zenHere in Korea, there is a wonderful program that allows outsiders to experience life in many of the hundreds of Buddhist temples all over the country. Some programs are only for one or two nights, but some are for weeks or months or even up to a year. During your time there, you follow the exact schedule of the monks and nuns who live there, you wear clothing that is issued to you upon arrival, and you strictly observe all of the customs of the temple.

I recently enjoyed two days and one night at Golgul Temple, just outside the town of Gyeongju, which is about 2.5 hours from Seoul via high speed train. There are many options for Templestays, as they are called, much closer to home, but I wanted to go to Golgulsa when I learned that it is the home of sunmudo, a zen martial art. Yes, you read that right. Zen martial arts. I’d heard that it was a combination of Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi and that was basically all I needed to hear to be motivated to go have a look myself. Mostly I was curious about unwrapping this seeming contradiction – how could martial arts be Zen or Buddhist?

The land where Golgulsa sits has been a site of Buddhist worship since the 6th century A.D. There is a 1,500 year old stone Buddha carving in the limestone cliffs of Mount Hamwol. The main temple shrine sits just below this carving and the rest of the temple buildings are scattered alongside the steep path to the carving. The setting is beautiful and peaceful and the air was intoxicatingly crisp and clean, especially compared to the air in Seoul.

My experience at the temple, in terms of schedule, was probably not unlike the experience I would have had at any temple. We rose at 4am to wash and prepare for chanting and meditation. After that we had barugongyang, a Buddhist ceremonial meal. Because it was Sunday and not a weekday this was followed by tea and an opportunity to talk with one of the monks. Time for self-reflection came after, followed by lunch. During the week the monks practice either meditation or archery, depending on the day, after lunch followed by community work. Dinner is served at 5:30 after which the evening chanting service is held.

It is after the chanting service in the evenings (and after breakfast during the weekdays) where the activities at Golgulsa vary from many other temples. This is when there is up to two hours of sunmudo training. When I’d first arrived at the temple, I had the opportunity to observe some of the monks performing sunmudo and I was struck by how much like a dance it is, in addition to its similarities to Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi. When one of the monks first started leading us through the movements, I was keeping up just fine. I even thought it was relatively easy.

But then after about 40 minutes of that, he informed us that we had just completed the warm-up. The real training began after that and I must say, as someone who is very flexible and very strong from years of practicing Yoga, it was intense. It was hard, if not impossible, to keep up. Even this limited participation demonstrated how incredibly dedicated these monks are to their practice. The ease and fluidity with which they move through these incredibly dynamic movements is just remarkable and the inner peace that they are experiencing as they do so is completely visible on their faces and in their countenance. They appear the same as they do while sitting in meditation.

Sunmudo is meant to ‘harmonize body and mind in breath awareness, awakening you to your True Nature’. Immense emphasis is given to the breath and the ability to maintain a calm and steady breath throughout the practice. The Sunim, as the practitioners are called, consider both meditation and sunmudo as achieving the same objective, which is to be able to face themselves, to see themselves as they truly are.

When I learned this, the contradiction melted away. Sunmudo is not a martial art that prepares you for combat with another person or even for self-defense. It is a means of developing the necessary strength and flexibility to face our innermost selves. As a yogi, I could relate this to the mindset we adopt when we practice Warrior poses. Arjuna learns in the Bhagavad-Gita, the battlefield is not outside of us, but within us. We need to learn to stand firm, grounded in compassion, in the face of our inner struggles.

And what better lesson in the world could there be for a mother? Of all the lessons I took away from my stay at Golgulsa, it is this realization that I cherish most. As mothers, we can very easily get caught up in the “battlefield”, feeling we are being judged for our choices and that we’re never good enough and that our kids aren’t perfect enough and our homes aren’t clean enough – the list goes on and on. But if we remain rooted in courage and compassion – and if we keep breathing – we can see that the only battlefield that matters is the one within our own minds and it is there where we can defeat self-doubt. Not through force but through the breath, through compassion, through dance-like movement.

What things are available where you live to try new life experiences? Where do you find the ability to connect to your inner self?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog from mommy-of-one and yogi, Ms. V, in Korea.

Photo credit to thFarm. This photo has a creative commons license.

Ms. V. (South Korea)

Ms. V returned from a 3-year stint in Seoul, South Korea and is now living in the US in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her partner, their two kids, three ferocious felines, and a dog named Avon Barksdale. She grew up all over the US, mostly along the east coast, but lived in New York City longer than anywhere else, so considers NYC “home.” Her love of travel has taken her all over the world and to all but four of the 50 states. Ms. V is contemplative and sacred activist, exploring the intersection of yoga, new monasticism, feminism and social change. She is the co-director and co-founder of Samdhana-Karana Yoga: A Healing Arts Center, a non-profit yoga studio and the spiritual director for Hab Community. While not marveling at her beautiful children, she enjoys reading, cooking, and has dreams of one day sleeping again.

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