If you read the title of this post and did a double-take, I can assure you that I did the same when I first saw these three words put together. I recently witnessed zen martial arts up close and personal and I can tell you that it is not at all as contradictory as it sounds.
Nestled in the mountains just outside the town of Gyeongju here in South Korea lies the Golgul Temple, home of Sunmudo, a zen Buddhist form of martial arts. I was there as part of the Templestay program run in collaboration with the Korean Tourism board. Hundreds of temples across Korea open their doors for people to experience temple life. While there you are given appropriate clothes to wear and are expected to follow the schedule and practices of the monks and nuns who reside there including rising well before sunrise for morning chanting and meditation and avoiding all animal products. I was given clear instruction and guidance on how to behave within the temple walls in areas such as Community Life (be considerate of others), Silence (reduce talking to have ample time for self-reflection), Greeting (a half-bow with a respectful mind), Chasu (the posture used when walking within the temple – right hand over left hand at the center of belly) Yaebul (chanting – you must be in attendance for all chanting sessions), Gongyang (meals – eat in silence and do not snack in between meals), Ulyeok (community work – part of the practice of temple life), Hygeine (keeping the temple clean is everyone’s job) Sleeping (lights out at 10pm, no exceptions), and Other (only loose clothing, do not leave temple grounds during your stay, behave respectfully to yourself, to nature, and to all others during your stay).
There are many temples to choose from including many much closer to home in Seoul, but I chose Gogulsa when I learned about Sunmudo, which I read could be described as a combination of Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and martial arts. After having participated in a limited way in their training and having had the privilege of observing some of the monks who have years of practice, I would add Dance to the description. The movements are a display of strength, reserve, flexibility, fluidity and absolute grace.
The stated purpose of the practice of Sunmudo is to harmonize body and mind in breath awareness, awakening to your True Nature. Much like Yoga, immense attention is given to the breath and to the control of the breath. Movements are synchronized with breath and the sign of a truly masterful practitioner is one who is able to keep their breath calm and even through periods of intense dynamic movement.
Golgul Temple sits on a site with a 1500 year old carving of a Buddha seated in meditation posture. During the 18th century there was a fire that destroyed the temple and surrounding forest and until about 20 years ago it remained in ruins. The temple was restored by Grand Master Seol who revived the ancient practice of Sunmudo and it has since served as the home of this art of movement.
The daily schedule at the temple varies very little. Each day begins at 4am with waking and washing for 4:30 chanting and meditation. The ceremonial Buddhist meal of Barugongyang is served at 5:50 on Sundays. The rest of the week breakfast is served at 6:30. Barugongyang is a practice in self-discipline and self-control. The meal is enjoyed in complete silence, thus allowing the other senses to fully experience the food. As with all Buddhist meals, not a grain of rice is wasted. One never takes more than one can eat and one never eats more than what one needs. During the week breakfast is followed by 90 minutes of Sunmudo training and then 108 bows and meditation practice. Tea is served before lunch. On the weekends one has an opportunity to share tea with a monk after breakfast and to ask questions about temple life, Buddhism, and the life of a monk. After lunch there is either meditation (M, W, F) or archery practice (T, Th, S) followed by community work. Dinner is served at 5:30 followed by evening chanting and meditation and then up to two hours more of Sunmudo training. Then it is off to bed to start all over again tomorrow.
I only had two days and one night to spend at the temple, but even in my limited time there, the rhythm of this life was both completely exhausting and thoroughly relaxing. The fresh mountain air was a welcome alternative to Seoul and the opportunity to learn about Sunmudo was very much appreciated. When we first began Sunmudo training after dinner I thought “Oh, this is pretty easy!”. It was a lot like Yoga, the movements we were doing, and I was keeping up just fine. That is until I realized that that had just been the warm-up! The real training began after 30 minutes of pretty intense yoga-like movements and it only took about 5 minutes for me to question my decision to give this a try. To say that it is challenging is an incredible understatement. It felt nearly impossible. I had a whole new appreciation for the ability of the monks I’d witnessed earlier as they appeared to effortlessly transition between movements.
The monks and practitioners at Golgulsa see meditation and Sunmudo as a means of facing themselves. It is not a martial art intended for any violent purposes, not even self-defense. This reminded me of of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita and his realization that the battlefield represented the war within. In our asana practice, each time we find ourselves in a warrior pose we are reminded of this battle and the courage and resolve it takes to stand firm in the face, not of an outside enemy, but in the face of ourselves and our internal conflict. It is only through dedicated practice that we resolve this conflict.
So, zen martial arts? Yes and yes.