24 Hours in a Buddhist Temple


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:


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:


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:


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:


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


Creepy bald children.

One of the shrines nestled into the rock.

Why is this guy cleaning his ear?

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.

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

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?

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

(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:

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.






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/


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