Day 1: The Journey Begins, Bunhwang-sa to Oeo-sa
It was the first day on the Wonhyo pilgrimage and I thought it might be my last. I was rolling down a hill headfirst. I had slipped in wild, forested area while I and my fellow pilgrims were making our way to Oeo-sa temple. We were not on a trail but following a river bed, which had looked like a trail on the map.
Bam. I came to a sudden stop and felt a pain on the side of my head. My fellow pilgrims rushed to help me – Chris McCarthy, David Watermeyer and Sangmin sunim (sunim means monk). I stared at the shocked and concerned looks on their faces. Chris splashed some water on the bump on the side of my head for several minutes. The others helped me to my feet and I knew I was going to be OK. Soon we wereall walking down the tangled stream again.
December 5 – the first day of the pilgrimage -had started like a dream. It was a crisp, invigorating day, perfect for walking. As we arrived at our starting point, Bunhwangsa Temple – a temple closely associated with Wonhyo and one which holds his portrait – several older people were carrying out their daily rituals of bowing and meditation.
Wonhyo, Korea’s most beloved Buddhist saint and a scholar of international renown, found enlightenment in a cave near Dangjin in the 7th century under peculiar circumstances. Our pilgrimage was an attempt – the first attempt ever made – to re-enact the journey Wonhyo and his friend Uisang made in the 7th Century across the Korean Peninsula, which ended in Wonhyo’s enlightenment.
After our fellow pilgrim Sangmin sunim arrived, he explained to the staff at Bungwangsa the nature of our visit. Soon after, a smiling, middle aged woman, one of the staff, brought us bottles of water and later hot coffee. After David Mason, a member of the Wonhyo pilgrimage team, arrived, we took photographs and then set out, walking along the side of a fairly busy four-lane road. We were elated. The weather was perfect. We had talked about this event for four years. Now it was finally happening.
David Mason only walked with us to Lake Bomun. Before he left, we gathered on the sidewalk and he told us a story of Wonhyo. In the story, Wonhyo came across a woman, who was in her menstruation period, washing in a stream. Wonhyo asked for a drink and the woman handed him a dipper full of water that contained some of her menstruation blood. Disgusted, Wonhyo threw the water away and filled the dipper with water upstream from the woman. He left and later returned to find the woman but nothing was left of her except one of her shoes. Wonhyo took the shoe to a nearby temple and found the matching shoe under what used to be a statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Wonhyo realized that the woman in the stream was the Bodhisattva of Compassion. By rejecting her drink, he had severely curtailed his ability to develop spiritually.
“The moral of the story,” said David. “Is to show respect to everyone you meet because you never know who might be a Bodhisattva.”
We continued our walk along the road until we came to a mountain with an asphalt road that was fairly deserted. I thought about the Kickoff dinner the previous night. David Mason had kicked off the story-telling session. He had told a story of Uisang, a companion of Wonhyo, which was mixed with myth and legend, including a princess who turned into a dragon.
After the dinner, in a toast to Wonhyo and his accomplishments, I emphasized the importance of the inner journey on our trip. I pointed out that Wonhyo’s discovery of the importance of the mind – his personal realization of that truth – is foreshadowed by earlier teachings of the Buddha. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said,
“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unbreakable.”
The mind, I said, is all important and our journey, although it is a physical journey, is also a journey of the mind and that journey is the most important one. So it is important that we don’t get diverted – not by beautiful views, or by beautiful temples.
After all, I said, “Wonhyo actually abandoned his physical journey after his enlightenment experience because he realized that the inner journey is what matters. It is the important thing.”
Chris is our chief navigator on the journey. David Mason worked out our basic route from Gyeongju to a cave near Dangjin, where Wonhyo is reputed to have received enlightenment. Using Google Earth, Chris had refined the route, trying to keep us to walking about 28 kilometres a day. The whole journey of about 500 kilometres will take over 20 days.
Our big challenge is navigation and to find lodgings before nightfall. The day before we left for the trip, David Watermeyer and I had driven to Oeo-sa, near Pohang, our first scheduled night on the trail. Unfortunately, the only accommodation we had been able to find nearby was a love hotel. But we comforted ourselves with the thought that Wonhyo had shocked his contemporaries by associating with harlots and butchers and even bandits.
We also found lodgings for our second sleeping stop, Yangdong, an ancient preserved village. We were fortunate in being able to find a room in the old village itself.
The morning of the first day of the pilgrimage went well. We walked through delightful villages on back roads. A thick layer of brown leaves covered much of the ground around the road. Smells of cow manure and burning leaves wafted past our nostrils as we walked past tiny fields of rich brown earth and massive cabbages tied up with strings, and wet paddy fields with rice stubble sticking out of the ground. Even though it is December and the plant world is starting to sleep, I couldn’t help but feel the rich transformative power of nature.
We stopped at a little village Wangsan for lunch and was served a delicious meal of tofu soup, fried eggs, kimchi and dried seaweed under the curious eyes of the local people. The restaurant owner, as a special treat, brought us some just-made soy milk that was still warm and syrupy – delicious.
Just before lunch I realized that I had left my camera in a rest room further back on our route. When we explained to the restaurant owner, she said her husband would drive us back to pick it up, which he did. The camera was sitting on a shelf outside the rest room when we got there and I felt thankful for the honesty and kindness of Koreans.
It was after lunch that we had navigational difficulties and we found ourselves in the forest, full of grey, leafless trees. We saw no wildlife and only occasionally heard the twitter of birds. We discovered the route we were following was not a road but a delightful little stream that meandered through rocks and brown underbrush. It was then that I slipped and banged my head.
We pushed on relying on Chris’s Global Positioning System device and Sangmin sunim’s compass and after struggling through underbrush finally came to some buildings. Sangmin asked a resident for directions and he pointed to a narrow concrete road and told us it would be about a half hour to reach Oeo-sa.
We headed off up the steep road and about forty-five minutes later asked a man who was tending a fire. He said it was another 15 minutes. It was dusky by this time and our greatest fear was coming true. We were getting caught on the road in darkness. We were tired and every step was a little painful for me as I had banged my leg during the fall. Somehow we took the wrong road but finally arrived in darkness at a little temple.
Sangmin spoke to a monk at the temple, JaJang Am, which I believe is part of Oeo-sa, and the monk offered us lodgings for the night, a big room where the four of us could sleep. The monk provided us with bedding and cooked us an an evening meal.
It struck me that our pilgrimage, which was actually inspired by the kindness and good will of Koreans may also in the end depend in large part on the kindness of Koreans.
Chris crawled into bed right after dinner but David, Sangmin and I discussed some of Wonhyo’s teachings. We discussed Wonhyo’s legendary affair with a princess, which resulted in a son. The princess begged Wonhyo to sleep with her as an act of compassion. She claimed she would die without his love.
The question we discussed from that story was whether the precepts of Buddhism should always be obeyed or whether compassion was more important and should over-rule the precepts in some circumstances.
Sangmin said it wasn’t a problem of right or wrong because Wonhyo followed his own way. “I’m not sure whether he did right or wrong. It depends on what point of view you take. David felt that it was impossible to judge Wonhyo because it is impossible to know Wonhyo’s intentions. Every situation should be judged on its own merits, he said. He also pointed out that we have a temptation to justify what we do.
My view is that compassion can over-rule the precepts and, in the case of Wonhyo, since he was enlightened, he made the right choice.