Update from the trail: Wonhyo’s Cave

Blog Sept. 24, 2012

Wonhyo’s Cave

By Tony MacGregor

In a last burst of energy we pushed on through the rugged and spectacular landscape surrounding Wonhyo Bong (peak) and arrived at Wonhyo’s cave near Dangjin, on the west coast of South Chungcheong Province, just south of Incheon.

We have been emulating the journey of Wonhyo, a 7th Century Korean monk, who crossed the Korean peninsula and found enlightenment at the end of a journey from Gyeongju, ancient capital of the Shilla kingdom, to a place near Pyeongtaek.

This was the second time his journey has been emulated. We made a similar trip, an exploratory pilgrimage, last December. This time we made a documentary film of the pilgrimage, which we expect to release on Buddha’s birthday next year. We hope the film will be an important tool in helping to establish a permanent Wonhyo pilgrimage trail across Korea.

Wonhyo (617 – 686), one of Korea’s most beloved and unconventional monks, was a great scholar with more than 80 commentaries and essays to his credit. Born into a simple family in the Silla Kingdom, Wonhyo, a monk for many years, renounced the formal religion life to teach ordinary people. He was known to carry a gourd, dancing and singing around the country, encouraging people to chant and recite the Buddha’s name. He called himself “Muoae Geusa” (unhindered practitioner).

My companions allowed me to visit the cave first. It is an irregular, jagged gouge in a white/gray rock face. I bowed in front of the entrance in honor of Wonhyo and the shamans who practiced there and then went down on my hands and knees and crawled in. The floor is covered with flat rocks. The cave itself goes back about 15 feet. It wouldn’t be a comfortable place to spend the night.

I was worn out by the time we arrived. It is a strenuous two-hour hike but we passed some of the most beautiful scenic views I have ever seen thanks to our guide Park Kwang sa, who knows the area like the back of his hand and took us to some fantastic look-outs.

At the beginning of the hike, the terrain and trees reminded me of the woods of my boyhood in Norfolk, England: oak trees, maples, pine, brambles, mossy rocks, rotting trees, a twisty, root-encrusted dirt path that wound higher and higher.

The we came out of the trees and stood on some rocks that overlooked a spectacular view that fixed my eyes. Twenty or 30 kilometers away from us through the clear air dark green forests clinging to the mountains pushed into light-green rice paddies specked with blue-roofed houses. The rock I was standing on was on the top of a cliff that plunged downwards hundreds of yards into the tops of trees. It was breath-taking and frightening at the same time.

The higher we got, the deeper the brown and crispy dry green leaves became underfoot so before we arrived at Wonhyo’s cave we were ankle-deep in leaves that crunched and crackled underfoot.

What did I learn on this pilgrimage? The kindly abbot of Yeoungpyeongsa had given me a new name, Tae-an, a saint who had been a friend of Wonhyo’s. He gave us money and encouraged us to honor Wonhyo with the pilgrimage. But what had I learned? I had learned how to live in close quarters with three other guys, sleeping in the same room, hiking and driving together, planning together, creating together.

But what had I learned beyond that? I had learned that prostrations can be a helpful form of practice for me. Prostrations are emphasized in Korean Buddhism. I had always ignored them but a few days ago for the film I did many prostrations in front of the Buddha on the mountainside above Sudoek-sa. I found the constant, repetitive bowing developed a sense of humility and gratitude within me. I thanked the monk who took care of the Buddha for letting us worship there and thanked him for the plum tea he brought us and when I gave him back the paper tea cups, I thanked him again.

When I asked the monks we talked to in the various monasteries how can I find a teacher, several of them gave the same answer: Everyone and everything is your teacher, so on this trip I have tried to learn from the mountain streams, the mountain forests, the still mountains themselves, the grumpy monks, the happy monks and the lay people who showed me so much hospitality.

2 Responses to “Update from the trail: Wonhyo’s Cave”
  1. Hi,

    It has been a year. I’m curious as to why there haven’t been any updates on the pilgrimage or the film since September, 2012.

  2. steppeandsky says:

    Al, thanks for reminding us to post an update on the Wonhyo Project. We have slipped behind in the updates. Our apologies. We will post the update below.


    We are currently editing the film “In the Footsteps of Wonhyo”. We expect to have it ready for release in Seoul in February of 2014. Editing of the film has taken longer than expected for a number of reasons, both personal and technical. We originally had planned to release the film in December of this year. We expect the film will play a key role in establishing a permanent Wonhyo pilgrimage trail across the Korean Peninsula.

    We also plan to undertake another pilgrimage in May of 2014 to nail down a possible Wonhyo route and write a book about the trail shortly after the pilgrimage. A new website is also in the works and will launch next month.

    Thanks again Al for reminding us about the update. We appreciate your support. – Tony

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