Saturday, November 28, 2009

Maya Tathagata Buddha

Gyeongju - Part IV

On the slopes of Mount Hamwol, some 20 km east of Gyeongju, is the Golgulsa Temple. Famed for being the only cave temple in South Korea, it is believed to have been built in the 6th century by Buddhist monks from India.

It is also provides a destination for those wishing to get away from their busy, materialistic and stressful lives, to participate in the temple stay programme that is on offer there.

Temple stays were originally established for tourists during the World Cup in 2002 and their continued success has meant that the programme has now been extended. They allow people to experience first hand how Buddhist monks live and there are currently 43 temples involved in the programme throughout South Korea.

The popularity of them shows no signs of waning and upwards of 30,000 people take part in them each year to experience that elusive getaway to a place a million miles from the humdrum of modern life.

Having visited many temples in Thailand, Korea and Japan I've always been fascinated by Buddhism, so on Saturday I set off for the Golgulsa Temple to experience first hand the Buddhist way of life.

Arriving at the temple at around four o'clock, I was then shown to my room by one of the monks. Although quite basic and sparse, mattresses and bed clothes were provided and fortunately there was Korean ondol underfloor heating, so I had no worries about feeling cold during my nights sleep.

On the wall was a schedule, as well as list of rules. Most of these were related to behaviour and etiquette, such as not smoking or drinking alcohol and really just required common sense. What I did find interesting though was the punishment for being late to any of the various activities would involve having to carry out a thousand bows. At this point I decided to make sure that I arrived everywhere in good time and I also set my alarm clock, just in case I overslept for meditation at 4.30 the following morning.

After unpacking I decided to explore the temple grounds. Many of the buildings are recent constructions, but are fortunately built in a traditional Korean style so they take nothing away from the atmosphere of the experience.

Cave Temple

I made my way up the hill and past the main temple hall and then climbed up onto some rocks to see the cave temple. Inside there was a statue of the Buddha against the rear of the cave with burning candles alongside it and against the sides of the cave were many more smaller images of the Buddha. As I looked inside, people visiting put their palms together and bowed in front of the main Buddha.

Exploring more, I came across other caves with images of the Buddha and candles burning inside them. Originally there twelve but now there are only seven.

Climbing further up, above the caves was the Maya Tathagata Buddha carved on the rockface. Even though I have seen many similar images of the Buddha recently, this one was by far the most beautiful. Sadly, due to the weak nature of the rock much of the lower half of the Buddha has crumbled away, so it is now protected with a perspex cover to prevent further erosion.

After dinner, I made my way I made my way to the sunmudo hall for the evenings activities. As I went in everyone was lined up in rows, so I took a cushion and sat down with them. We firstly had to do 108 bows, which is a way of repenting and it also acts as a way of removing desires and purifying the mind and body.

To complete the 108 bows, you must firstly complete a full standing bow by putting both palms together(hapchang) as if to pray, whilst also keeping your feet together. You then bow fully from the hips and return to the vertical postion. This is done once at the beginning and once at the end.

This is the easy part.

You then bend your knees and drop to the floor, whilst maintaining the hapchang position and then rock forward onto all fours and back. Your forehead should then be touching the floor and both hands should be upturned. This position should then be held for a brief moment and then you should rock forward to be back on all fours. After this you must sit back with both hands in hapchang and return to the upright standing position.

The entire process is then repeated a further 107 times and believe me when I say it may sound very straight forward, but once you've been doing it a short time there does come a point when it starts to hurt.

Once everyone had finished their 108 bows, it was then time for a warm up before the rigours of sunmudo training.

Based on martial arts techniques handed down through the centuries from generation to generation of Buddhist monks, sunmudo is a way of harmonising the spirit to bring about an inner peace and ultimately reach spiritual enlightenment.

Revived in the 1960s by the Venerable Yang-ik, these techniques were then taken by the Venerable Seol Jeog-un, who renamed them sunmudo and created the Sunmudo University at the Golgulsa Temple.

Unlike other martial arts that rely more on physical strength, it focuses on breathing, meditation and body movement, to help attain a higher state of mind and in many ways the techniques used are not dissimilar to those in yoga and tai chi.

After the warm up we split into two groups, those who were more experienced and those new to sunmudo and just at the temple for the weekend.

We moved to the other end of the hall and sat down in front of our instructor.

'I am Sun. I will teach you sunmudo. First we will learn Seon meditation.'

Seon Buddhism is the Korean equivalent of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Originally believed to have been founded in China by an Indian Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma , it focuses primarily on meditation as being one of the main ways of achieving enlightenment. There are two forms of meditation used Jwaseon(sitting-style) meditation and Haengseon(walking-style meditation), both of which allow a person time to reflect on life and search for their true self.

Sun firstly showed us the half lotus position. Sitting down I crossed my legs, placing the sole of my left foot against the inside of my right knee. With my hands I formed a circle on my lap, the left palm covering my the fingers of my right hand and my thumbs slightly touching.

He then showed us the different movements with our hands, all done very slowly, which I followed whilst breathing deeply.

Once we had mastered the basics of meditation, it was time for the sunmudo training. We began by firstly walking round in a circle on all fours, which was then followed by kicking as high as we could with both the left and right legs.

After this we practiced some basic sunmudo moves that involved kicking and punching in the air, sometimes at the same time, which required some extremely good balancing skills. Fortunately I didn't completely embarrass myself and managed to maintain my equilibrium for much of the time.

'Very good for a first try. You will be a sunmudo master in no time', said Sun.

I appreciated his comments, although I did take them with a slight pinch of salt.

After the sunmudo training, we rejoined the main group and gathered round in a circle for Seon meditation. I had read in the literature before coming that apparently if you fall asleep, someone comes up to you and pokes you in the back with a stick. Fortunately I managed to avoid dozing off and thus avoided any unwanted prodding sensations in my back, despite feeling incredibly relaxed whilst doing the meditation and maybe even a little bit drowsy.

Once the meditation was finished at nine thirty, we all made our way back to our rooms, whereupon it was lights off almost immediately, to make sure of a good nights sleep for the early start the next day.

Just after four o'clock the next morning I was awoken by the sound by a Buddhist monk walking around the temple grounds hitting a wooden block, known as a moktak. After getting ready I made my way up towards the main hall of the temple.

The ceiling of the temple was lined with pink lotus lanterns from one end of the room to the other and on the walls were pictures of various Buddhist deities. Once again we did 108 bows, which were followed the reading of Buddhist scriptures and then meditation.

Then we went outside to a hill, where we formed a circle around a pagoda for walking meditation, to give us time to reflect and prepare for the coming day. In complete silence we walked around it, five metres apart in single file and then down to the Il-Ju Gate at the front of the temple and then back, which took about 20 minutes.

Once we had returned to the pagoda it was then time for the traditional morning Buddhist meal, known as Balwoo-gongyang.

I was extremely glad to back into the warm and once inside everyone sat along the edges of the dining area crossed legged, in the half lotus position, awaiting their rice and vegetables.

We were given four bowls all of which fitted into each other. The largest bowl was for rice and the others were for soup, side dishes and water. Performed in silence, the entire process is highly ritualized.

Everything must be eaten so that nothing is left, not even a grain of rice and the bowls must be cleaned with water which is then drunk, as nothing must be wasted. Once the meal is completed, everything is reassembled to as it was when first received and the chopsticks must be placed back in their cover, on top of the bowls along with the towl.

After the meal was the tea ceremony, which also gave us the opportunity to talk to Grandmaster Seol Jeog Un. Originally introduced from China, it is not as formal the one I experienced in Japan and also acts a means for Buddhist monks to reflect upon themselves, nature and the universe.

Sitting in a semi-circle around Grandmaster Seol Jeog Un, it proved to be very interesting and informative and I was surprised at how relaxed and open he was to everyone's questions.

He told us of how he was trained in traditional martial arts under the tutorage of the Venerable Yang-ik and that he attained enlightenment in 1975, at the Beomeosa Temple in Busan.

We also learned from him how he had first built a road and started renovating the temple during the 1980s, up until the present day. He also talked in depth about Buddhism in South Korea and how he enjoyed having people on the Temple stay programme, as it gave people the opportunity to learn more about the Buddhist way of life and Korean culture.

Just before it was time to go, we had the additional bonus of being able to watch a martial arts demonstration from different schools around Korea, who were visiting for the weekend. It was extremely enjoyable to see and I even had the opportunity to join in and practise the traditional Korean martial art of taekwondo, which helped provide a perfect end to the weekend. This proved to to be great fun, despite the language barrier and hopefully before my time here is over, I'll get to try it out again before I return to Britain in March.

Did I leave feeling more fulfilled and a step closer to enlightenment? Maybe not, but I left with a greater understanding of a religion I knew little about beforehand, as well as some wonderful memories, not to mention some extremely sore legs.

For all the photos click here.


Anonymous said...

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