Buddhism and borders in South Korea

A stay in a remote temple where monks perform both martial arts and meditation was a good way to get your head around the dividing…

A stay in a remote temple where monks perform both martial arts and meditation was a good way to get your head around the dividing line between communism and capitalism, writes TADHG PEAVOY

SUCH IS THE diversity of South Korea that in the space of five days I found myself bear-walking backwards up a mountain with a monk for company and 73 metres underground on the border of the Cold War.

After a few days in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, I needed to get out of the urban jungle. A Korean friend booked me a temple stay at one of the country’s Buddhist centres and I was sent packing.

As I clambered aboard the ultra-modern KTX train, I sank a black coffee and ate traditional Korean rice sweets. These caffeine and sugary treats were to be my last for a few days, as I knew I would have to survive on a monk’s diet for my stay at Golgulsa Temple.

Speeding along, the scenery changed from the concrete and neon of the capital to lush rice paddies. After 90 minutes, the KTX pulled in to Gyeongju and I caught a bus though Gyeongju National Park. Forty minutes later the bus dropped me off at a quiet crossroads called Andongsamgeo-ri. I hauled my rucksack onto my back and walked the last kilometre to the temple.

A sign with a picture of a monk performing a flying kick informed me that this temple stay involved martial arts just as much as meditation. My friend had neglected to tell me that Golgulsa is the home of sunmudo: a combination of yoga, meditation and taekwondo.

I checked into my room and slipped into the monk’s robes that are given to all visitors, and then headed for my first temple dinner. Rice and vegetables, washed down with bean-sprout soup was to be breakfast, lunch and dinner. Evenings started with bowing and chanting at 7pm. This involved a ritual of Buddhist chants combined with up to 50 bows. Bear in mind that the bows take one from full standing position to kneeling and you get an idea of the physicality of the experience.

Next it was time for sunmudo training. On most days this involved kicking and patterns of movement, but on the first evening the monk in charge explained that we would be training outside.

Our mentor made the group run 2km downhill to the gates of the temple and back up. Following that we bear-walked – walked on all fours – up the next stage of the mountain for about 100 metres. The sun had gone down and I couldn’t see the gravel that had gotten stuck into the palms of my hands. Halfway up the incline the monk bear-walked past me and whispered: “I am not man, I am bear”.

After I had regained my breath, the monk told us to perform the same walk for the next 100 metres uphill – only this time we had to do it backwards.

At the top, we were told to sprint up a steep set of stairs to a Buddhist grotto.

Following training, we meditated. I eased myself into the half-lotus position, glanced out over the forest and closed my eyes. The relief after my exertions was powerful.

Temple life began at 4am, with a meditation on the same mountain. However, in the mornings the sun broke past the trees and cast a warm glow. The group then performed a walking meditation – focusing on breathing and walking silently down the mountain. After breakfast it was back to training.

At 11am it was green-tea break and a chance for visitors to introduce themselves. The tea was refreshing, but as one Scottish woman remarked: “I would have killed for a wee slice of cake with that”.

A hike around the local mountains and a sunmudo demonstration followed tea break. The highlight of the demonstration was seeing one of the monks start in a lotus position, do a double side-kick 6ft in the air, then return to the lotus position, all in one movement.

After more veggies and rice, there was either an archery session or another meditation.

On my last day, I hiked up the final climb of the mountain. This brought me along a ledge with a steep and fatal drop below. As I rounded the final bend a four-metre Buddha carved into the rock appeared before me. Saint Kwang Yoo and his fellow Buddhist monks, who had travelled from India to Korea in the sixth century, created the carving. It brought home that the rituals these monks go through every day are an ancient practice and that the opportunity to train in their home offered a unique insight into their lives and the lives of their predecessors.

Demilitarised zone

If you are in Korea, the demilitarised zone that marks the end of capitalist South Korea and the beginning of communist North Korea, is a must-see. After my stay in Golgulsa I made my way back north to see it for myself.

The first item on the tour was the Freedom Bridge at Imjin River. My group disembarked from our tour bus and made our way along an old wooden bridge, which was boarded up a little way along. At that point there was a wall draped in South Korean flags and messages from southern families for their northern relatives, whom they can no longer see due to the strict border controls.

A short drive from the Freedom Bridge was the DMZ Information Centre, with a 180-degree video wall. The lights dimmed and a video was shown that explained how South Korea had prospered since its independence; how poor North Korea is; and how the DMZ is a wonder of nature – untouched by man for over 50 years.

Yes, the DMZ is believed by conservationists to be a treasure trove of indigenous species. But, no one can set foot in the area due to an estimated three million landmines dotting the land.

Because of the landmines, the North Korean army realised it needed a different way to invade the South. The communist state therefore decided to build four tunnels under the DMZ to its southern neighbour’s land. With the help of a North Korean defector, the South uncovered the Third Infiltration Tunnel – the next stop on the tour.

The defector was an engineer working on the tunnel who miraculously managed to escape from his work detail one day and run for freedom across the land-mined zone. When he made it to the South he informed his new state of his work. The South then built a tunnel of its own to cut the North Koreans off. Following that initial tunnel, the South built a much larger tunnel, 73 metres below ground, to allow tourists gain access.

We trekked the 256 metres along the tunnel and came to a padlocked, wrought-iron door, marked by barbed wire, that indicated the border – a physical door from capitalism to communism. The barbed wire seemed like a metaphor for the hatred capitalist regimes bear for the philosophy lived out on the other side of that door.

Next up was Dora Observatory, a lookout from where one can see the entire DMZ: to the north lie the unspoilt tracts of land mentioned earlier; the Freedom Bridge; a 160m high flag pole bearing the North Korean flag; and the dramatic North Korean mountains that run across the border. It is an especially beautiful view.

This area was overrun by school kids playing hide-and-seek as army guards ensured nobody used camera lenses with more than 100mm focal length to take photographs of the area.

After the observatory visit it was lunchtime and time to go down to a local restaurant for grilled beef wrapped in lettuce leaves – a meal called bulgogi. Dog was on the menu too.

The tour then rolled on to the last train station before the border – Dorasan. South Korea’s goal is to connect the station with the Trans-Siberian Railway and extend the longest rail journey in the world. For the moment it’s a ghost station, but for the equivalent of €1 you can buy a fake ticket to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. After the station, we visited the JSA – Joint Security Area – the geographic point where the borders of the North and South meet.

On the way, we passed through Camp Bonifas, where in 1976 an axe-wielding North Korean soldier killed two US soldiers who attempted to chop down a tree that obstructed their view from a lookout tower. One of the soldiers was called Bonifas, and the camp was subsequently re-named after him.

My tour group was dropped off at the foot of the steps of a modern building, and then walked out on to a viewing area where South Korean soldiers stood in a modified taekwondo stance, their hands clenched into fists, ready to resume the war at the drop of a hat. Tourists cannot point; take photos in a southern direction; use cameras with 100mm focal length; walk nearer the border; or wear flip flops. The tour guide went through all these details – it felt like we’d been transported back to the Cold War. On the other side, a solitary North Korean guard eyed us through binoculars.

After a few minutes, we were ushered into the Panmunjom meeting room, half of which is in each country. All the same rules apply and microphones record everything, 24 hours a day. Having been shuffled out, we were directed into a gift shop where one can purchase sections of the barbed wire that originally divided the country, mounted on a metal plaque.

What struck me about both Golgulsa and the DMZ was that they both represented the fight for Korean freedom: in times gone by, the monk warriors helped the Korean monarchy defend the country from invasion, while at the DMZ South Korean soldiers fought and died for their country’s independence, an independence that Koreans are vehemently proud of today.

Get there

Air France (airfrance.ie) flies from Dublin to Seoul via Paris. It takes around three hours to travel from Seoul to Golgulsa Temple. To find out more about temple stays there, see sunmudo.net.

Trips to the DMZ are arranged by a variety of tour companies in Seoul; there is a tour organised by the US Army, which has a base in Yongsan. The Korea Tourism Organisation lists all the information you need about visiting the area at visitkorea.or.kr.

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