Gogulsa temple stay

On my last day in Gyeongju, it rained all day, and I didn’t get out at all. So, I had only one full day in Gyeongju because I’d already booked my next stop. This, alas, stopped me seeing the sites (that I’d seen previous day) at night, when they’re illuminated.

On my list of things to do on this trip was to stay in a temple in East Asia. I found one close to Gyeongju. It was about an hour by bus then a 1.5km walk. I’d been fighting the beginning of a cold and decided to take a taxi to the temple.

On arriving, I joined a few other early arrivals around a table to register for the temple stay. We were told not to wear our own clothes and were given an orange top, baggy trousers, pillow cover and bedsheet before being despatched to our rooms.

I made up my bed, which was a thin futon placed on a hard floor. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet.

The first activity on the schedule was to watch a Sunmudo demonstration. This gave us the opportunity to see the temple grounds for the first time.

This temple combined Zen Buddhism and a martial arts practice called Sunmudo. The audience for the demonstration consisted of people doing the temple stay and day visitors to the temple.

The demo started with the head practitioner speaking in Korean for about 15 minutes. We thought there’d eventually be a translation. There wasn’t. Then someone came on the platform and did some martial arts moves, which were impressive. He was succeeded by a woman, who was managing our registration earlier. She did some equally impressive poses, contorting herself into various shapes. A third person sang and was followed by the main man himself with a display of extraordinary strength and flexibility.

After the audience had posed for some selfies with the performers, we went to induction. This consisted of a cartoon explaining the rules and etiquette during our stay.

Our first bit of action was Sunmudo training, which was a cross between doing martial arts and yoga. Most of us emerged somewhat sore — either out of practice, not flexible in the first place or pushing ourselves more than was prudent.

Straight after, we were into the 108 prostrations, which consisted of repeatedly standing and prostrating. Sometimes the monk leading the session was quite fast and it was difficult to keep up. I ended up skipping a prostration or two to get back in sync. Most of us weren’t convinced we’d done 108 prostrations but were thankful the somewhat monotonous session was over.

Dinner was at 6pm and was a help-yourself canteen affair. The food available was mostly vegan, simple and filling. We went to bed at 9pm for an early start.

Just before 5am the following morning, various alarms — first gentle then increasingly strident — went off. Most of us emerged from our respective rooms, somewhat bleary eyed. Some didn’t make it out for the sitting meditation or the walking meditation before breakfast at 6.30am.

Breakfast was similar to dinner with the addition of toast and jam being available and some small seaweed sheets.

At 9am, those of us who had signed up for the optional activity got on the minibus for a trip to the coast for some walking, meditation, and Sunmudo on the pebbly beach. We drove to another location to look at a temple ruin and a bit more meditation.

We returned in time for lunch at noon. Those who’d booked just a one-night stay left the temple. I booked for two nights. The afternoon was a repeat of the previous day with the exception of an optional activity (archery). My roommate suggested we sign-up and we did just in time to join the five other people. After some basic tuition, we shot at the target, which seemed a long way away. Our instructor (whose shots didn’t hit the target at all) told us that our shooting would improve over time — and it did. I enjoyed it very much. It was more strenuous than I’d imagined. My index and middle fingers were red at the end of the session through pulling the string back to fire the arrow.

The rest of the day was a repeat of the previous day. I joined the Sunmudo session. However, I noticed most people had opted out!

Just before the session started, I learnt from another attendee that he was delayed on the first day because, when he went to get a train ticket, he was told all tickets had been sold out. He had to get a bus, which took twice as long as the KTX (“bullet”) train.

When I took the train from Seoul to Busan, I had bought an advanced ticket, despite the website being difficult to use. When I was on the train, I noticed people sitting on the few pulldown chairs next to the exit doors. I thought you could always buy a ticket and sit on one of those or the floor — or stand up. I learnt that day that if you can’t buy a seating ticket, you have the option of buying a standing ticket — although these too sell out! So, you can’t just rock up, buy a ticket, and board the train. When I looked at the Korail website, there were tickets before 9.30am and after 10pm. So, I booked the 9.15am train and asked the temple to order me a taxi to the station for 8am the following day.

That evening, I got talking to two Koreans, who were also doing the temple stay. We were just walking on the temple grounds since there’s nothing to do after dinner. They told me that these sorts of temples were commercial enterprises. The “monks” all drove fancy cars! As we were walking, we noticed a cafe/restaurant just outside the temple grounds. Technically, we weren’t allowed to go in the cafe since the joining instructions said not to leave the grounds. We popped our head into the cafe and saw several monks eating there! It seemed the basic temple food was not good enough for them.

The following morning, my taxi was on time and the 45-minute taxi journey was smooth and scenic. I got to the train station early. It was just as well I’d bought a ticket. The ticket office said all seats, standing and sitting, had been sold out.

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