Following the footsteps of Korea’s most beloved monkWhen the idea struck Tony MacGregor in 2007 to start a more than 400-kilometer-long (250-mile-long) modern-day pilgrimage in the footsteps of Wonhyo, Korea’s most beloved monk, he wanted it to be more than just paying homage to the respected Buddhist figure.
So he gathered other expats who agreed with his cause, and on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 4, a five-member group set out on the journey that started in the southeastern city of Gyeongju, capital of Korea’s Silla Kingdom, and ended in Dangjin, a short distance west of Seoul, last week.
“For the three years I had lived in Korea I was always touched by the kindness and generosity of Koreans,” says the 66-year-old Canadian journalist. “Paying homage to one of Korea’s most beloved monks was my way of giving something back to the country.”
The pilgrimage itself is the first of its kind ever undertaken in honor of the revered monk, who found enlightenment in Dangjin in the seventh century while attempting to travel to China for more intense study of Buddhism. The story goes that he and a close friend took shelter from heavy rains one night while traveling. Wonhyo stumbled on what he thought was a gourd and quenched his thirst with a cool drink from it. The next morning, he discovered that the gourd was a human skull and that the drink he found so refreshing was stale water.
Realizing how the mind could so easily change perception, he abandoned his plans to go to China, became a layman and started spreading Buddhism to ordinary people. Going against the principles that society dictated at the time, Wonhyo cemented a lasting impression on people for thousands of years.
MacGregor, who is currently finishing his Master of Arts in Buddhist studies in Bangkok, first began learning about the ancient teachings of Korean Buddhism at Hwagyesa International Zen Center in Seoul. It was here where the seedling of an idea was first hatched.
“After all this time, Wonhyo is still very much recognized and his philosophy of oneness, and preconceptions of the mind are still widely practiced throughout much of Korea even today,” MacGregor says. “I found that incredibly inspiring.”
Long ago, Buddhism was practiced in royal circles, the upper echelons of society. Wonhyo is credited with bringing it to everyone, from prostitutes to the local butcher.
“Wonhyo broke through class barriers and made the teachings of Buddhism available to everyone .?.?. He took it to the people. He did things in his own fashion, this is what set him apart from the nobility,” MacGregor said.
MacGregor approached David Watermeyer, a South African currently teaching at Dongguk University’s Gyeongju campus, who became involved in the project from the beginning.
“The whole idea was very abstract at first when Tony originally proposed the idea to me,” Watermeyer said. “However, I always found the endeavor to be very intriguing.”
For Watermeyer, his participation in Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage was what made him give the Wonhyo project more serious thought.
“That’s what solidified my decision,” Watermeyer admits. “Seeing everything in terms of my pilgrimage in Spain made the Wonhyo project much more real.”
The five pilgrims, consisting of MacGregor, Watermeyer along with David Mason, Chris McCarthy and Sang-min, a monk studying at Dongguk University and the only Korean in the group, set out from Gyeongju, the city where Wonhyo lived.
Visiting some of the country’s most remote sanctuaries and villages has proved invaluable and insightful for group member Chris McCarthy, an American journalist who currently splits his time between the California coast, where he is working on his doctorate, and Northeast Asia. The fact that the journey marked the first attempt anyone has tried to retrace the route Wonhyo took while on pilgrimage to China during the seventh century was an enormous challenge.
Details of the journey are posted on www.inthefootstepsofwonhyo.com.