From Templestay Participant to
Sunmudo Instructor Trainee
Vincent Vogel | Former IT Worker
I look around at the verdant green mountains, familiar temple buildings and Dharma halls. I am finally back at the place I wanted to be to sort through my life. At some point my life had become totally turned upside down, and I just quit everything. I needed to bring a fresh perspective into my life, away from everything and everybody. Don’t we all need to have our own oasis where we can retreat and find some peace in our darkest moments? For me that is Golgulsa Temple; no matter what I was doing, the temple was always on my mind.
Golgulsa was established almost 1,500 years ago when an Indian monk arrived here with his students. They carved the Tathagatha Buddha on a nearby cliff and dug out twelve rock caves to use as shrines. Unfortunately, 11 caves were destroyed by fire and only one remained. Afterward, the site was abandoned until Grand Master Jeog-Un decided to rebuild it. Consequently, the buildings at Golgulsa are relatively new, having been added one by one.
Ven. Jeog-Un is the abbot of Golgulsa and a Grand Master of Sunmudo, a Korean Seon martial art. He’s a living legend, a spiritual mentor, a protective paternal figure, and a demanding teacher who wants to keep alive the spirit of hard, old-school, traditional training. When I first met him, I felt a strong aura of great power, which is also palpable when he teaches. Originally from France, I will stay at Golgulsa for one whole month this time. I come here to rest my body and mind; this is my 4th visit. One month might sound like a long time, but I’m really eager to have a good long break right now. I always feel welcomed by Mrs. Kim, the Templestay guide for international participants. I go to my assigned room, simple and clean, and put down my backpack. I feel like a heavy load has been lifted from my back as too many emotions have been piling up inside me from the moment I decided I wanted to come back. I change into the ever-so-comfortable Templestay uniform.
The first activity on today’s schedule is meditation. In the Seon meditation room, I listen to the instructions with a beginner’s mind, as if I had never practiced meditation before. It feels both relaxing and complicated, probably because I’m still wound up from my trip. Hopefully, my body and mind will settle down soon.
I walk around to visit the Main Buddha Hall, the famous cave shrine and the Rock-Carved Buddha. When I reach the Rock-Carved Buddha, I offer three bows and whisper, “Long time no see.” The Sunmudo demonstration has already started down on the stage in front of the Main Buddha Hall. Visitors are enjoying it as monks, students and masters demonstrate the dynamic movements of this traditional Seon (Zen/Chan) martial art.
I continue to walk around the temple, appreciating the pagodas, the sun-bathed rocks and the trees. I smell the slight aroma of incense lingering in the air. All the new guests, including me, then meet up with Mrs. Kim for orientation. She explains temple etiquette, our schedule, and gives us a quick overview of Sunmudo, Buddhism, chanting and meditation. We then all go together to ring the beautiful Dharma Bell. I remember this bell clearly because it always impressed me, not only by its size and shape, but also for its soul-awakening sound.
After ringing the bell and listening to its reverberating sound, it is dinner time. To be honest, I was really looking forward to the delicious temple food again! It’s all vegetarian with wonderfully cooked vegetables, beautiful white rice, gimchi and hot soup, and sometimes fruit and/or rice cakes for dessert. I’m not a vegetarian, but there are times I would gladly prefer temple food over anything else.
I sit facing my slightly too full bowl of food and make a bow to offer thanks to all the living beings who made this meal possible. It’s also a silent promise to eat every last grain of rice in my bowl so as not to waste any food.
Lunch and dinner are also perfect occasions to see the people now visiting or living at the temple. There are new faces of course, and a few whom I’m not sure I’ve met before. Then Sarah walks in; she’s a sabeomnim, a 3rd degree Sunmudo instructor, originally from the UK. She recognizes me and sits down so we can talk a bit. I
quickly clean my bowl and head to Sunmudo class. The training hall is impressive, and this time I really want to be here. The evening Buddhist ceremony is held here,
after which we almost immediately start Sunmudo class.
The content of the training program changes every day, but the structure remains
constant: sitting meditation, then warming up, and then the actual class. This may vary from basic movements, kicks or punches, specific move combinations, to flexibility or physical training. Then we always end with meditation again, either sitting, moving hands or slow body-moving meditation to calm the mind. It’s good training to
dissipate the energy from your body before you take a shower and get a well-deserved
night of sleep.
Morning wake-up is 5 a.m., but I set my alarm clock to 4:45. I like waking up a
bit earlier and not feeling rushed. It’s like being alone in the whole universe for a short moment. Or being the only one awake.
Walking up to Bojeru Hall for morning chanting takes around 10-15 minutes, which might seem difficult at 5:00 in the morning. But the reward is worth the effort as
you sit peacefully in the hall with all the practitioners and feel the energy of the whole
temple while chanting. We also practice a mantra reciting meditation to the beat of a moktak (wooden fish-shaped handbell), followed by traditional sitting meditation. And lastly, we do a silent walking meditation all the way down to the dining hall for breakfast.
Later in the morning is tea time with a monk. We introduce ourselves and listen to the Dharma talk (the teachings of the Buddha) given by our host. Strange to introduce ourselves almost at the end of a one-day stay? On the other hand, you can have a peaceful time here without knowing other people’s names, ages or occupations. Just being together in the moment is what’s important.
Morning training is all about stretching and yoga, with some meditation of course. Definitely worth a try no matter how flexible you are, or aren’t. Fortunately, the master encourages us to go slowly, to listen to our body, and not overdo it. Then comes the final challenge of the Templestay: the infamous 108 prostrations. It’s incredible how this experience, which is basically ALWAYS the same, impresses me. And the way people react, some suffering, some enjoying it, is so revealing!
Afterward, we have lunch, and it’s time to say our good-byes. All participants will leave right after lunch, and a new bunch will arrive tomorrow to begin the cycle all over again.
Then what? Well I’m here for 30 days! And, no surprise, the daily schedule will remain the same. But as the days go on, I will slowly understand that the schedule doesn’t need to change, the mind does.
Every day here seems to be the same, but, at the same time, it’s never “exactly” the same. There are always new people, always something slightly different. There are unexpected last minute changes to a program, like visiting the beach, hiking in the mountains, training outside, etc. And you can decide for yourself what you want to do during your free time, with some limitations. As for me, I enjoy resting in the shade of the bell pavilion and reading a book.
As the days pass, you also get to know a bit more about the Templestay team. The team is quite young and dynamic, a good source of energy for sharing, practicing and working together, and having some laughs along the way.
My extended stay also gave me some insight into eternity. Many times after lunch, I like to sit near the office entrance. And from my bench I can see all the guests leaving and new guests arriving. Then a curious thought occurred to me. The people arriving are being born, and tomorrow when they leave, they will die, in a manner of speaking. Every day, the cycle repeats. And me? I’m just here sitting on my bench. From that point on, I started to think more deeply about the meaning of life. About the meaning of my life.
To sum up my stay in only one word? How about “unexpected?” So many unexpected, incredible, positive and surprising things happened to me here.
My Sunmudo practice got much better. My physical condition also improved beyond any expectations, and I lost 13 kg. The temple food and exercise helped a lot of course, but a fixed sleep schedule and mealtimes probably made it possible too. In addition, the heat of summer dehydrated me quite a bit.
I understood and learned a lot during the Dharma talks, and many of the topics helped me grow a lot and ask myself important questions.
For a short period of three days, large groups of French children visited, and I was able to show them around, help them and translate some Dharma talks. Working in translation was an idea I had thought about before, and suddenly I had an audience of 50! In addition, summer camp with all the kids was a lot of fun. I met some wonderful kids, guests, Buddhist teachers, Templestay participants and temple staff.
Vincent Vogel was born in Busan, South Korea, then adopted and raised in France. He studied economics at university, worked in customer service at a newspaper and also worked in IT. With a background in several martial arts, he wants to keep training in Sunmudo. He says he cannot explain why, but Sunmudo seems to speak to him, resonating with both his mind and body.