Saturday, August 2, 2008

A long weekend. A long story.

Sunday morning we headed out of Jinju early on a bus to KyeongJu City. It was a speedy 2 hour bus ride and upon arrival, we quickly checked into the KeongJu Park Tourist Hotel. It was old fashioned fancy, very dark with no elevator and casino carpets. On the inside, in many ways, I felt like I was in Korea's version of the Overlook Hotel. The exterior had large scale mouldings to give it a look of misplaced grandeur. It had a nightclub called Sham Poooooo, with it's entrance around the back. Out front, I found this sign.

So we settled into 2 rooms on the 3rd floor and went out to explore and have lunch. The city is full of ancient tombs which look like perfectly constructed, large grassy knolls. After lunch we took a taxi to a mountain park outside of the city where we hiked around and admired old Buddhist carvings and historic temples. We cooled off in a river and just enjoyed being in a forest for the afternoon.The next morning after a couple hours in coffee shops, I was determined to see the top of one of the tombs. It was a hot and sunny Monday morning, and not too many people were around so I chose a rather large one and began clambering up it. It became very steep very fast, and I found I needed to grasp fistfuls of grass, using my arms as much as I was using my legs. It did cross my mind, that getting down might be a spectacle worthy of Bonnie peeing her pants. I reached level ground at the top and turned around to admire the view.

We packed up and checked out of the hotel and Christine, Jonathan and Rohanna headed off to return to JinJu. Bonnie and I set out in search of a lotus patch I'd seen whiz by out the window of our taxi the day before, with thoughts of maybe seeing some more touristy landmarks along the way. We found the lotus patch, more tombs, the astronomical observatory and a massive field of yellow and orange flowers. Around 3pm we headed to the bus station to catch a bus to the Golgulsa Sunmudo temple, which is approximately 20km up the mountain side from the city.

Even though I pride myself on not formulating expectations, the temple wasn't exactly what we anticipated. There was a string of large, modern (cement) replicas of old style Korean Buddhist temples, centered around a contemporary 2-story gymnasium where the martial art of Sunmudo is practiced. It was a tad disappointing to watch a bus load of school kids arrive at the same moment as we entered the parking lot. We checked in with an American woman at the Temple office, who explained the daily schedule. Basically we learned that chanting, meditating, bowing and sunmudo training would all took place in the gym. Sleeping and free time could be spent in the main dormitory temple (where all the summer camp kids from the bus would also be staying), and meals were served in the lower level cafeteria. Interesting. As we got up to leave the office, our host suddenly remembered something. "Oh, you know what y'all," she grimaced a little, "I forgot. The schedule will be different with all these kids here. Mostly in the morning routines and eating times. But just try to follow what everyone else is doing, and you'll figure it out." Alright then.

The surrounding of the temple were gorgeous. It sprawls a section of the mountain completely
hidden from any other buildings or reminders of the outside world (except the cars in the parking lot, the temple souvenir shop and the vending machines). At the highest point there is a stunning temple carved out of the rock of the mountain side, watched over by a towering statue of Buddha, which is encased and protected by a substantial glass awning.

As the evening progressed, first with dinner, followed by chanting and then 90 minutes of Sunmudo practice (not exactly a beginner's class), I started to get this surreal feeling that I was on the set of the next hit reality t.v. series. The Sunmudo master was a young, handsome, and somewhat arrogant man from France, whose Korean was impeccable. There was a 6'4 monk-in-training, also from France, who was maybe pushing 25 years old. There were the two blondes, an American woman and a Norwegian man, both conspicuously attractive, who were the resident English teachers (and translators) on a working temple-stay. The rest of us, who were here for a paying temple-stay, included Bonnie and I, a handful of young, energetic and sporty local Koreans who were studying Sunmudo, a few random drifters and an assortment of young foreigners who work as English teachers in Seoul. Oh yeah, and don't forget the 100 kids there for summer (boot) camp. As I looked around the gym that first night and watched the different families, awkward foreigners, flirting trend-setters, and the seriously hard-core Sunmudo trainers I couldn't help but ask myself, "What on Earth are we all doing here? Searching for enlightenment? Martial arts training experience? Were we all expecting more authenticity?".

The next day we woke up at dawn but missed chanting and bowing ceremonies (because the schedule was wacky and no one knew were we were supposed to be) but managed to join into the line of walking meditation heading down the hillside. We walked along a paved road outside the temple and then along a dirt road through dewy rice fields filled with dragonflies. It was simply beautiful. After breakfast we headed up to the main temple for morning Sunmudo practice and sitting zen. Because the camp kids were using the gymnasium space our French Sunmudo master decided it was a good day to do outdoor stair training. Just picture this - we began by crawling down ancient mountain-side limestone stairs, head first, in the push-up position. Next was high kicking. Then lunges and squats. And we ended with all-out sprinting up the stairs to the stone Buddha. It was still morning, but the sun was wasn't softened by a single cloud. Next to hot yoga, I know I have never before been that sweaty.

I had a nap between lunch and sitting meditation. And another one before dinner. After dinner we did our chanting and regular 90-minute Sunmudo practice in the gym. Following my 3rd shower of the day, I washed my 3rd set of sweaty clothes, hung them to dry and fell asleep before lights out at 10pm.

The next morning Bonnie and I got up one hour earlier to make sure we didn't miss the morning chanting and sitting zen. Although it was hard to wake up in the dark (4am) and even harder to trudge the 20 minute, steep up-hill climb to the main temple, it was worth every ounce of effort. All the monks were present and the ceremony was magical. It ended with 30 minutes of sitting zen meditation, something I was slowly getting better and better at. After walking zen, breakfast and 90-minutes of normal Sunmudo training we proceeded back up to the main temple for the bowing ritual where each person counts out their own 108 bows. Sounds easy, I know. But it isn't. Around bow # 35 I realized that my heart rate was elevated significantly and my leg muscles were burning. I was exerting myself to a similar degree as a regular jog. It was invigorating, but I was happy that 108 is the Buddha's lucky number. When you break rules (such as sleeping in, not finishing every morsel of your food, or putting toilet paper in the toilet) you must do 3,000 bows. Speaking of the number 108, I was of course curious why this particular number holds such significance in Buddhism. Here's what I learned. It refers to the number of defilements to overcome to gain enlightenment, and it is dervied from the following formula:
- The 3 sense expereinces x The 6 senses = 18
- Aversion or craving to/of these experiences (18 x 2) = 36
- Past, future and present incidences of aversion or craving (36 x 3) = 108

Check here for many other interesting aspects of the influence and importance of the number 108

After tea time, but before lunch, we packed up and said goodbye to Golgulsa temple. We were both exhausted. Since arriving back in JinJu I have found a few videos on YouTube that were filmed inside the gym at Golgulsa Temple. Here is one,

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