Crouching Chakra, Hidden Dharma: Uncloaking a Martial Art

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Crouching Chakra, Hidden Dharma: Uncloaking a Martial Art

GYEONGJU - Life in Korea generally means a hectic city rusharound, a day filled with smog, speed and oppressive concrete skyscrapers. The cumulative stress and pollution can make one sick. A visit to the doctor does not help, nor does a weekend trip to a smaller provincial city, for often those places are miniature versions of Seoul.

For the past few years, however, some people have taken more extreme measures in order to clear their minds and improve their bodies. Golgulsa temple, near Gyeongju city, North Gyeongsang province, has attracted a number of visitors from all over the world, people seeking truth, the ultimate answers to life and better health. And they did so through sunmudo.

Literally, sunmudo means "Zen martial art." It is a Buddhist training method that has been secretly handed down from dharma masters to Korean Buddhist monks through the centuries. Sunmudo is a way to attain enlightenment and ultimately nirvana, through harmonizing the body, mind and breathing, together purifying the spirit.

The training consists of yoga exercises, chakra breathing, and dynamic martial art and weapon techniques. One can attain a peaceful mind and body by harmonizing dynamic and calm movements. Originally, the method was known as geumgang banyawon in the famous Busan temple Beomeosa. The Most Venerable Yang-ik revived the tradition in the 1960s and established it as a system of study in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the Venerable Seol Jeog-un, formerly a taekwondo master, renamed it sunmudo in hope of propagating the art among the general public in Golgulsa. Presently there are more than 20 dojang, or training gyms, throughout the peninsula.

According to Mr. Seol, harmonizing the spirit and the body leads to good health, inner peace and ultimately enlightenment. Sunmudo is about both physical training and a philosophy.

Golgulsa, in one form or another, has stood for more than 1,500 years. The site was considered very important from early times because the sun lights up the stone sculpture at the peak of the temple at the same time as Bulguksa, another celebrated temple nearby.

Golgulsa is located 20 kilometers east of Gyeongju, one of Korea's oldest capitals from the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-A.D. 936). It was built in the 6th century by Saint Gwang Yoo and his companions, Buddhist monks from India. Sunmudo was then handed down to monk-soldiers during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and through the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when Buddhist monks were encouraged to practice sunmudo. But it then fell into neglect toward the end of the 19th century when Korea began to open up to the wider world.

Golgulsa contains a sculpture of the Maya Tathagata Buddha and 12 rock caves. They have been used as prayer sanctuaries and some are still being used by monks. In 1985, Mr. Seol oversaw construction of a road and renovation of the temple site.

The temple offers a variety of retreats, from single weekends to monthly training sessions at the adjacent Sunmudo University. Training sessions at the temple are rigorous, starting at 4 a.m. Monks wander the temple grounds, striking wooden bells, followed by a loud gong at the top of the hill. Trainees get up and attend a service for half an hour. At 5 a.m., everyone meditates. At 6 a.m., they jog or hike. At 7 a.m., it is time for breakfast. Training during the day includes not only a tea ceremony and actual sunmudo training, mediation, breathing and stretching, but also sweeping and cleaning the temple. By 9 p.m., it is time for lights out, and sleeping is mandatory.

Visitors used to be limited to devout Buddhists and martial arts masters, but now they include dancers, athletes and students from Korea and abroad. The temple had more than 400 visitors last year alone, and the number is expected to grow. There are no age requirements.

Sunmudo training centers can be found in the United States, Canada, Austria and France. Golgulsa temple (054-744-1689, Korean service only) is located at Mount 304-1 Andong-ri, Yangbu-myeon, Gyeongju-si, North Gyeongsang province. Reservations to study sunmudo are required in advance. The fee for a one-night and two-day stay, which includes three meals and basic training, is about 65,000 won ($50). A group rate is less.

[INTERVIEW]'Students Did More in 10 Days Than They Did in a Year Back Home'

To commemorate the 20th sunmudo dan, or black belt, examination on Sept. 26, sunmudo masters received various awards. The host of the biannual event, Dr. Hur Ik-koo of Chinju National University, introduced Frederic Foubert, 40, a sunmudo master based in Toulouse, France, and thanked him for his dedication to spreading Korea's martial arts internationally. "Master Frederic" (a nickname he acquired in Korea) visited Golgulsa for two weeks in August along with seven of his French students and spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition about his commitment to Korean sunmudo.

IHT-JAI: How did you get started in sunmudo?

Foubert: I was a taekwondo master and still teach taekwondo along with sunmudo. I visited Korea for the first time in 1984 to find the roots of taekwondo. I traveled around temples in the south of Korea, and asked monks, "Where are your original martial arts?" They all told me that there is a Buddhist martial art called sunmudo in Korea and that I should go to Golgulsa, but I couldn't find it for many years. Even Korean people didn't know about sunmudo then. About six years ago, I finally found Golgulsa.

I've taught sunmudo for the past two years, and now I have 40 students. I come to Golgulsa every summer to train and learn new techniques.

IHT-JAI: What do you tell new students what sunmudo is all about?

Foubert: Health. You learn breathing techniques and stretching, and attain peace of mind through sunmudo, unlike other martial arts that focus on physical strength. I'm teaching only the basics of sunmudo.

IHT-JAI: What do you think of your students from France training in Golgulsa?

Foubert: Sunmudo training in Golgulsa comes with a tough and rigid daily regime. It is intense and physically demanding. My French students did more training in 10 days in Korea than all their training together in one year in France. Training on the hard floor is especially difficult because they are used to the soft mats, and it is even more difficult to meditate for several hours with their legs crossed while sitting down.

IHT-JAI: What about next year? Are you returning?

Foubert: I had a deal with Venerable Master Seol that we take turns visiting each other's country. Next year he will visit France and train with me and my students. I feel good to be able to connect the two countries.

by Ines Cho

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