Last month my University asked me to help guide a tour of Korean-American students around Gyeongju for a day. That afternoon we stopped by Golgulsa (골굴사) Temple for a short lesson in Seonmudo (선무도), or Korean Zen martial arts. In all the times I’d been to Golgulsa, I’d never actually seen what Seonmudo actually is. Luckily for us the monks gave a demonstration after the lesson and got to show off some of their top moves. I had my handycam with me, so here’s a short 3 minute video of some of the highlights I’ve edited together.
If you’ve not heard of Seonmudo before, it’s a form of dynamic meditation that focuses the physical discipline of martial arts practice towards the Buddhist purposes of self knowledge and ultimately enlightenment. It incorporates elements of Yoga and Qigong for slower, meditative routines (like in the first minute of the video) along with actual combat techniques (as in the last two minutes). Seonmudo traces it’s linage all the way back to the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, the Bodhidarma (달마), who is believed to have brought the techniques of Seonmudo over from India along with Zen meditation in the 5th century C.E. Seonmudo in it’s current form, however, was revived and systematized in Korean in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Just a quick side note about the painting I used to fade the video in and out. Some folks might think it against the Buddhist ideals of compassion and nonviolence to see an army of Buddhist monks on the attack. However, this painting actually refers to the Imjin War (임진왜란, 1592-1598) when the Japanese warlord Hideyoshi twice invaded and ravaged the Korean peninsula. As the Joseon (조선왕조) Dynasty’s defenses were failing, the Buddhist monasteries of Korea organized themselves into defensive armies. These warrior monks (who had been trained in Seonmudo) flooded down from their mountain retreats by the thousands to successfully defeat Hideyoshi’s forces in several key battles, often armed with only bamboo staffs or sickles. Not only did these monk armies help save Korea, they also raised the standing of Buddhism within the Joseon Dynasty, which had been persecuting the Buddhist community for almost 200 years.
Anyhow, if you’re interested in taking lessons in Seonmudo, the Seonmudo College at Golgulsa is open to the public. The expected donation for an overnight stay here is about 40,000 won, which includes housing, meals and meditation and Seonmudo sessions. I’d advise making reservations before hand through the temple’s website. If you’re serious about martial arts and interested in extended training in Seonmudo, you can arrange work-study programs with the temple and train for months or even years. For directions to the temple, check out my previous post on Golgulsa back in January.
View Golgulsa Temple (골굴사) in a larger map