due to Hoof and Mouth Disease, which has been shutting down festivals across the country for months (including those that don’t seem to involve any hooves, like the Jindo Sea Parting Festival).

The word ‘bullfighting’ probably brings up images of Spanish matadors and a fight to the death. But Korean bullfighting is quite different – bulls fight each other, and neither one is killed or even really hurt. But animal rights groups in Korea (yes, they exist over here in the land of eating dog and whale) have been trying to shut the festival down for years, claiming animal cruelty for forcing the bulls to fight and potentially feeding them performance-enhancing drugs. Those in favor of the festival claim that this kind of fighting is something bulls have done for thousands of years in pastures across the country. Which side is right? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but here’s my account…

Getting to the tiny city of Cheongdo was a bit of a pain – although the city borders Ulsan to the west, there’s no direct route. Getting there involved taking no fewer than two buses and two trains. As we were switching to the slow train in Daegu, we found ourselves surrounded by many big groups of loud foreigners headed to the festival. The festival seems to draw a lot of waygookens, as the main promotional picture prominently features a big group of white people.

Upon arrival in Cheongdo, we were quite eagerly greeted by a very friendly festival information booth, where they provided me with the Cheongdo tourist pamphlet the title of this post came from and led us all the way down the street to the local bus station (before being pulled away to talk to a ‘big group of Americans’). The bus took us to the city’s giant bullfighting stadium, where by early afternoon many cars already lined both sides of the road.

I felt like there were some mixed signals coming into the event:

Welcome to the Bullfighting Festival!
Aww! So cute.

An angry bull
AHH! So terrifying!

The bulls were on their hour lunch break, so we headed out back to check them out.

A drunk idiot tries to fight with one of the bulls
The first thing we saw was this drunk idiot trying to aggravate one of the bulls. Lucky for him, he failed.

Bulls in waiting
We found them lounging rather lazily in the bright mid-afternoon sun. Seeing them so peaceful like this, it was hard to imagine they’d soon be tearing into each other in the ring.

This one looks sort of like a demon...
Except with this guy, who looks pretty scary.

doesn't it?
…kind of demonic with those horns, no?

Relaxing in the sun after a fight
Apparently the blue stuff is because he got hurt. 😦

Heading into the arena, we met up with some friends who had snagged front row seats. It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t exactly crowded, either. I was expecting a bit of a better turnout.

2011 Cheongdo Bull Fighting Festival

As the fighting started back up, some ambassadors from Serbia and Nigeria were introduced. Seemed like a bit of a random selection.

Here’s how the fighting went down:

Led into the ring
The bulls are led in, one at a time.

Then the handlers try and get the two bulls to face-off, as the animals don’t seem to have any interest in each other.

But once the bulls were facing each other, they’d charge. And so (with a sparkling crash) the fighting begins!

Finally - it begins!

My tourist-y pamphlet outlined several of the techniques that these bulls are supposedly trained in:

‘Horn Hanging’
'Bull wrestling' seems more appropriate

‘Horn Striking’
Locking horns

‘Neck Striking’
Sideways push

‘The Stare Down’ (I made that one up)
Eyeing each other

‘Pushing’


This video was probably the most ‘action’ I saw in an afternoon of fighting, by the way.

The Bullfighting

This kind of wrestling would go on for anywhere from 1-30 minutes or so. Often the ‘fights’ went on for so long because the bulls would lose interest and have to be roped back in several times. Generally they were a bit slow, and so my friends and I entertained ourselves by betting on who would win and how long the fight would last. A winner wasn’t declared until this happened:

And then the next two bulls would be brought out, and this would repeat for a few hours.

So, is this ‘animal cruelty’? Are the bulls mistreated?

My feelings are still a bit mixed. So I did a bit of research

First, a bit of history: The tradition dates back 1000 years, to when the first tribes were farming on the peninsula. It evolved with farmers who used bull fights to settle land disputes. Then, the Japanese prohibited it “fearing any festival that encouraged Koreans to get together.” A gradual revival after independence brought about the Cheongdo festival in 1990.

I would imagine the nationalist roots are a part of the reason it’s stuck around.

The animal rights groups attempting to ban the festival have only succeeded in a slight delay in festivities in 2008. Their main issue seems to be the treatment of the bulls, and that they may be given performance-enhancing drugs. But while such groups have gotten the government to shut down horse fighting on Jeju island, Cheongdo has managed to hold on to its bullfighting.

There do actually seem to be some benefits for the bulls: a longer life away from the slaughterhouse during which they get special meals (boiled beans, medicinal herbs, mudfish, snake meat and octopus, apparently) and plenty of exercise. The bulls we saw looked healthy.

But the fighting didn’t seem to be very voluntary or natural. The bulls had to be pushed quite a bit to fight, sometimes over and over again. They seemed much more content to play in the dirt and ignore each other. And while they aren’t killed, they are roughed up a bit. Apparently the bulls’ horns are filed to a point before matches, and during the fighting they were obviously getting scratched up.

The article offers the opinion of a ‘rodeo expert from Nebraska,’ who apparently should be an authority on the matter of Korean wrestling bulls…anyway these are his thoughts: “When I look at a bull, I know if it has been taken care of or abused,” and also, “they are not forced to fight…they want to fight.”

I still don’t buy it, and I couldn’t feel good cheering with the rest of the crowd when the bulls really got going after each other. But whether or not they want to fight, at least they’re taken care of.

What do you think?

———————————–

This was my first big, nation-wide Korean festival, which was interesting in itself.

First, the cute Cheongdo mascots:
Mascots on hand to cheer on the events

And second, the food available on-site.

The food they had far surpassed what would be available at an American festival-equivalent, which would be… hot dogs? popcorn? cardboard pizza? They had full menus of traditional Korean favorites and all kinds of barbeque, being cooked on-the-spot.

We grabbed some beef soup, in honor of seeing the cows, and some dong-dong-ju, which is a sort of rice wine served out of a bowl and drunk from littler bowls (like makkoli):
Lunch at the festival

This meat was also available:
Another lunch option:
(If you can’t tell what it is, there’s a picture in the background.)

———————————–

From the festival, we headed to the other big attraction in Cheongdo: The Persimmon Wine Tunnel

On the way there, we passed some pretty flowers.
Pretty flowers

Like many other cities in Korea, Cheongdo is famous for persimmons. But Cheongdo is unique in that they turn their persimmons into a sweet white wine.
Entrance to the Cheongdo Wine Tunnel

The low-lighting and wine and cheese plates provide all the makings of a good date spot, and according to my Cheongdo tourist pamphlet “It is very popular for date course”.

'It is very popular for date course.'

At the end of the tunnel, we ran into the Siberian and Nigerian ambassadors and entourage. It kind of seemed like everyone left the festival and headed to the wine tunnel.

Wine and wine glass

I wasn’t a huge fan of the persimmon wine. It tasted good at first sip – sweet and dessert-y. But as I drank a full glass, it got worse and worse. I think other places probably do sweet wines better.

_______________________

**In closing, a few more English gems from the tourist brochure, because you can’t make this up:
Incidental/Experience Events
Experience bullfighting
Cow& bunga is shooting nicely!

On stage event
Magic show of levitation
Poomba performance to crack up
Bull’s free dancing competition

Official event
Entrance of color guards composed of bull

I don’t know what this cow & bunga business is, but it showed up twice in the program. Could it be anything other than cowabunga?? As in, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s cowabunga?? Googling ‘bunga’ and ‘cow bunga’ doesn’t turn up any other results, so I think this must be so!

In appreciation of cherry blossoms

Before coming to Korea, cherry blossoms had always been something I’d heard about in Washington, D.C. Little did I know that come spring time, this country goes cherry blossom-crazy. Streets in seemingly every city are lined with the trees, and they’re planted all over parks across the country. They seem to be everywhere.

After what’s felt like a rather long winter, it was nice to see some flowers. And while there’s plenty of the trees in my neighborhood in Ulsan, the urban backdrop isn’t very picturesque. So I went searching…

———

First stop: Daegu

Cherry Blossoms
Walking through a park in Daegu on a Saturday evening, the trees looked quite nice lit from below.

The most popular place in the country to see the blossoms is the festival in Jinhae, a small city west of Busan. After reading reports online of four-hour traffic back-ups to get to the festival, I decided I’d just try my luck in Busan. But where? I referred to my tourist map of the city, and thought the green-covered islands in the south looked pretty promising.

Tourist Map of Busan

———

Stop #2: Yeongdo island, Busan

As it turned out, the island is really big – a small city in itself, really – and not quite the natural paradise all of that green on the map had me envisioning. Walking around, I felt more the quaintness of a small coastal town than the rest of metropolitan Busan. We followed some narrow streets up and down steep hills, where houses disappeared down tiny alleyways, their cement walls covered in many different brightly colored paints. After about an hour of trying to follow signs to the ‘Jeoryeong coastal pathway,’ I finally found my way to the green part of the map.

Yeongdo island, Busan

While the excursion was a total failure in terms of finding cherry blossoms, it was still a spring afternoon very well-spent. The pathway goes along the rocky coastline, up and down tons and tons of steps set into the sides of the cliffs facing the ocean.

Yeongdo island, Busan

Yeongdo island, Busan

On one of the beaches there were a bunch of ajummas selling raw fish and soju. Amongst the seafood being sold out of their colorful plastic buckets was something terrible looking called dog penis. Gross.

There were several other people hiking, including a group of Koreans behind my friend and I that had obviously been drinking (which seemed a rather unwise decision for all of the steep steps up and down cliffs they were navigating). One of the men kept offering to take my friend and my’s picture, even though we weren’t asking. He also wanted to take our picture kissing, which we weren’t too keen on. But he was persistent, so eventually we told him we were brother and sister. At that, they all seemed very embarrassed, and his wife bought us both an ice cream.

———

Number 3: Hakseong Park

This park is just down the street from my apartment in Ulsan, but for some reason I had never been. My first week in Ulsan, one of my co-teachers told me something about how “only old people go there,” and I guess it made me less eager to explore. As it turns out, it’s absolutely beautiful in spring and full of cherry blossoms.

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Needless to say, I’m glad I finally decided to check it out.

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A sunny evening in the park, surrounded by flowering trees and floating flower petals. What could be better?

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———

Stop #4: Gyeongju, Bomun Lake

My final excursion to take in the cherry blossoms was to Gyeongju, Korea’s ancient capital and rather conveniently Ulsan’s neighbor to the north. Joining what seemed like a quarter of Korea’s population in Gyeongju on a warm Sunday afternoon, I hopped on a bus to the resort-y Bomun Lake.

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The lake was crowded, but still beautiful. Most of the lake was lined with restaurants, motels, noraebangs, and places to rent bicycles and ATVs, which reminded me a bit of some Michigan towns along the Great Lakes.

Gyeongju World and the hot air balloon experience provide the fancy entertainment on the lake. The hot air balloon looked like a total rip-off to me, as you never actual detach from the rope holding you to the ground and just kind of float for a while.

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Duck paddle boats filled one part of the lake. Please note the mommy duck in the back.

It’s been a very pretty couple of weeks, but the cherry blossoms in Ulsan are officially dead. There’s actually a site that tracks the cherry blossom progress across the country, and I hear they’re just starting to open up in Seoul. But I think I’m finished chasing them. At least after these past few weekends, I won’t be associating cherry blossoms solely with D.C. anymore.

Come quick! People in funny hats!

After work last Tuesday, I got word that people in costumes were dancing around my neighborhood, Byeongyeong. There usually isn’t a lot happening around here, other than lots of drinking and raw-fish-eating and the occasional drunken fight, so it seemed worth a look. As I came down the hill from my apartment, I was greeted by rhythmic drumming and some kind of singing (or maybe more like chanting) being blasted over the PA. A crowd had already gathered, blocking off most of the street. On the small stage, many people in white outfits and funny hats were dancing around and beating on some traditional Korean drums. In the middle was a wizard, which was obvious because of his long white beard and light blue robe.

Byeongyeong festival
What was all the fuss about? Some holiday celebrating a ‘campaign’ against Japan was how my co-teacher explained it – something to do with independence, but not independence day. According to wikipedia, there are several Japan-related holidays.

After a little more drumming, all of the colorful floofy-hatted performers departed, only to be replaced by some all-pink floofy-hatted drummers. They were joined by three traditional Korean masks, and what seemed to be a big alter. Luckily, the wizard remained. There was plenty of more drumming and chanting and dancing, this time in a circle around the alter.


(I tried out my camera’s video for the first time to try to capture some of the music, because I thought it was kind of cool. This is a bit long and unedited. My two favorite dancers were the wizard and the incredibly happy drumming man, who didn’t stop smiling for the hour that I saw him. You can see them towards the end.)

Bowing to the alter-thing
Everyone bowing to the alter. It had some fake pears (I think they were pears?) at the base.

The Wizard-guy is my favorite
His hat is part of the traditional Korean hanbok. But the robe and beard seem all wizard to me.

I like their hats too
I would like to acquire one of these hats.

The event was watched by a sea of ajummas
Please take a moment to note that the crowd consists almost entirely of older women, all with the exact same short curly-poofy haircut. This is the ajumma.

The traditional mask takes a drink
At one point, a ‘well’ was wheeled out and all the masks and the wizard-man drank from it.

Then they made a ‘fire’, which was rather unfortunately just a smoke bomb under some dried brances.
The wizard-guy dances by the smoke

Traditional mask man in front of the fake fire

The festival kind of reminded me of the kukeri festival they do in Bulgaria, for the end of winter. The fire, dancing and drumming in a circle, and funny costumes were all rather similar.
Kukeri Festival
(from the Kukeri festival in Shiroka Laka, Bulgaria)

They went on singing and dancing for another 15 minutes or so, and some guy started giving out apples to many people in the crowd. We were just about to leave when I ran into some of my students. At first I didn’t recognize them…
A couple of my students in some crazy make-up for a dance performance
…as they were wearing this make-up that looked like a mash-up between CATS and Avatar.

A couple of my students in some crazy make-up for a dance performance

I find the way it distorts their noses and eyes a bit disturbing, but it made me want to stick around and see what kind of dance warranted such make-up.

As we waited, we watched three couples of older women dance to dated-sounding disco music. This was followed by a group of slightly younger women in mermaid-ish belly dancing outfits dancing to Shakira.

Then some women dressed like mermaids bellydanced to Shakira...

My students unfortunately were not doing a CATS or Avatar-inspired dance, just some KPop. But it was cool to see them perform, and they were awesome, and I think one of my sixth grade boys has a future as a back-up dancer. The kids dancing after them were wearing flannel shirts tied around their waists, which startled me almost as much as the cat-makeup. ’90s grungy flannel and KPop just don’t seem to go together.

The sign hung up behind the stage translated to ‘citizen bragging songs’. Whatever that means. The dancing went on for another four hours at least, so I guess they had a lot to brag about…

Spring has arrived

…and it’s brought with it five more months in Korea!

Spring on the Taewha

Last week my school informed me I had a week to let them know if I’d be re-signing for a second year at Samil Elementary. Another year in Ulsan sounded like a bit much… but I’ve also rather unexpectedly come to like my sixth graders quite a bit, so much so that I can’t imagine leaving them in the middle of their school year to some new and probably completely inexperienced Native Teacher…

So I’ve decided to extend my contract. As of right now, it’s looking like I’ll be hanging out for an additional five months, or until February 25, 2012.

From there, hopefully I’ll have saved up enough to kick around Asia for a while. On the short list of places to stop by on my way out of Korea – Mongolia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia….

And after that…?

24 Hours in a Buddhist Temple

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There comes a time in many foreigners’ stay in Korea that they decide to do a ‘temple stay’. A popular program widely touted by the government tourist organizations, a temple stay basically allows you to stay overnight at one of the many Buddhist temples sprinkled throughout the country, observing and participating in many aspects of temple life.

Here’s the short version: we chanted (well, listened to chanting), bowed 108 times, meditated, woke up at 4am to do these things, did archery, practiced sunmudo martial arts, drank tea, climbed a mountain, and ate vegan food mindfully, and everyone should try it!

Here’s the long version:

My good friend Paul who lives down the street from me in Ulsan decided to celebrate his birthday with a temple stay. We chose Golgulsa, a temple outside of Gyeongju and not too far from Ulsan, because its famous for a martial art called sunmudo. It’s sort of similar to tai chi, combining martial arts and yoga for meditative purposes.

Coming into the Gyeongju train station, we were greeted by these guys:

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We grabbed some $1 hamburgers in a giant, awesome indoor food market across the street. And then took a rather roundabout way to the temple, which included a 40-minute trek along a two-way highway through the middle of nowhere because we missed our bus stop. We knew we had finally made it when we saw this sign:

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And so with hopes of being able to levitate like that by the end of the weekend, we entered the temple. Just through the main gate we found a big temple stay office, clearly marked in English – this temple definitely gets a lot of tourists. A foreigner came out to greet us and get us checked in. She was from Newfoundland, Canada and had been at the temple for six months, after having taught in Korea for a couple years. She gave us a rundown of the itinerary and our uniform for the next 24-hours, which consisted of some super baggy pants and a kind of awful-colored yellowish vest. We also had to fill out a survey, where my friend Mark wrote his ‘motivation’ for the visit was ‘deification.’ No one seemed to mind…

Our rooms were across the road in a new dormitory building:

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The rooms were very simple, just a big empty floor with plenty of blankets to sleep on (and an internet hook-up and a mini-fridge).

Walking around the temple, I was surprised to find statues of these guys with their ’24-pack’ abs all over the place:

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They seem a bit aggressive and menacing for a Buddhist temple, but I guess Golgulsa is the martial arts temple.

The first activity on our itinerary was archery. I was pretty excited, since I hadn’t fired a bow and arrow since summers at Camp Michigania when I was in middle school. Our archery instruction placed a lot of emphasis on how to breathe. I had never thought of archery as a meditative process, but found concentrating on my breathing really focused my mind and was rather relaxing. While I haven’t retained much of my childhood archery skill, I at least did better than Mark, who managed to hit me with an arrow even though I was standing behind him. At archery I also met my roommate for the evening, a Portuguese exchange student studying business at Korea National University in Seoul.

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I kind of wish I had packed for my visit with the temple uniform in mind. My bright green hooded sweatshirt was not the best match for the outfit, and considering how many pictures I took, I kind of wish I had thought ahead. Not that that goes with the Buddhist mindset of selfessness, but should I ever return I will plan accordingly.

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Next to archery: stone carvings of sunmudo poses. I was hoping we’d get to practice jumping over someone/trees in our training session, but unfortunately they skipped that part.

From archery we thought we were going to have a couple hours of community service, but were given the time off instead. I hear other visitors aren’t so lucky. We went up to the main part of the temple, which was pretty crowded with tourists. It was fun to be wearing our temple clothes amongst all of the Koreans in their trendy, matching hiking outfits.

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We caught the end of one of the temple’s daily Sunmudo performances, which had plenty of dazzling jumps and flying through the air to make us excited for our Sunmudo training later on that evening.

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More muscly statue-dudes and martial arts poses on the side of the main temple building. As far as Buddhist temples go, this one seemed kind of macho.

Other than martial arts, Golgulsa is also famous for a 1500 year-old stone Buddha carving set in the side of a mountain. The trek up to the stone Buddha was a bit perilous, the route so steep at one point you needed the help of a rope ladder. Which made it pretty fun. The path went past several small shrines with small stone Buddhas and other carvings. The Buddha itself was carved about 4 meters above the group, with a small platform in front of it for bowing, and a small sloping ledge to stand on behind that for picture taking, with a rather short fence at the bottom that seemed it would be little help should you happen to stumble backwards.

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Creepy bald children.

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One of the shrines nestled into the rock.

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Why is this guy cleaning his ear?

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Playing it cool in front of the Buddha.

At many temples, meals are eaten in silence to encourage more mindful eating. But at Golgulsa, because we weren’t eating with the monks talking was allowed, although we were still separated by gender for some reason. Meals at the temple are generally all vegan (with the occasional egg), consisting mainly of rice and vegetables. All of the vegetables are grown in the temple, and were probably the best veggies I’ve eaten in Korea. They tell you to take only what you need, and to eat everything you take. You got to serve yourself, so this didn’t seem to be a problem to me. But my roommate didn’t like Korean food, and found it too difficult to finish all of her veggies – yet nothing happened to her when she returned her tray with food on it. This temple seemed to be pretty lenient on their policies, as they get so many tourists visiting for the temple stay program.

After the meal, we had a brief orientation that covered how to bow, our expected behavior during the chanting ceremonies (just follow what everyone else is doing), and what the chants we’d be hearing meant. We very briefly learned a bit about Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We also got some quick tips on how to do zen meditation (the type of meditation they practice at the temple), which was mainly just to focus on our breathing and count our breaths because you’re not supposed to use visualization or mantras in zen meditation apparently.

We joined up with the Korean part of the temple stay group to watch a Sunmudo video, the most impressive part showing monks hoping up the temple’s steep steps three at a time! The visitors for the weekend were six foreigners (five English teachers and one student) and five Koreans.

We were then joined by a group of monks, and the chanting began. I’ve seen chanting in movies I suppose, but never really in person. I was surprised by how nice and musical it sounded. The second chant sped up quite a bit. One monk kept the rhythm on a giant drum and the bowing was in quick succession, one after another. Even without entirely understanding what was going on, I felt rather absorbed into the rhythm and movement of the chant.

From there we swapped out our bowing cushions for yoga mats to practice sunmudo. The warm-up started with five minutes of meditation but then quickly got rather strenuous, with 10-15 or so reps of a reverse plank-type move and full body crunches, among others. The training was led by a Norwegian sunmudo master who had been practicing for over 14 years. He gave instructions in both Korean and English, which was pretty impressive considering neither were his native language. The training itself was rather difficult, with lots of high kicks and spin kicks that involved trying to balance on one foot in a kicking pose while slowly spinning 360 degrees. Unfortunately we weren’t good enough to make it to jump kicks, and so I’m still unable to levitate like the monk in the picture.

After training I learned that apparently some foreigners’ sunmudo experience has been doing 600 sit-ups, which to me would have been incredibly disappointing (and impossible). I suppose it depends on which of the sunmudo masters teaches your class.

Lights out was at 10pm, which gave us six hours of sleep before waking up at 4am for morning chanting. On the itinerary, it clearly stated that missing morning chanting would be a 3,000 bow punishment. The Norwegian sunmudo master mentioned he had missed morning chanting twice, and doing 3,000 bows takes 9 hours! So we were very careful not to oversleep, and ended up rushing up the mountain to the temple to make it on time.

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Running up this hill at 4:15am in the rain was not very fun.

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Morning chanting.

The temple we were in was rather simple but had several paintings on the side walls depicting weird-looking people with eyes all over their bodies. It was raining slightly, and so joining us in the ceremony were a dog and a puppy. I found the morning chanting especially amusing as the puppy kept wanting to play with my roommate and getting in her way as she tried to follow along and bow.

At 5am, we had a half hour of meditation. I’ve tried meditating before, but not very much as I’ve always gotten frustrated and given up pretty quickly. I was no more successful that morning, as I tried to count my breaths but kept getting distracted by some snoring. I kept wondering who had fallen asleep, before realizing it was the puppy passed out behind me. It also smelled quite strongly of wet dog, which wasn’t helping anything.

At 6am we had a Barugongyang, or a ceremonial Buddhist meal. First a junior monk named Lucius, who sounded like he was from New York or New Jersey somewhere, explained the rather complicated directions for our meal. We were given four plastic bowls stacked neatly inside each other, and followed along as he showed us the very specific way to arrange them. First we would be given some water, which we would pour from bowl to bowl to clean them. Then they’d give us our rice and soup, and we should take only as many vegetables as we’d need to get through the morning. All of this would be done in silence, to practice mindful eating.

I was a bit nervous about ‘messing up’ during the meal but tried just to relax and enjoy the experience. One thing that struck me was how we were supposed to be eating mindfully, which I thought meant slowly, yet everyone seemed to finish before me. Did I take too many vegetables? The only sound throughout the meal was the single strike of a bamboo stick to mark each part of the process. After everyone had finished eating, they brought around some warm barley water, which was used to clean your bowls with a piece of kimchi cabbage. Then you ate the kimchi, and drank the tea/water. I can see how this would sound kind of gross, but it actually tasted all right. The final step was to make one more pass with the clean water, which was then emptied into a bucket, except for any food residue left in the bottom, which you had to drink. Then everything was wiped down and put away.


I didn’t take any pictures of the meal, but it looked something like this, with a few less monks.

I thought this effort to waste as little as possible was pretty inspiring, although I was also happy to see our visitor bowls would actually be washed ‘for real’ before being used again. While the process was really long and complicated, I liked that it made me think about everything I was doing so much more than I normally would. I felt very conscious of every aspect of eating, and thoughtful about what kind of an impact it had on the environment and world around me. While mindfully eating, my mind kept thinking about how the food didn’t seem to make a particularly balanced diet – mostly white rice, some vegetables, but not nearly enough dark leafy greens to be getting enough protein, from what I could tell. How can these sunmudo masters survive on that?

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7am fog around the temple entrance.

After our meal we had time for a brief nap before ‘tea and conversation’ with two of the sunmudo masters. We all sat in a circle and discussed Buddhism, temple life and dharma. The tea was good, and the conversation interesting, but I found sitting on the floor to get a bit uncomfortable. Which was not the best lead-in for our next activity…

The 108 bows. I had been dreading them ever since learning of their existence, and didn’t think there was any way I would make it through 108.

Why 108?

“We have 6 doors of perception: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and thought.
There are 3 aspects of time: past, present and future.
There are 2 conditions of the heart/mind: pure or impure.
There are 3 possible attitudes: like, dislike and indifference.

Korean Buddhists use this formula 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108 bows to cut through our Karma.”

For each bow, you are supposed to meditate on one point. The 108 starts and ends with:
1. Homage to the Buddha
2. Homage to the Dharma
3. Homage to the Sangha

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(The setting of our 108 bows.)

That morning my legs had already been a bit sore from bowing and sunmudo the day before. After sitting uncomfortably for tea and then climbing up to one of the small temples in the side of the mountain, I wasn’t really feeling up to it. But I figured I’d give it a try. It was just us visitors and one of the sunmudo masters. We all bowed together in silence, each one marked by the single hit of the bamboo stick. I tried to concentrate on my breathing and see if I could meditate, but found myself a bit too wrapped up with the mechanics of bowing and standing up to really be able to let go and relax. But I did manage to stay on count! At bow number 101, an ajumma came in and pushed one of the girls behind me out of her way to grab a mat. She then pushed Paul’s mat over and tried to tell him something rather stern-sounding in Korean, despite how obvious it was that we were all busy bowing and being silent. It was quite amusing.

I made it to the end! But then my legs hurt everywhere from hip to knee, and even my fingers hurt from helping push me up. And so I spent the next half hour or so on a bench, dreading the climb down the many steps back down the mountain. But the sun was out, and the view was good, and this guy was pretty amusing to watch:

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This guy walked headfirst down the stairs and back up the mountain three times – on his knuckles – to warm up for his sunmudo performance. Hardcore.

It was cool to watch the sunmudo performance as it was done by the masters we had seen in the temple. They had some pretty amazing flying kicks, but the most impressive part was a series of ridiculously high jumps from a seated position. I’m still trying to figure out how this was possible.

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From a seated position. Seriously.

It was definitely an interesting experience, and something I’d recommend to anyone coming through Korea. I’m hoping to try out a few more temples in my time here, and would even consider doing a longer-term stay to work on meditating…and my spin kick.

Go to Golgulsa! —-> http://golgulsa.com/