I Went to South Korea and All I Found Was Delicious Food and an Overwhelming Sense of Inner Peace

The case for contrasting experiences when you travel

September 28, 2020 10:56 am
I Went to South Korea and All I Found Was Delicious Food and an Overwhelming Sense of Inner Peace
Jake Emen

It’s 5 a.m. as your alarm clock for the day peals out: no, not a digital jingle selected from a list of preset on your phone, but a monk’s chants accompanying the sound of an enormous bell being rung somewhere directly beyond your window. Now roused from your slumber, it’s time to groggily pull yourself up from the small padded mat on the floor upon which you slept. Nature is coming to life all around you as you begin the day with a strenuous hike up a hilly passage to a small mountaintop temple where you’ll spend the next hour participating in chanting and meditation. With your soul nourished, it’s time to nourish the body, heading back down the hill for a vegan breakfast. The meal is observed in silence, allowing you to focus on the solace provided by each morsel of food.

This is your daily life at Golgulsa temple, the home of Sunmudo. The site, located in southeastern Korea outside the city of Gyeongju, offers participatory temple stays for travelers, whether you plan on visiting for a night, a week or months on end. Some visitors come for a weekend and end up staying for six months, others, six years. I spent just a single night, visiting with Intrepid Travel on their South Korea Real Food Adventure, a weeklong culinary adventure across the country. The experience has stayed with me ever since.

What is Sunmudo?

Sunmudo is an ancient art combining Korean Buddhism and Zen (or Seon) with martial arts. The word can be divided into three pieces: sun, meditation; mu, martial arts; and do, discipline. When put together, the word can be literally read as, “the way of doing meditative martial arts.” Early practitioners knew that the mind and the body could be strengthened in tandem, and the combined result would be greater than if you were solely focusing on mental or physical development alone.

The history of Sunmudo in the Korean peninsula stretches back across its famed dynasties, as far back as the Silla Dynasty, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, a period lasting from about 57 BC to 668 AD. Throughout Korean history, Sunmudo monks were seen as a warrior class, called upon when needed, for instance, to repel foreign invaders. The most commonly cited example of this is a late 16th-century Japanese invasion, during which the ruling Joseon Dynasty of Korea emerged victorious.

Sunmudo began to fall to the wayside in modern Korea, particularly during Japan’s occupation of the country beginning in 1910 and lasting through the end of World War II. The lost art was revived in Busan at Beomeosa temple by Monk Yang-ik, and then introduced to the general public at large by Grandmaster Jeog Un Sunim, who established Golgulsa as Sunmudo’s headquarters in the 1990s. Today, Golgulsa welcomes tens of thousands of visitors annually, and while there are only a handful of Sunmudo monks, there are several hundred active practitioners, a number that is growing thanks to additional schools beyond the one at Golgulsa.  

Sunmudo in action.
Jake Emen

Most visitors come to take in the spectacle of a Sunmudo demonstration, wherein the actual monks and temple residents showcase their hard-earned talents, a dazzling display of physical might and flexibility. Such demonstrations help fill the coffers with donations and raise awareness for the largely lost practice, perhaps even enticing a few visitors to give it a try for themselves. It’s not merely a foreign curiosity, either; the bulk of visitors who take in a demonstration and come to the temple for an afternoon are Koreans. Beyond Intrepid Travel, other tours make stops at Golgulsa as well. You can also can visit the temple’s website for more information on how to directly arrange a stay with them or simply to learn more about Sunmudo in the meantime.

Staying at Golgulsa Temple

When you arrive for your temple stay at Golgulsa, your first task is donning special robes for the duration of your visit, faded yellow vests atop sturdy gray martial arts pants signaling your position at the bottom of the totem pole. Then it’s time to begin settling into your new routine, each day beginning with an early wakeup call and a chanting session.

After breakfast, it’s time for stretching and meditation, and the 108 prostrations — a ritual I now refer to as meditation via physical defeat. Bowing doesn’t sound particularly challenging, even if you have to do it more than 100 times while beginning each movement from the floor, though you’d be amazed at how the activity zaps your body of energy, particularly as you attempt to keep pace with the rapid, rhythmic thwapping made by a stick-wielding instructor.

The discipline it takes to follow the routine past exhaustion works in a way that shuts off your thinking. There’s no free mental bandwidth for contemplation, forcing your only focus to be on the repetition itself. You’ll find, at least in a rudimentary kind of way, a cleared mind.

In the afternoon there are group chores, intensive martial arts training — incorporating aspects reminiscent of everything from karate and tai chi to yoga — tea ceremonies with monks, and plenty more chanting and meditation. At the end of an exhausting day, you’ll retreat back to your largely barren room, with its wooden floors and simple bathrooms entirely devoid of decor or distraction.

Two statues of Deva kings at Golgulsa

As for those quiet, reflective meals — a formal monastic meal ritual known as barugongyang — it’s fair to say that I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life dreading quiet dinner tables. Not when by myself or only with a partner or close friend, but a large group meal eaten in silence? A nightmare scenario. Something must have gone wrong to produce such dreaded and deafening silence, and assuredly I’m not the only westerner who feels the same.

It would be one thing if the ordeal transpired within an otherwise boisterous environment, with music in the air and sounds emanating from the kitchen, laughter and conversation bouncing off the walls from other tables, if not from your own. At Golgulsa, though, it’s totally silent … and yet, mealtime was almost shockingly pleasant and communal. It’s simply a quiet, shared experience as you focus on the food and reflect on what you’ve been doing or will be doing later, acknowledging who you’re there with in the moment.

The food, all of which is vegan, is more robust and flavorful than you may expect, fulfilling and clean, spearheaded by dishes such as pan-fried tofu in red chili sauce, sautéed greens with sesame seeds, bean sprout soup, and kimchi. No alcohol is allowed, and men and women sit at different tables. It’s an enriching meal that matches your focus on both physical and mental training, discipline and personal development. You can eat as much as you want, though you cannot waste anything that you’ve served yourself, as it would be disrespectful to the ingredients and those who prepared the food. 

This isn’t what most people think of when they’re conjuring up a trip to Korea. It certainly wasn’t at the forefront of my own itinerary, either. No, I spent my pre-trip days salivating over long nights fueled by soju and Korean BBQ, and make no mistake about it, I enjoyed more than my fair share of both over several weeks spent in the country.

A visit to Golgulsa in the midst of such overindulgences, though, offered an unexpected cleanse, and not just from the food and the booze. It was also a cleanse from social media and the endless hunt for good wifi, and from the need to always be immediately onto the next best thing. It was a chance to hit the reset button, physically and mentally, and just, well, be. To exist in time and space surrounded by other humans, most of them unfamiliar to me, and think of nothing beyond that.

The following evening, in Busan, our group feasted, drank, played games and generally did everything else that we were in Korea to do. Hey, we earned it. We weren’t not monks, after all, despite our playacting as them the previous night. It was transformative while it lasted, though, and if I managed to retain even a sliver of that discipline and mindfulness, it was time well spent.


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