Update from the trail: Top-of-mountain Zen

Sept. 22, 2012

Top-of-mountain conversation with Zen master

By Tony MacGregor

We did a hair-raising climb to the top of a mountain today to see one of South Korea’s greatest monks and learned that he is a huge supporter of Wonhyo, the subject of our pilgrimage.

We had a long talk with Seol Jeong Sunim, one of South Korea’s five Bang Jang or spiritual leaders. We are attempting to emulate the journey of Wonhyo, a 7th Century Korean Buddhist saint, who walked across the Korean peninsula about 1,300 years ago and found enlightenment at the end of his trip.

Seol Jeong Sunim praised us for undertaking the pilgrimage and said he believes Wonhyo has a message for the modern world. Through our interpreter, Mr. Chun, Seol Jeong said Wonhyo’s teachings on the interdependence and interrelatedness of all things and his teachings on harmony and reconciliation are important for the modern world.
“All is one. One is all,” he said through the interpreter. He said Wonhyo’s approach embraced all differences, not just the differences within Buddhism but differences even between religions. That, he said, is the outcome of Wonhyo’s “one mind” approach.

Seol Jeong Sunim talked to us in a sparsely furnished room in Cheongheisa, a temple complex a few hundred yards up the mountain from Sudoeksa, the temple where we had been staying. The gray-stone building, which housed the room, reminded me of an ancient European fortress dug into the side of a mountain. It offered a stunning view of surrounding mountains.

Seol Jeong Sunim sat at the back of the room underneath a huge painting of a woman in a stylized translucent gown. She was Kwanseumbosal, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The juxtaposition of the painting with Seol Jeong Sunim’s softly smiling brown face, white eyebrows, quiet voice and gentle laugh seemed appropriate.

He pointed out that Wonhyo went against the traditions of his day by having a relationship with a princess, which resulted in a son, and by renouncing his monk’s status and returning to the lay life, indicating that the lay life is as important as the Sunim’s life.
Before our meeting with Seol Jeong Sunim we were served one of the best Korean meals I have ever tasted: mushroom and radish soup, bibambab (rice and mixed vegetables) with side dishes of sesame leaves, kimchi and dark doc (rice flour cakes) embedded with green and red beans and vegetables. The meal was full of subtle, quiet tastes, not over spiced or salted.

During the meal, in the huge dining room, where we sat on the floor on cushions, Seol Jeong Sunim sat alone at the center of the back wall opposite translucent doors, which allowed the clear mountain light to spread throughout the room. My fellow pilgrim Chris McCarthy said Seol Jeong Sunim had a face like an adult child. I agreed. His face was child-like, full of happy curiosity.

After the talk he took us on tour of the garden, mountain views and surrounding temples. In a small temple room he showed us two large portraits of past Seon (Zen) masters who had helped revive the Zen tradition after a period of persecution. Buddhism, he said, didn’t believe in the eye-for-an-eye approach, but believed in breaking the cycle of attack and revenge. During our walk I also learned that he is 72 years old.

We interviewed Seol Jeong Sunim for our documentary film with an incredible mountain view as a backdrop, asking question such as “How do we achieve happiness?” and “What is our true nature and how do we find it?” I will report on his answers in a later blog after a more careful translation is done.

I and the interpreter Mr. Chun decided to take the hair-raising drive down from the mountain while our companions Chris McCarthy, Snorre Kjeldsen and Kim Jiyun walked down. We were just in time to meet our friend David Watermeyer, who hiked the first Wonhyo pilgrimage, and came to spend a little time with us. Because Sudoeksa was crowded with weekend visitors, we spent the night in an ecological farmhouse and listened to a talk by Mr. Yu, a middle-aged farmer, on the importance of ecological farming practices before we bedded down in a huge room at the farm.

One Response to “Update from the trail: Top-of-mountain Zen”
  1. Niklas says:

    Curious to hear more about your encounter with Seol Jeong Sunim.

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