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Beomeosa: Busan’s Temple of Fighting Monks

Nestled amid dense forest, Beomeosa famed for its fighting monks and the unique martial arts skills that helped repel Japanese invasions.

I analyze the monk’s gait as he strides through a pebbled courtyard. I’m looking for a fluidity in his movement, for any sign of the balance and agility typically possessed by experienced martial artists. It’s safe to say this is the first time I’ve ever done this. Never before have I been interested in the athletic capabilities of a religious man. The difference, today, is that I’ve just been reading about the long links between an ancient Korean combat technique and the monks here at Busan’s mountainside Beomeosa Temple.

Busan is one of Asia’s most beautiful big cities. While the likes of Bangkok, Shanghai, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City are all wonderful, fascinating metropolises, not many people would consider them aesthetically pleasing. Certainly not in the way of major European cities like Paris, Rome and Barcelona, which are known for their elegance.

Barcelona is a decent point of comparison, though, for Busan. Just like that Spanish gem, it is flanked by attractive, forested hills, is built right on to a beautiful coastline and boasts a sequence of gorgeous sandy beaches. There is perhaps no better vantage from which to absorb this natural splendour of Busan than the grounds of Beomeosa Temple.

Nestled amid dense forest, it owns a magnificent location and a truly unique history. It was built due to a dream, is blessed by golden fish, and is protected by a clan of fighting monks, whose unique martial arts skills have helped repel multiple Japanese invasions. This is the incredible story of the 1,300-year-old Buddhist temple.

ABOVE: Monk inside Beomeosa.

Beomeosa was built on the side of Mt Geumjeong in the late 7th century by King Munmu of the Silla Dynasty. As the Silla Kingdom faced invasion by the Japanese, the story goes that King Munmu had a dream in which he was advised by a God to climb to the top of Mt Geumjeong to pray. Upon his completion of this task, he was provided with heavenly assistance to swiftly defeat the encroaching Japanese forces.

Another fascinating story relates to the name Beomeosa, which translates as Heavenly Fish Temple. That name has an interesting origin. Local folklore goes that at the crest of this mountain lies a gilded well that, even during droughts, has never been dry. Living inside this well are golden fish which descended from the heavens on a cloud and now offer protection and fortune to the mountain and to Beomeosa.

I must say, I saw no sign of these magical fish during my visit to Beomeosa. First and foremost I was distracted by the rare beauty of the temple and its environment. It is November and the Autumnal bloom is painting the mountain in an array of warm colours from gold through to amber, pink and red. Set against the backdrop of a deep blue, cloudless sky, this creates a dramatic spectacle.

Adding to this rich palette is the temple’s use of Dancheong, a traditional Korean colour scheme consisting of red, yellow, blue, white and black, which embellishes many of South Korea’s most significant historic buildings. Visitors pass through the imposing and decorative One Pillar Gate and then the equally impressive Four Guardians Gate to reach Buddha Hall, the most significant structure in this large temple complex. This hall enshrines Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion.
Many of the buildings at Beomeosa date back to the early 1600s. This is when they were rebuilt after Beomeosa was badly damaged during the Imjin War, when Korea was invaded by Japan in the 1590s. It is while standing in a courtyard near the Buddha Hall that I encounter the aforementioned monk. He doesn’t notice me watching him intently.

Before the Imjin War, monks at Beomeosa were taught a form of martial arts inspired by Zen Buddhism. In practicing this fighting technique, they were able to engage in a form of deep meditation. Known as Sunmudo, this Korean martial art was not intended to be used for combat. But when Busan came under attack during the Imjin War, the highly-trained monks of Beomeosa sprang into action, utilising their skills to help force the invaders into retreat and out of Korea.

Over the following centuries, Sunmudo fell into decline. It wasn’t until the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945 that Sunmudo made a significant comeback at Beomeosa. The monks at Beomeosa still learn Sunmudo as part of their training, although Korea’s main Sunmudo centre is now at Golgulsa temple near Gyeongju city.

Tourists are welcome to take part in this Sunmudo training at Golgulsa. Visitors can also stay on site at Beomeosa, where the monks will teach them about Zen meditation, Buddhist ceremonial services, traditional tea ceremonies and making prayer beads. If you wish to take part in this temple stay program, be sure to behave – Beomeosa’s fighting monks are not to be messed with.