I don’t think about religion very much. Despite my Catholic upbringing, I have a hard time seeing it as real.
But I’m not a wave-maker. I don’t instigate theological conversations at Thanksgiving and I don’t mock the faithful. Sometimes, I even envy their ability to believe.
It just doesn’t seem to be in me. In fact, I still remember preparing for my first communion in second grade, when they told me that I’d be consuming the actual body and blood of Christ; I got in trouble for telling the other kids that it wasn’t really real.
So I feel a little discomfited by the prospect of my trip to Gyeongju, a southeastern province in Korea that hosts Golgulsa, a Zen Buddhist temple where I’ll be staying for the weekend. I’m not doing this for me. It’s been some time since I’ve had any certainty about the existence of life beyond the corporeal, but my friend Ellen is another story.
For as long as I’ve known her, she has displayed a flare for the mystical and an interest in spirituality. It seems normal that she is concluding her year of teaching in Korea with a three-month stay at this monastery, studying Sunmudo, a type of martial art combining meditative practices, gymnastics, martial arts and exercises reminiscent of yoga. And while my post-teaching objectives run more along the lines of mai tais and white-sand beaches, she has been away at the temple for six weeks, and I miss her. Korea isn’t the same without her to enjoy the indescribably delicious bulgogi barbeque or down pitchers of watery Hite, the Pabst Blue Ribbon of Seoul.
If temple rules of conduct aren’t too strict, I think, maybe I can even sneak her out for a few drinks. I picture monastic life as restful, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not to be my experience.
After a welcoming hug, we begin walking the mountain path to our accommodations as she translates a rigid itinerary that will dictate our actions at Golgulsa. Wake, visit temple, run, conduct bows in temple, eat, temple meditation, Sunmudo, outside meditate, sleep. I have to ask her to repeat herself when she states that we will be waking at four in the morning. Surely not! Once I process that, it strikes me that this sounds like a whole lot of church.
Just when I’m adjusting to that somewhat uncomfortable idea, she reminds me of the strictly vegan diet observed here. I allow myself a soft sigh as visions of sizzling bulgogi beef wrapped in sesame leaves fade away. On second thought, I suppose I could still have the leaves.
I set my pack in Ellen’s Spartan dwelling, completely devoid of furnishings save a pair of mats to sleep on, a thin blanket, and a small, flat pillow filled with cut straw.
“Welcome to asceticism,” she says, cheerfully. “Don’t worry, you’ll be so tired at the end of the day that you won’t even notice you’re lying on the floor.”
We make our way back down the mountain path to what I think of as the mess hall, though surely a more dignified and monkish term exists. There, we serve ourselves a simple meal of kimchi, plain rice, mushrooms and tofu soup. No one speaks during the meal. I find the silence a shocking contrast to the madness of an East Asian city. And while I am dying to catch Ellen up on my latest escapades as a single white girl in Seoul, that doesn’t seem appropriate here, so I, too, sit silently.
I am supposed to be reflecting gratefully on the food provided, but after about eight seconds of that, my thoughts wander. I recall when I was a child, my mother hovering over me and insisting that she didn’t care if my last bite of taco had been contaminated by sour cream; I was going to eat it because we were lucky to have it and there were starving people in Asia.
Looking to the men segregated to my right at the meager portions of rice each monk allows himself, I think that maybe my mom was right. I’m not supposed to stare; rude in any culture, it is considered downright offensive here. But I sneak surreptitious glances around the room as I contemplate my meal. I have seen other temples in Korea, brightly painted in symbolic patterns of turquoise, red, yellow and white lotus flowers. But inside the mess hall, all is dark slatted wood and beige walls. Though I have dressed modestly for my visit, my sky blue t-shirt still seems absurdly out of place here. Again, I direct my thoughts back to the meal in front of me.
My grandfather, who spent time here during the war, once described kimchi as “cabbage marinated in pepper sauce and sweat.” But after six months in Korea, I manage the staple food well, and I’ve rather grown to like it. But tofu soup is another thing. Tofu has never appealed to me, and until now, I haven’t known why. But it strikes me, in the midst of several somberly clad Korean monks swallowing appreciatively, that the reason I don’t like tofu is that its consistency is approximately that of a used dish sponge. Alas. Complaining is markedly un-Buddha-like, so I swallow my objections along with another spoonful. Even if I had been so callous as to turn up my nose at the tofu, it wouldn’t have gotten me very far. The temple has a no-waste policy, and residents and guests alike are expected to finish what they take, down to the last grain of rice.
After our meal, we meet for meditation. Through other pursuits, I have discovered that I am not very good at meditation, falling victim to what Steven Copeland calls “puppy mind.” I’m supposed to be emptying my mind and focusing only on the present moment, but instead my thoughts bounce about in the silence just like a young lab: keep your back straight–don’t fall asleep–when’s that guy going to call?–God, he had the bluest eyes–how much longer?–I want to go to New Zealand–six more months–seriously, why hasn’t he called me back?–God, my knees hurt–I’m sitting by a monk!–that monk is kind of cute–close your eyes, that’s not allowed–stay awake– And so forth.
I’ve arrived late in the day, so it turns out I’ve missed about half the meditative sessions in the day, for which I am grateful. Still, by the time the gong sounds the end, I am so tired of my own company that I would gladly eat an entire pot of tofu soup just for some additional stimulation.
Before bed, we go to an indoor workout area for Sunmudo training. I’m a little nervous about this, even though I have some experience with martial arts. For the last few months, I’ve been training in Hapkido, a martial art that combines the practice of tumbling, hand-to-hand combat and weaponry. It’s a brilliant physical release, and I get to use a variety of weapons whose existence I had known previously only by way of the Ninja Turtles. My master doesn’t like meditation much either, so we don’t have to do a lot of it, and that suits me fine.
From what I gather, however, Sunmudo is different. According to Ellen, this Zen martial art was practiced exclusively by monks until about twenty years ago. Golgulsa, this very temple, is the Sunmudo headquarters of the world. It’s a big deal, in certain circles. But, Ellen warns, I should not expect the nunchuck-wielding, bow staff-twirling business to which I’ve become accustomed in Hapkido, because Sunmudo is not intended to be martial at all. In fact, it mostly seems to be about breathing. We are meant to use breathing as a bridge between mind and body so they are one. In other words, it’s not about fighting.
“See?” Ellen says. “It’s the perfect martial art because you don’t have to hurt anybody!”
“Uh-huh,” I say, breathing deeply, which is all that I am qualified to do.
Although Ellen is a novice in the practice of Sunmudo, I watch her graceful movements with envy as she mimics the disciplined monks performing quiet feats of balance and agility, while I think longingly of my boxing gloves, safely tucked away in my master’s office. We have a few minutes to ourselves following Sunmudo, but after so many weeks apart, I find myself shy with conversation. So far I have failed both meditation and martial arts. Respectfully, but nonetheless, and I hope I am not embarrassing Ellen. I discover that I don’t know what to say that won’t seem petty or childish in this place of stillness. Ellen seems to understand.
“Come this way,” she says, indicating a path that leads up through the pines, gingkos and Japanese maples, still green in the depths of summer. We hike a short way before she speaks again. “Do you know why this place is named Golgulsa?”
I shake my head. My basic conversational Korean is passable, but my vocabulary shamefully limited.
“It means ‘stone Buddha temple,’” she says, leading me into a small cave at the top of the path.
“Zen Buddhists do not consider Buddhism a religion; did you know that?” she comments.
Again, I shake my head.
“Buddha himself never claimed to be God. If it was important to you, you could be a Christian and still practice Zen Buddhism. It’s just a way of living in the best way possible.”
Just as I’m thinking that is quite decent of him, I duck under the rock ledge and catch my breath; inside is a larger-than-life portrait of Buddha carved into the stone wall surrounded by orange candles glowing with the bright white light of tiny flames. God or no, this seems to me a holy place, akin to Roman Catholic shrines to beloved saints. Perhaps the concept of honoring one who lived well and just, but who was not God, is not so foreign to me after all.
True to form, we’re woken up at four the next morning by a monk hitting a gong outside our doorway. I wince at the pangs in my joints, leftover from last night’s disastrous meditative endeavors. Temple life is hard on the knees.
After chanting and yet more meditation, we make our way to the gymnasium space for bows and chanting. I can only hope to perform better today than last night. As we unroll small mats to kneel on, I chastise myself. It’s not like I didn’t know this was a spiritual place, though the gymnasium space we are in seems more like we are preparing for P.E. worship. Then again, reflecting on what Ellen said last night, it isn’t really worship we’re here for. The bows are to be performed not as a penitent to a deity, but as a sign of honor to a teacher. I am glad that I don’t have to pretend faith. Still, reverence is reverence, and I stand quietly with hands folded in prayer position when it is time. I do my best to echo Ellen’s movement with the full-body bows.
From our standing position, we sink to our knees with a straight spine before falling prostrate to the floor, arms outstretched while we sit back on our feet in child’s pose. That’s only the half of it; we then touch our palms to our shoulders, then back down to the floor, sit back up on our knees while bringing our hands back to prayer position, and stand up again. One down.
But as we go on, I find myself sinking into a slight trance as the ritual repeats to the muffled sound of a wooden gong and the chanting of well-worn words that somehow make the monks’ young voices seem wizened. The chanting is a little reminiscent of hearing an entire congregation recite the Apostle’s Creed: equal parts inspiring and unnerving. I am awkward as a baby giraffe learning to stand for my first few bows and I am concentrating so much on not falling over that for the first time since leaving the city, all other thoughts are excluded. For once, I am not thinking of my family back home or next week’s lesson plans or that guy from my date last week.
How many bows have we done? Forty? Sixty? Finally, I am not thinking but just being–but the moment I realize that I’m actually doing this right, I start to lose it. Suddenly I’m thinking about myself and how I look and whether I’m doing this correctly and just like that, the feeling is gone and I’m self-aware again. I’ve ruined it, and I finish the remainder of the 108 bows feeling contrite.
After breakfast and tea, I bid my friend goodbye for now and make my way into town so I can catch my bus back to Seoul. I have six hours to reflect on my experience on the journey home, with mingled chagrin, cultural awareness and something that might be hope. Obviously, one does not find enlightenment in a weekend–particularly when one is not searching. But I can’t stop thinking about the movement of the 108 bows, which kept my mind steadier than soporific meditation.
I pull out a sheet of paper from the temple’s information packet that details the specific meditative purpose for each bow, among them: I bow to wonder where I came from and where I am going. I bow to know that unchangeable love is flowing through the universe. I bow to call attention to the good in others, but not the bad. I bow for the friends who have been beside me, sharing my laughter and tears. I bow to realize that my life is the movement of my soul. I bow to be thankful for the sight of beautiful wildflowers that are always present. I bow to give thanks for the mountains and landscapes that speak to me through wind and snow. I bow to hope for peace between human beings and nature. I bow to be thankful for all the good and beautiful things in my life.
A weekend stay at Golgulsa is not enough to sway me into a prescriptively spiritual life. But it’s sufficient to make me take off my skeptic’s cloak and think about the type of person I want to be and the kinds of things of which I want to take note–including those things beyond what I can see and touch. And that’s a good start.
Bowing in Temple: Jirka Matousek
Golgulsa Temple: Jirka Matousek
Vegetarian Meal: Jirka Matousek
Sunmudo: Jirka Matousek
Stone Buddha: Jirka Matousek
Golgulsa Bowing and Chanting Room: Jirka Matousek