Temple stays are popular among tourists in South Korea, and you’ll find temples all over the country that offer unique experiences to Temple life. It is a great way to expand your knowledge on Buddhism, learn a lot about Korean culture and history, as well as enjoying a new experience whether you are looking to get something in particular out of it or not. You’ll be happy you tried it and I’d advise everyone to give it a go.
Golgulsa Temple, in Gyeongju is noted as one of the best temple stays in Korea and so it should be. It is the only temple cave in the country, that was built in the 6th century by Saint Gwang Yoo and accompanying monks. It is situated on Mt. Hamwol, and the natural landscape of the mountain surrounding the temple adds to the peaceful ambience throughout the alluring temple grounds.
The temple itself is about a 15 minute, steep walk from the foot of the mountain, and once you reach the temple site you can challenge yourself to climbing around the cliff face, to witness the caves throughout the edges of the mountaintop. There is rope to help you but it’s not for the faint hearted. The sculpture of Maya Tathagata Buddha is at the top of the cliff edge, watching over the mountain and it’s outskirts. Out of the twelve caves there are seven still used as prayer sanctuaries and you must pass these to get to the Buddha statue at the top. A challenge that makes it all worth while to reach the peak, and witness the magnificent view.
The Gwaneum cave that is next to the prayer sanctuaries looks like a typical temple but once you step inside you’ll see cliff edges jutting out of the walls with Buddha statues perched in between the cracks and quaint candles lighting up the cave, which is all carved from the stone that surrounds the temple. It’s a beautiful place to ponder, or just take in the beauty of the place you’re in.
Golgulsa temple specializes in Sunmudo training, an ancient Buddhist martial art form that dates back over a thousand years. Although it isn’t as well known or popular as it’s past, the grandmaster of Golgulsa has over 50 years experience in his training, and travels the world teaching it to others, passing on the art of meditation, yoga and martial arts combined in this sacred form.
The training is very much incorporated into your time at the temple stay, where you practice sunmudo for ninety minutes every morning and evening. It has a great effect on your meditative mood and higher understanding as you learn from the monks and martial arts trainers. You also get to stay alert and energized throughout your stay at Golgulsa, so don’t expect to be laying around during your time there. This training can get your heart rate up, and for those that aren’t impressed, don’t worry – hiking the mountain or climbing it’s cliff face will surely make you break a sweat!
The most challenging part for some may be the early morning chanting, that starts at 4.30 am at the temple. I found this to be the most exhilarating aspect, as we meditated together at sunrise with nothing but the chirping of birds filling the air as they woke themselves. This is followed by a walking meditation back to the bottom of the mountain, which is a very peaceful walk that if done right, keeps you in a meditative movement as you breathe and slowly step forward, connecting your body and thoughts together in a rhythmic movement.
It’s up to you what you take from the experience. You may see it as an extremely early morning walk as you try and stay awake while lugging one foot behind the other, or you can really get into it. Try and meditate with those around you, and enjoy the experience as you slowly walk through a temple site nestled in the mountain, with Buddhist monks and martial art trainers as company, all while the sun rises.
I found it a humbling, majestic moment that I’ll never forget.
After breakfast and some more training of course, then you have the opportunity to sit down with the grandmaster for tea and pick his brains. Whether you have questions for him or not (I had trouble trying to confine mine!) it was intriguing to listen to him speak. As he spoke of his life, delved into the history of Buddhism and discussed society and different cultures, he had a refreshing sense of peace and happiness to him that was a pleasure to witness. He was a humble man with simple beliefs and enjoyed the company of eager visitors as we all sipped our tea and listened to each other.
I’m not sure I’d say that I “found myself” here. .. it’s a pretty big mountain and I only got to the front face of it! I can say however, that I went into the experience open minded and without any idea what to expect, and I left Golgulsa very happy with my time spent there. I learned a lot, I witnessed a new lifestyle that I had never appreciated beforehand, and I enjoyed my time trying new things, exploring the landscapes and taking it all in. All things considered I would definitely go back, but not before I find another mountain with a temple and stay there first.
Have you been to Golgulsa, or any other temple stay for that matter? Did you have a similar impression on your time, or was it completely different? Let me know in the comments and I can start planning my next temple visit!
For more information visit their website and contact them via email to reserve your stay anytime of the year, for as long as you want! The regular package deal for one night is 60,000 won which is very reasonable. The temple is located just outside Gyeongju and shouldn’t take more than 40 minutes to get there depending on traffic. You can take bus 50/70 from the express terminal that will take you straight there.