Though it’s not quite Korea’s answer to the Shaolin Monastery of China, Golgulsa Temple (골굴사) is one of the more unique temples in the Gyeongju area and it’s pretty darn cool. If you’re on your way over to King Munmu’s tomb (문무대왕릉) on the East Coast, it’s well worth taking an hour or so to stop off here and check it out.
Founded by the Buddhist Saint Kwang Yoo, Gulgulsa dates back to the Shilla Dynasty (신라) when it was a hermitage associated with Girimsa temple(기림사) near by. There are about 12 caves of various sizes eaten into the face of a tall limestone cliff here and during ancient times monks would come and meditate in these caves for weeks or even months on end.
That said, Golgulsa is most famous for the 20 foot tall Sakyamuni Buddha image carved at the top of this cliff. Little is known about who carved this Buddha or when it was carved, but legend has it the original sculptor fell to his death before it’s completion. It’s considered one of the best examples of Shilla stone carving. Unfortunately the centuries haven’t been very kind and the bottom half of the carving has eroded or fallen away. They’ve recently built a protective awning to help protect the Buddha from further erosion.
I’d been to Golgulsa a few times before, but I recently stopped by with some friends on the way out to do some hiking at Girimsa temple. I took about 30 minutes to work my way up the zig-zag, ramshackle paths up the cliff to the Buddha and back. I’ll tell ya, just getting up the cliff face is an experience in itself. Definitely not meant for folks with small children, a fear or heights, or wearing high heels. Be prepared for some repelling and hand-over-hand stone ladder climbing. The meditation caves have now been turned into Buddhist shrines (and one cave temple), so they’re good places to take a breather on the way up or back.
These days Golgulsa is doubly famous as being the only temple in Korea to house a Seonmudo (선무도), or “Zen Martial Arts” training center (hence the Shaolin Monastery comparison). As legends have it, Seonmudo traces it’s lineage all the way back to the Bodhidarma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, who brought over the techniques of Seonmudo with him over from India.
The Seomudo college itself is fairly recent, dating back to 1984, and it’s open to the public for martial arts training. It’s about 40,000 won to stay overnight and the price includes housing, meals and meditation and Seonmudo sessions. If you’re interested, I’d advise making reservations before hand through the temple’s website. If you’re a serious martial arts practitioner and interested in extended training, I’ve heard of foreigners arranging work-study programs with the temple and training out there for months or even years.
Directions: If you’re driving, take N.R. 4 going East from Gyeongju for half an hour out past Bomun lake and over Mt. Beakdusan. On the far side of the mountain, take your first left at Andong-ri (안둥리) on to N.R. 14. Follow N.R. 14 for about 3 minutes and turn left at the signs. Follow the road through the gates to the main parking lot.
If you’re going by bus, take bus number 100 or 150 going towards Gampo (감포). Get off at the Andong-ri way intersection. Golgulsa is a 15 minute walk from there.
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