September 25th, 2008 – by: semiperipatetic
at Seoul train station
Today has not started off very well. I have spent a sleepless night at the hostel sharing a room with the loudest snorer in Asia and I manage to miss my train to Gyeongju! While waiting for my next train I decide to exchange some money at one of the banks close to the station. I cash in my traveller's cheque and in my tired state I dont realise that I have mistakenly been given a EURO rate instead of pounds...
A while later at the station, I am approaced by a girl - it's the girl from the bank which apologises for her mistake and hands me the extra money! She has left her desk at the bank to come and find me at the station (and a pretty big station that is) to hand me the extra 25 dollars. Her gesture makes my day.
Mr Kwon's hostel
At least now I know for sure Seoul has a soul - quite a big one too.
Gyeongju is a pretty town full of temples, parks, a lot of tombs (!) and surrounded by beautiful mountains. Being the former capital of the Silla dynasty it has plenty of things to see. I'm staying at Hanjin Hostel, another popular guesthouse with the backpackers. It is ran by the great Mr Kwon and his son and they are both eager to inform me that Mr Kwon's son-in-law has written a very popular book about Greek mythology which is currently used as a textbook in Korean schools! I shared a dorm with an Andalucian and a French who had decided to spend a night with the monks at Golgul temple. That sounds fun I thought, so I decided to join! Little did I know...
After spending the day visiting Bulguk temple, we finally reach Golgul at 5pm.
view from the stone Buddha
Spending a night at a temple, also known as a temple stay, is something relatively common in Korea. You are provided with food, a place to sleep (usually the floor!) and a chance to observe a monk's life and meditate with them. The difference with Golgusa is that it also offers training in Sunmudo, a Zen martial art. After dinner we hike up the hill and visit the beautiful stone carving of Buddha, dating from the 11th century. I lie down on the rock staring at the sky as it gets darker: all I can hear are Buddhist monks chanting and the leaves on the trees. In the temple garden below, a master is immersing a young monk into sunmudo fighting.
What follwed was quite a challenge: half an hour of chanting with the monks and then 2 hours of sunmudo training! It is 10pm, our legs are aching and we are dying to get some sleep.
I'm not afraid of you
Luis Carlos and I pass out on our room floor only to be woken up at 4am by chanting monks. We spend half an hour praying and then comes the most challenging part of the day: a 30 minute meditation, which means trying to clear your mind while sitting in a very uncomfortable position. All I can think of is that I want to move my legs but I'm not sure if I'm supposed to or if someone's watching! I manage to focus after a while and relax myself. Our Zen meditation is followed by a long walk in the fresh air to keep us awake. I have already experienced a lot of new things for a day and it's merey 7am! After having breakfast we pray again and then perform 108 bows to Buddha. A bow consists of kneeling down and then touching your head on the floor while your arms are raised above your head, the palms facing upwards.
You then stand up again, joining your hands in the praying position. Although quite a tiring excercise, I found it easier than staying still in the meditation position for 30 minutes.
The temple stay was a unique experience, offering a glimpse of a Buddhist monk's life in Korea. I was impressed by the self control and devotion of the monks, not to mention the physical fittness and the impressive art of Sunmudo. After spending less than 24 hous at the temple I felt exausted but also rejuvenated. I can only imagine what it is like to lead a life like this.