Day 15: Arriving at a Sacred Spot, Realizing the End is the Beginning
Post 15, Dec. 18, 2011
“When sewing clothes, a short needle is needed, and a long spear is useless. To avoid the rain, a small umbrella is needed, and a cover that spans the entire sky is useless. Therefore, small things should not be regarded as trivial. Depending on their true nature, both small and large things are precious.” Wonhyo’s work.
After 14 days on the road we staggered to the site of Wonhyo’s cave about 2 pm led by our guide Park Wangsu.
We had achieved the first re-enactment of Wonhyo’s famous trek from Gyeongju to this cave in more than 1.300 years.
During a stormy night in this cave in the seventh century Wonhyo had accidentally drunk putrid water from a human skull in the cave we had reached, starting a process that led to his enlightenment. On Sunday we celebrated his enlightenment by drinking pure spring water from vessels we had taken with us.
Our trek of about 500 km, much of it walked along back roads and mountain tracks was over. Wonhyo’s cave is high on Wonhyo-bong, a 510 metre mountain peak near Seoul, Gyeonggi. It took us more than two hours to walk from the guide’s residence to the site – through underbrush, along snow-covered paths, past slopes where the grey underbrush and brown leaves poked through the white snow covering, past breath-taking mountain views and finally to the site. It was a wonderful way to finish what had been a series of incredible hikes from temple to temple to minbak across the Korean Peninsula.
My fellow pilgrims asked me to go the site alone for a few minutes to meditate, which I did. The cave is an unpretentious place, a dark hole gouged into a huge rock, a good place to shelter from rain but not a comfortable place to spend a night. Apparently it was venerated as the home of a mountain spirit before Wonhyo used it to shelter.
Then the others joined me in front of the cave:
Chris McCarthy, a Ph.d. student who revived the Wonhyo project after it had fallen into a hiatus for several years;
David Watermeyer, a South African who teaches English at Dongguk University, one of the original planners of the project;
Sangmin sunim, a Korean monk who provided invaluable service as an interpreter and the link between us and the temples;
Rhea Metituk, a Canadian English teacher who joined on the pilgrimage whenever she could, bringing her good humor, organizing skills and curious outlook;
Pannyabhoga, a monk from Myanmar, an old friend who used to lead a meditation group in Seoul.
Park Wangsu, an organic farmer and our guide for the last part of the pilgrimage.
We meditated for a few minutes. Then I gave a brief talk thanking everyone for their efforts, and we drank the pure, spring water in memory of Wonhyo’s achievement and in the hope that we also would achieve the kind of self-understanding he achieved. In memory of their achievements I also gave to the pilgrims necklaces from which a small skull hung, a symbol of Wonhyo’s enlightenment.
When we started the pilgrimage in Gyeongju we emphasized the importance of the inner journey, and the great discovery that Wonhyo had made – that truth resides in the mind. We tried to use the physical journey as a tool to facilitate the inner journey, a journey towards self understanding. That inner journey had been heightened by the daily hikes, sometimes lasting six or seven hours and by our daily discussions about Wonhyo’s teachings.
Now it was back to normal life and everyday problems. In my case it was dealing with my MA thesis in Buddhist studies at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Bangok, finding a new job, and settling family issues.
But the pilgrimage had given me insights, new knowledge about myself that I hope will stay with me. Buddhism is a practical approach to life. It is based on experience, not theory. I had many experiences on the trail, and I came to realize more deeply than before that “small” things, as Wonhyo taught, are as important as “big” things. The sound of ice crackling under your feet, the smell of manure, the taste of rameon noodles and mulberry juice, the warm smile of a cleaning lady – these “small” things are as important as the “big” things in life.
After walking back to the guide’s house, where he plied us with more delicious organic food (he had served us lunch earlier) and fermented dandelion drinks, we piled into the back of his truck and he drove us to Sudeok-sa temple where we discussed the day’s adventures with Ailsun, the temple-stay organizer. She had obtained Mr. Park as a guide for us and spent several hours helping us organize the last part of the trip.
Her kindness and helpfulness at the end of the trip complemented the warmth and kindness we had been shown on so many occasions during the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage itself had been inspired by goodwill and kindness shown by Koreans during our stay here. It was our way of saying thank you to Koreans for our experiences. The kindness shown to us on the trip demonstrated that the inspiration for the pilgrimage had a solid foundation.