Army of Monk


Sometimes it’s the case that monks form an army and fight. This has happened periodically on the Korean peninsula, over the course of the last six centuries, as Buddhist monks emerged as soldiers, fighting invaders from nearby kingdoms or foreign aggressors from China and Japan. “An army of monks may seem strange to you,” notes one of the Masters at Golgulsa Temple, the world headquarters of Sunmudo, a Zen martial art once used in combat. “But we had to protect our families. We had to protect our people.” They risked, he goes on to explain over cups of green tea, death and rebirth into the most hellish realms of the Buddhist cosmology, the places one goes when one kills another human being, so that their people might live in this world—the realm of life, breath, and cyclic, perpetual suffering.

“Gol” means skull, “gul” means cave, “sa” means temple. Golgulsa is the only cave temple in South Korea: its structures, residencies, training center, and twelve rock caves are embedded in the mountain ranges on the southeastern coast of the peninsula, four hours from the beautiful frenzy of Seoul and thirty minutes from the sea. Fifteen-hundred years ago, this landscape looked like the sunken eye-sockets of a giant, land-bound skull to its original architects, monks from India who chiseled and constructed their spiritual homes in the hollows. Along with their sanctuaries, they carved a four-meter-tall image of the Tathagata Buddha on the east-facing side of a limestone cliff. According to the Golgulsa literature, if you climb the 108 steps to face the stone Buddha, whose name, roughly, means both “the one who has gone” and “the one who has come,” then you have finally arrived to face yourself.

To some degree, this is why I’ve flown five thousand miles from my home in California: to get closer to a handful of intertwining histories—to face those histories and, in the process face some un-summoned aspect of myself. Many Buddhists, Zen practitioners especially, would consider this a contradiction in terms: there is no concrete “self” to face. Believing in an everlasting “I” subverts one’s ability to commit to the indeterminate flux and flow of the present moment. It’s the task of the meditating body to focus the breath, clarify the mind, and slice through the fog of this harmful delusion—though it may take no less than a lifetime to do so. What is it, then, that fuels the quest of the seeking spirit and what, within, is asking the questions? What do I believe I’ll achieve by breaking from my mostly-secular life-patterns and immersing myself in meditation and martial arts in the cold mountain air? What is it about the fighting, silent, warrior-monk that draws me closer?

* * *

Sometimes it’s the case that the mind offers up an army of vibrant, disturbing images and one finds oneself in the strangest of fights. This had been happening to me over the course of the past six months, as buried memories and unearthed family narratives began to enter into my consciousness—shadowy, speechless ghosts. In the opening days of the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea, which lasted from 1910 until World War II, my mother’s grandfather cut his losses and immigrated, alone, to America. Over time, he became a lay-leader in the Korean Presbyterian church in the Central Valley of California; my mother herself would become a devout Christian believer. As children, my sister and I were well acquainted with the rituals performed for The One Whose Death Was Our Salvation. My father’s family, on the other hand, is from Japan. His grandmother was a “picture bride” who sailed to America at the turn of the 20th century carrying a photograph of her future husband—a photograph that turned out to be a lie. Most of my father’s family is Buddhist; when my great-grandmother died nearly 80 years after her arrival, my sister and I were initiated into the world of Buddhist ritual. We honored her by attending successive memorial services: seven days after her death, forty-nine days, one year, and so on. The long days of childhood were marked by a solemn, smoke-filled tending: waiting in lines to approach the altar, pinching ashes from burnings, and placing them into the iron mouth of a crouching monster with lidless eyes.

We swallowed all of it—every sanctified act—as children do. Thus, from an early age, geopolitics and spirituality—power and ghosts, ghosts with human powers—formed a tight matrix in my mind, as I reckoned with the strangeness of carrying multiple stories that claimed to explain the origin of all things good: the Buddha’s going-forth, Christ’s sermon on the mount, and the dueling narratives of the Korean and Japanese nations—both proud, both recently subject to the horrors of war, both ever-engaged in a complicated dance with the country I called home.

* * *

In Sunmudo, as with many intensive martial arts practices, there’s a grinding down of the body to clarify the mind. A strength like hot ice forms at the core of the chest, which is its own kind of cave now, its own quiet, protected temple. It houses a spirit that steams up from the practicing body. This, anyway, is what I imagine is happening when I watch four of the monks demonstrate this unique martial art, which combines Zen meditation (or “sun,” in Korean), qi gong energy work, and combative poses meant to embody the Buddhist eightfold path to nirvana. Sunmudo is marked by its combination of graceful postures—which summon to mind a modern dancer—and its sharp feats of strength, like the body bursting upward into a mid-air leg-split then quickly collapsing into a still, stone-like crouch, hands in prayer.

On my first night at Golgulsa, one of the Master monks leads us in our first Sunmudo training session. I join an eclectic group of trainees: a handful of youth, mostly boys and young men who come here for the winter training camps; a few families from Busan with small, kind, restless children, who are participating in the Temple Stay program like myself; and five or six long-term residents, who’ve come here from countries as far-flung as France and the UK to master the martial art. We gather in a large, gym-like facility for two hours of warm-up exercises, sitting meditation, qi gong, and a series of foundational kicks and punches. We flail about on the training floor: earnest, weak, encouraged, and occasionally confused—me, especially, since most of the instruction is in Korean and, not understanding a word, I’m left to mimic the bodies before me.

Sunmudo was once a secret martial art, passed down through the centuries by a few select Buddhist families. Now, there’s an effort on the part of the monks and staff at Golgulsa to make it known. Every week, the temple offers public Sunmudo demonstrations in the main shrine. After having tea with a monk, and engaging in a question-and-answer session about the practice, some of us walk up the “road to Samadhi”—the mountain path leading to the main temple—to watch the demonstrations, in awe. Just before entering the shrine, I meet a couple who arrived on a tour bus. They look to be about my parents’ age. When they speak to me in Korean, I explain that I’m from America; I don’t speak Korean , I say in Korean. Then, they ask if I am Korean and I say, Yes—and I am also Japanese. “Oh,” says the man, smiling. “Very complicated.” Yes. The woman asks if I’m traveling alone and I say yes. After a pause, the man says, “You should make it your purpose in life to learn Korean culture. Martial arts is a good way to do that.” Then they turn to enter the temple, where music is playing and drums are pounding and monks are seemingly dancing through the air, their bodies quick and controlled as knives.

* * *

In his book, When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts, scholar Jeffrey K. Mann relays a story of a 13th century monk in China who took refuge in a temple during a Mongol invasion. When soldiers stormed the grounds, they found him sitting in the lotus position, reciting a poem: “Joy to know the man is void,” he began, “and the things too are void. / Splendid the great Mongolian longsword, / Its lightning flash cuts the spring breeze.” He had so completely overcome a fear of death that he praised the sword about to befall him. Impressed by his calm, the soldiers spared the monk’s life. This, perhaps, is the metaphysical twine connecting the warrior’s body with the Zen mind: when the delusion of selfhood is dispelled—when a monk has relinquished all grasping and is left with nothing lose—how can he fear death? And when a monk no longer fears death, he can dare to risk everything, including his life. He—or she—can dare to fight.

On my last day at Golgulsa, I wake at four for the morning chant and meditation. In the dark before dawn, we gather in a temple built in a cave. The sky is black, the air outside is ice; winter haze obscures the stars. We were called by the hollow sound of a steady wood-block beat, echoing through the valleys; we trudged up the mountain road for the daily ritual. The chanting of the heart sutra begins; all is in Korean so I don’t understand, but the syllables resound somewhere within me, pacing the breath and waking the body. Candles line the front altar, warmly lighting the small space. Rows of robed monks, long-term guests, and visitors like myself kneel on prayer cushions, bowing when signaled, silent, sitting with our eyes closed, standing again, hands in prayer, then back on our knees, forehead to the floor.

Finally, we gather ourselves into the lotus position and we sit. In my mind, the current of cinematic distractions begins: I’m a child again, helpless, subject. Now I’m a woman, lost and wandering. I think of my mother, I think of my grandmothers—one, the living Korean matriarch; the other, gone now, and once interned for looking like the enemy. Then, I’m seized by all I left behind, and all that awaits me, in America. An electric stab of panic rides through my body, and in my mind, I reach out for someone’s hand—whose hand?—and upon touching, we turn to stone. Then we turn into two baby tigers, tumbling and laughing down the slope of a mountain.

Rather than whirling my attention away from the strange stream of images, I breathe everything in. I face all of it. Then, I breathe out, attempting to let go. I may not ever perfect—or get remotely close to perfecting—any kind of martial art in my lifetime. I may never sit and meditate like this again. But I see now how choosing to be present—choosing the flux and flow of the wild moment as it arises—takes a kind of bravery. In bearing your own mind, you are brave. And in experiencing bravery, you are changed. You are ready, perhaps, to fight—whatever that word might mean to you—for what you love.

When the purple dawn arrives, hours later, we do a walking meditation down the gravel path and towards the dining hall, where a breakfast of soup, banchan (Korean-style pickled vegetables), and warm rice awaits. I am hungry, but I am patient, savoring my time in the winter cold, one foot before the other, all the way down the mountain.

Brynn Saito is a poet and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the poetry collection The Palace of Contemplating Departure (Red Hen Press), and her work has appeared in such journals as Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, and Hayden's Ferry Review.