A Day at Golgulsa Templestay Program

Five am on a Sunday morning and I am woken with the sound of a dull bell and a monk chanting, coming through some runny speakers outside my room. I put my templestay uniform on and run my hands through my hair before realizing it doesn’t matter because I am about to put a beanie on to face the minus degree temperature outside. It’s a one kilometer walk up a steep hill to get to morning prayer and meditation where everything is chanted in Korean. They have the words written in the English alphabet but still in Korean so I am left with no idea what we are saying.

To some this will sound painful but it is part of templestay life and worth every frost bitten second to switch off, relax and get a better understanding of myself.

There is one dish that is available at every meal at Golgulsa, rice. It seems at times to be a blessing and a curse. This all depends on what other food is offered. Meals at the temple are like ice and fire. Some dishes are bland like the bean sprouts or rice. Others, burn your tongue and send the remains to be cremated at a volcano. Half the time, I am unable to identify what I am eating but if you put in on your plate, it must be eaten. It is a temple rule that you do not waste any food, every single grain of rice must be consumed.

So rice can be a curse, in that you hope for something different, but there it is again, meal after meal. it can also be a blessing as it is the one thing I know I will eat. A food I can fill myself up with when all other options could be a hit or miss affair. It would be nice to have some meat but temple life is a vegetarian existence. The meat has to wait till I am back in Seoul.

The dining room is divided into four sections. One small section is for the monks to eat their meal. Another small section for staff and the remaining two larger sections are divided into male and female eating areas. You eat at the table that relates to you and there is supposed to be a no talking rule but it is not really followed. People do speak softer though, maybe fearing a rebuke from a monk or staff member.

Three meals a day are served in this way at the temple and while it may seem like I am complaining

about the food, I’m not. Food at the temple is for sustenance and to sate hunger. It’s not specifically fancy or extravagant and that’s the point. It’s simple, hearty fare. It would be nice to have a steak right now though.

The program at a templestay is nearly identical from one day to the next. Most people stay one or two nights but there are some who stay longer. One man I have met has been here for four weeks. I am staying for one week. There is also an option to be a long term student but you must be single with no kids so that isn’t an option for me. I think I am lucky enough that my wife lets me come to Korea for three weeks as is.

There is always a tea ceremony and talk from a monk on the program. It isn’t a full formal tea ceremony like you might imagine but there is a formality to it that is lovely. You sit in a circle and listen to the monk and then, in my case, to the English interpreter who translates everything for foreigners. They are very welcoming to non Korean speakers. Today’s talk was about meditation and was full of useful tips so I was scrambling writing notes most of the time.

Lunch is at 11:30 and once again, rice was on the menu. They had salad again which was great even in the cold weather.

Meditation or archery is the afternoon activity depending on which day of the week it is.

Both are enjoyable with meditation being a great way to find some time for peace and focus your mind. Archery helps to focus your body and breathing and is done in a traditional Korean way. Being as it is Sunday at the temple, it is the one day that neither of these activities run and you are left to find your own activities.

In the afternoon at Golgulsa there is always a demonstration of Sunmudo. As it is winter, it is performed inside and visitors crowd the small room to see the masters perform. Today, there is also a dance performed and two ladies sing what I imagine is a traditional Korean song. It is wonderful when the visitors start clapping along with the song at one point.

The demonstrations are always spectacular. The control that the masters have over their bodies is impressive and this is reflected in the patterns they present. The yoga demo though blows me away. His flexibility and balance seem beyond human. Seeing him do push-ups on two hands with his body on the air, parallel to the ground, seems like an act I would only believe Superman could do, or maybe Batman.

There is also only one Sunmudo session on a Sunday and that is still to come. It is an opportunity to learn from those same masters and every second of their time is precious to me. For now it is off to dinner.

The final sessions for a day at Golgulsa involve another turn at the chanting ceremony as well as Sunmudo martial arts training. The chanting is similar if not identical to the morning session at 5:30 except I am more awake. We finish the session with meditation which helps clear the mind before the martial arts practice.

Sunmudo is such a dynamic martial art and having the masters teach it here at Golgulsa is special but I think it is the location as much as anything else. My Master in Seoul is awesome as well and he is a great teacher. Training at the temple is more of a “follow along” situation although they do offer tips when they can. The language barrier is the main issue. Either way, it is so much fun and such a challenge to the body in different ways to the other martial arts I practice.

Now it is time to get ready for sleep. Lights out is at 10 pm and with the day starting over again at 5 am it is important to get a good nights sleep.

A templestay is a fantastic experience and for martial artists of any discipline, I think a stay at Golgulsa would enrich your martial arts journey.

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