South Korean Templestay: To zen or not to zen

During the tea ceremony, temple staff member Moon looks at me and translates what the monk is saying: ‘there are 5 main greeds in life: money, fame, laziness, sex, and food’. She expands on the laziness: ‘we only need 6 to 7 hours sleep a night, anymore is unnecessary’, and then food: ‘we only need simple meals to sustain our body, to provide nutrients’. At this point I am collectively thinking about ditching the following meditation session and instead taking a nap, and perhaps eating the Snickers that is in my bag. I instantly feel guilty. I can’t help but wonder if this was directed at me personally. I mean Moon was looking right at me when she said it. However, I am the only English-speaking person in the room so I think my paranoia might be born from guilt.

Me attempting to zen whilst looking fashionable in my brown baggy pants

So here I am sitting in my room, not napping or eating a snickers in the interval before the meditation session. This is my third day of my five night stay at Golgulsa Templestay in South Korea, and I’m already exhausted. It’s a rigorous schedule here, which includes a 4am wake up to walk up a massive hill to go to the Monk’s chanting and meditation session, followed, after breakfast, by a 2 hour session of the Temple’s martial art of Sunmudo, and the god awful 108 bows. I asked the monk this morning why so many bows bro? Well, Moon asked him, and I don’t think she called him bro. He said it was a repentance for bad behavior, and also for good health. Essentially, it is a punishment for being alive as we are all going to do shitty things so doing it everyday allows us the option to repent after our shittiness or preemptively. Very handy indeed. However, it truly is a backbreaking endeavour. I think I will just stay riddled with guilt about my shittiness, thank you very much. Try doing 108 full hands and knees on the ground bows in a row and if you don’t break a sweat I’ll buy you a Snickers. Which you can’t eat, because it is unnecessary.

Monk hanging out in the temple

The tea ceremony and dharma chat follow the back-breaking bowing. It’s a lovely reprieve from the endless bending, and the tea is refreshing. The monk tells us a bit about Buddhism and then we can ask him questions. I always think up a question as I find the numbing silence extremely awkward. I am considering asking him tomorrow about his top tips to avoid feeling awkward when no one cares to ask him a question.

Once the tea ceremony concludes we have lunch. All meals are eaten in silence, and all 3 courses are pretty much the same: rice, kimchi, some nondescript green mix, green beans, seaweed soup, and either cut up watermelon or pear. I actually don’t mind the food, having just got back from Mongolia, where all I’d been eating was rice and potatoes, so this was like a gourmet smorgasbord. However, by the end of templestay I think kimchi will be my least favourite of the pickled kind. Bring back the good old-fashioned pickled onion!

Special Buddhist meal I screwed up as I didn’t read the instructions… whoops!

Originally I found eating the meals in silence strange and unnatural, but now I have come to enjoy it. I enjoy it so much I might even instigate it once I’m home… meet a friend for a silent dinner, followed by 108 bows. Anyway, as you can tell, one thing about the templestay I am a fan of is mealtimes.

After lunch we either do archery or meditation. I am told that the archery is also in fact a form of meditation, but under the tricky guise of athleticism. It’s a breathing thing. The archery is a pretty good time, as is the meditation, once you stop fixating on your sore back, and instead focus on being a zen warrior mother plucker. From what I can tell the aim of the whole Buddhist game at this temple is to be like Zena. Yep, hundreds of years of teachings and philosophy, and it all comes down to 3 small words: Zena. Warrior. Princess.

The Golgulsa Temple, which is built into the side of a cave

Dinner is at pensioner time, i.e. 5pm, and then you have an hour to let that settle before embarking on more chanting and meditation, finally capping off the evening with a sneaky hour and half Sunmudo practice. It’s lights out at 10pm.

So how am I enjoying my new life as a zen mofo? I’m on the fence, like a cat trying to see which backyard would be more fun to jump into. I enjoy some aspects, like the meditation and the archery. And the food, of course. I am also, rather surprisingly, really embracing the early wake up to hear the monks chant. It is such a beautiful sound to hit your ears first thing in the morning. It’s also quite enlivening being awake for the sunrise, like the day has endless possibilities ahead… and endless bows. I can’t say I have ever appreciated an early morning so this was an interesting discovery.

The morning I sneaked out of meditation to enjoy the sunset from the top of the cave

Another lesson from the templestay I am keen to instigate in my day-to-day life is the act of daily rituals. It feels like making something a ritual structures your day in a more productive fashion, and once you get rolling it ceases to be a hassle. Well from what I can tell. Perhaps if it was scrubbing out your wheelie bin daily it would always be a hassle.

However, I don’t know if I’m completely loving the 90 minute Sunmudo class that finishes at 8.30pm. I don’t mean to sound like a grandma but it’s not exactly the most relaxing thing to do right before you go to bed. Because you have to go to bed pretty much straight after it if you want a decent sleep before being up when the sparrows fart (not really sure if this is really the expression but let’s roll with it. Who knew those sparrows were such trumpet butts).

Me hanging out with some zen mofos

Also, I don’t know if I completely agree with some concepts of the Buddhist philosophy. I have been to a few Buddhist classes in Brisbane and in the most part I agree with a lot of the ideas. Nevertheless, today in the Dharma talk the monk said there are a few things in life which are truths, namely that everything is constantly changing, and death (yep and yep, right on monk man!). He then went on to espouse how we shouldn’t be vain and materialistic. To quote “Why wear makeup when you will simply die. Why buy Chanel when you will die anyway”. Ummmm so I have a feeling that something might have got a little lost in translation there but it did make me wonder if aspects of Buddhism could verge on nihilism, even though they are meant to be rooted in the cultivation of love and happiness.

So I’ve had a bit of a think, and rather than hoping to become holier than thou, and having no attachment to anything, and only eating nondescript green food all the time, and wearing beige baggy pants, and sitting under a banyan tree meditating to pass the time, I’ve decided I’m going to create a fruit bowl of ideas and concepts I like from wherever I find them, and live life by the manifesto of Odette. It’s a very prestigious club, and hard to join as there will only ever be one member. It’s a shame really because the main ideas behind it are so simple millions of people will probably want to join: be kind and generous of spirit, treat others as you’d like to be treated, embrace free will and autonomous thinking, and make the most of life as you will inevitably die (stole that one from the Buddhas and put my own slant on it). Oh, and eat a Snickers every now and then.

Me losing interest in being affiliated with any organised religion

The temple stay is an experience that I think will only benefit me in the long run, once I have adapted some of the ideas to suit my lifestyle. The crux of the matter is, this cat can’t be confined to one particular backyard, and she’s taking it to the streets!


After I wrote this a film crew arrived in the evening to film a show for KBS about the monastery. They stayed for 3 days. During the ‘silent’ mealtime the two women presenters tried to ask me questions, which I shunned. They came to the morning chanting, and we had to stop the walking meditation to make sure the filming angle was right. It was incredibly irritating, and tainted my stay. Every activity had to be observed to fit in with the filming. It completely took away from the authenticity of the experience. However, after taking off to the beach for the day, in a bit of a huff, I had the realisation that I was allowing this to ruin my experience instead of letting it go and enjoying my berry frappe at the beach, which I would much rather be doing than bowing 108 times anyway. Also, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the thought of an acquaintance being in South Korea and seeing me randomly looking disgruntled in the background of a Korean TV show about Buddhist temple stays. Seems like my templestay turned me into the laughing Buddha…

Life lesson confirmed: there’s always a silver lining

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