A glimmer of enlightenment

DAY 109 – Busan international airport, waiting lounge

It’s official! We are leaving the cold temperatures of winter and are heading to warmer waters; hot sun, turquoise bays and white sand. Our hats and mitts and winter gear have been relegated to the bottom of the backpack as we now wait for our flight to Bangkok. My bag feels significantly heavier (we are shedding so many layers!). I loved Korea and leaving feels strange; I feel like I almost love it more now that it will be gone! Weird how that happens. I have ways to go before true enlightenment and ‘living in the present moment’ really stick. Still, I am very excited for the complete change of pace up ahead.

There are many favourites from our last month here on the Korean peninsula, but the one that most captured our hearts was our four days at Golgulsa, a buddhist temple nestled in the mountains surrounding the historical city of Gyeongju.

The alarm clock rings at 3:52am, and it feels like I am rising from a coma. The ‘lights out’ rule at 10pm seemed strict upon arrival, but after such an early rise, it feels far too late. I’m already imagining the joy of returning to my bed and I haven’t even left it yet. My nose is freezing cold but my backside is nice and toasty – the upside of heated floors! Sleeping arrangements are typically Korean, with a thin mattress directly on the floor and a blanket on top. The blanket is huge, so I manage to sausage roll myself in there to provide extra padding underneath.


It’s hard not to fall back into deep sleep, but as my eyes droop the bell outside suddenly gongs at exactly 4am, and it’s officially time to rise and shine. A monk walks by my window, hitting a stick repeatedly on a hollow wooden sphere. Sleep is for the lazy and unenlightened! Only 10 minutes to put on contact lenses, brush my teeth, and dress with my million winter layers and the temple uniform on top – a loose vest and extra loose pants that tie around the waist.

Jason and I arrange to meet outside the building at 4:10am to begin the long trudge up the hill to the prayer hall. As this is a religious place, women and men sleep separately, eat separately, and pray separately (in the same room but on opposing sides). The ‘long trudge’ is actually only 20 minutes, but at 4:10am, with sleep clouding my brain and hunger already crowing in my belly, the steep walk feels like a journey.

But what a beautiful, otherworldly one it is!

We walk slowly, in the humble posture of temple living – right hand crossed over the left and held over the belly. A little harder to hold while huffing and puffing up the hill. The moon is shining bright overhead, and the stars are still out. We follow the path, hearing only our breathing and the voices of the chanting monks guiding us onwards and upwards. Apart from certain activities such as archery and Sunmudo (more on that later), silence is upheld throughout the temple, including during mealtimes, to encourage self-reflection. It’s quite calming not having to chitchat to anybody actually. The absence of social niceties helps to shed the obligations of the outside world and gives perspective on the way we live. Peaceful for the mind and body. The absence of WiFi also helps.

As we round the final bend, the temple is perched above, everything dark but for the glow of the windows. The hypnotic chanting of the monks becomes more easily heard. To the right of the temple, carved into the rocky face of the mountain, is the figure of the Buddha, a spotlight shining towards it. We are the sailors and it is our North Star.

At 4:30am, the morning chanting service officially begins. Jason and I choose a perch on opposite sides of the room. Before sitting on our cushions, we do 3 full bows facing the statue of the Buddha inside the temple; our knees, hands, and forehead touching the ground in full connection with the earth. During the chanting we follow the others up and down as we alternately bow, kneel, and rise. This ritual has a soothing effect so early in the morning. Not religious so much as spiritual. It’s a nice way to wake up, despite the sleepiness.

When the chanting ends at 5am, we all stretch together from side to side and assume the lotus position to begin a half hour of meditation. Being extremely unbendy, Jason assumes what he calls the ‘lotus stem’ position: legs extended out in order to save his knees and ankles. The complete silence now makes it harder to ignore the grumblings of my stomach, but the tiredness makes it slightly easier to zone out. The mind still flips in and out of thought, but we’re practicing to focus on our breath and… well nothing. On emptiness really.

Upon first arriving at the temple, the staff member in charge of the program asked us what we thought the five elements of Buddhism might be. ‘Easy peasy!’ I thought. Captain Planet taught me this ages ago: Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Heart! (Goooo planet!) Well I was right on the first four, but unfortunately the planeteers were wrong on the fifth. The fifth element is actually emptiness, and it is what exists and surrounds the other four.

Walking down the hill after meditation, the night still dark, we follow each other one by one in single file, practicing mindfulness meditation by observing the nature around us: the smells, the trees, the leaves, the stars. Refocusing the mind on the present moment. And surprisingly (or not surprisingly), it works! It feels so good to be there, I am actually glad to be awake at this hour. Also, the prospect of breakfast awaits, served promptly at 6am, and I am really glad about that too.

All meals at the temple are strictly vegetarian, and no waste is allowed. You can refill your plate any number of times, so long as the plate you return is empty. The rule of no waste also means that what you eat for breakfast will also be served for lunch and dinner, and on and on so long as leftovers remain. The stir-fried eggplant served hot at lunch is now a cold side dish for dinner. Though the food was quite good, the monotony of the diet made us deeply admire those who live there permanently and eat the same thing every day… forever.

After breakfast, it’s back to bed. Hurrah! We have nearly 2 hours before we being our first Sunmudo training of the day at 8:30am. Sunmudo, the specialty of the temple, is a combination of martial arts movements interwoven with practices of meditation, yoga, and chi qong. Free time means nap time. We feel so productive having completed so much before we are usually even awake, a nap feels completely deserved. All that and it’s still dark outside! I feel like a winner.

Our full daily schedule looks like this:

04:00 Wake up
04:30 Morning chanting service
05:00 Morning meditation
06:00 Breakfast
08:30 Sunmudo training (1.5 hours)
10:00 108 bows to the Buddha (108 times up and all the way down – thigh workout!)
10:30 Tea ceremony and chat with a monk
11:30 Lunch
14:00 Afternoon meditation or archery (alternating days)
15:00 Community work (raking leaves, cleaning up around the temple grounds)
17:00 Dinner
18:30 Evening chanting service
19:00 Sunmudo training (1.5 hours)
22:00 Lights out

In addition to the monks who live permanently at the temple, there are two trainees who have been living here several months, training to become masters and instructors of Sunmudo: Amalia from Romania, and Kristina from Russia. Amalia became our guide during our stay, showing us where to go, what to do and when. Explaining why we do things and how things work. It’s amazing how close you can come to feel to a person without exchanging a litany of words. Sitting face to face while eating silently. Bowing in tandem early in the morning. Sitting in a circle while meditating in the quiet afternoon. When I learned some difficult news from home, Amalia was there. I can’t say I know Amalia very well – what she likes, dislikes, her family, her home. But somehow she came into my heart and I know I will think of her often.

On our final day at the temple, Amalia invited Jason and I to participate in a Chinese calligraphy class that the monks take every Tuesday. It wasn’t on the regular program for temple-stayers, but they made a special exception. What can I say – Amalia and I, we bonded!

Calligraphy – now there is where the meditation is at! It is so much more difficult than it looks just to make a pretty line, let alone a beautiful character. The focus required makes everything else drop by the wayside. All you can think of is the paintbrush and the movement of your hand across the paper. Jason and I ambitiously began trying to copy the simplest of characters from the study guide (nothing to write home about). Noticing our ugly duckling drawings the teacher quickly had us instead practice simple straight lines over and over and over (just like detention) in every direction possible. It’s nearly impossible to get anything right the first time, so there’s no sense trying to skip ahead if you can’t master the basics. The art is all about patience and dedication, repeated practice over a protracted length of time. If you’re looking for quick results, look elsewhere! (I’m thinking I should probably enroll in a calligraphy class in Montreal…)

When it came time to leave, our hearts were heavy. We felt like we were leaving family and I was definitely not ready. We felt an emotional connection to the place and the people, and we would gladly go back in a heartbeat. Thank you Golgulsa!!


Emilie, Amalia (middle), and Kristina


7 thoughts on “A glimmer of enlightenment

  1. Tony Hawke says:

    With such an intense schedule I wonder how the Buddha ever got his pot belly. Your blog goes with so many of the things I am reading, watching and living. Simplicity is under rated. We are being hammered into believing success is the accumulation of stuff, buy buy buy, like the continuation and well being of our race and even the plante depends on an economy ever growing, ever wasteful when really happiness and fulfillment requires so little. Ummmmmmm


    • Christina says:

      Tony Hawke, you are so right. Living a simple life can be so fulfilling! People are constantly being told that you need “stuff” to be happy. I sometimes fall into this trap! Thanks Em + Jason for the timely reminder of what is really important.


  2. Pascale Sincennes says:

    Wow! Toute une expérience hein! Ça devait être vraiment spécial de vivre ça…! Emilie. tu écris bien!! 🙂
    Et Jason… tu étais définitivement trop relax comparé aux autres sur une des photos… pahahah!
    Je vous aime!


  3. Lise Provencher says:

    Loved reading you. We have been meditating for about 15 to 20 minutes everyday since before Xmas at the Rehel casa. It definitely is a calming practice every time although drifting into thought is noticeably frequent. I intend to maintain the practice for a year to see for myself how this regularity will benefit my life.


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