중앙데일리

[Indepth interview]Thirty years on the road, by foot

‘When walking, all possessions become burdensome. Life is a road, and walking is a life. One can feel lighter and live a fuller life as he lets go of his possessions.’

May 30,2007
Near Baekdam Temple in a remote part of Mount Seorak in Gangwon Province, the JoongAng Ilbo met with the Buddhist monk Wongong. Between 1972 and 1977 he undertook a ascetic exercise in isolation at Cheonchuksa, a temple on Mount Dobong, Seoul. He was the only monk to complete it in the Mumungwan. The name Mumungwan, translated as “doorless room” or “gateless barrier,” is a literal description of the room where the monk stays alone to meditate; all its doors are sealed, except for a small hole through which meal trays are passed.
Since 1979, for almost three decades, the monk has travelled only on foot; not once has he ridden on an elevator, an automobile or even a tractor. He often eats and stays overnight at temples. Now he is known as “the walking monk.” On the day of the interview, his knees and legs were swollen. He was on his way from Seoul to Sokcho, on the far northeastern coast of the country. The previous day, he had fallen from a bridge into a brook while trying to avoid getting hit by a car on the expressway. “Had I been seriously injured, I would have been taken away in an ambulance and failed to reach the record of walking for three decades,” he said. He pulled a ligament in his legs, but that did not stop him from continuing his walk to Sokcho. “What would have been a one-day trip will now take me three days,” he says, laughing.

Q. Why do you walk?
A. It is natural for humans to walk. However, with the invention of cars, people have tried to avoid walking. That is one of the causes of the growing number of adults with geriatric diseases. Even animals run only in times of danger, and walk the rest of the time. Humans are the only ones who always seem to be in a rush all the time.

Would you say walking is a part of your ascetic exercises?
Definitely. Walking means emptying one’s mind. If you linger in a place too long, you develop a sense of attachment. Human possessiveness is unrelenting. When walking, all possessions become burdensome. Life is a road, and walking is a life. One can feel lighter and live a fuller life as he lets go of his possessions.

What burden do you carry?
In my case, just a couple of pieces of clothing. When they get dirty or wet I wash them and wear them the next day. In fact, dirty or wet clothing do not bother me much. Wet clothes will eventually dry out, and as long as one’s mind and spirit are clean, dirty clothing means nothing.

Why are you so intent on not lingering at one place?
Even the greatest monks come to different findings and realizations. There won’t be any variety if people do not think out of the box. I do not mean to say that lingering is a bad thing.

You have been walking for 29 years. What do you usually think about while you walk?
In the past, my mind used to jump from one thing to another. Not anymore. Now, I just walk.

You undertook your ascetic exercises for six years in the Mumungwan. Why did you go there in the first place?
I would not have, had I known what I was getting myself into. Ignorance would be the answer to your question. To an observer, life in Mumungwan seemed ideal, and that is why I decided to go. “That is something I want to try,” was how I felt at the time.

What was life in the Mumungwan really like?
My feelings about Mumungwan constantly changed during my stay there. Six years eventually passed. In fact, life in the Mumungwan does not greatly differ from life on the outside. I saw the moon and sun through the windows inside the Mumungwan, and I see the moon and sun outside the Mumungwan.

You started walking right after you came out of Mumungwan. Is there a particular reason?
After living in a closed room for six years, I wanted to move around. To a disciple, walking and sitting are both parts of self-discipline. Both are just different ways of meditation.

How many kilometers have you walked so far?
I do not know. During the first few years, I kept track of the distances I walked and the places I passed through. After a certain point, I just walked. Now, I simply mark the roads I have walked on the map I carry with me at all times.

Would you say there is a specific technique in walking?
Everyone has his own way of walking, and that is the most suitable one. Whatever way that feels comfortable is the best technique. However, it is useful to wear shoes that are slightly loose.

Is there a rhythm to walking?
Walking with rhythm definitely helps to keep the walking more interesting. I usually take 10 slow steps, and then 20 faster steps. Walking backwards is also a good idea. When walking backwards, we exercise muscles that we usually do not use.

Don’t you feel you are falling behind in a world that is changing at such a fast pace?
If you look at the big picture, life is just a process. There is no need to feel one is falling behind. Through my lifestyle, I have met diverse people who have helped me gain insights into life.

You also walked through the cities that hosted the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup.
Yes, I did. I walked through 20 Korean and Japanese cities, a total of 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles).

How do Korean roads compare to the roads in Japan?
Dangerous. I usually stay away from traffic lanes, and stick to small roads. However, I sometimes have to walk in traffic lanes when there is no other option. At such times, I always tell myself, “I may actually die here,” and afterwards feel relieved to be alive.

Which is your favorite season for walking?
Each season brings its own delight. Summer is great for taking naps between stops, and spring brings the pleasant scent of flowers. In the fall, I do not worry about sweating, and in winter I can enjoy the beautiful sight of mountains. There is not a single day that is not good for walking.


By Baik Sung-ho JoongAng Ilbo [estyle@joongang.co.kr]



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