An Effort to Establish the Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail across Korea __ Tony MacGregor

An Effort to
Establish the
Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail across Korea
Tony MacGregor | Former journalist of The Korea Times
In December 2011, I was one of the organizers of a group that hiked across the Korean Peninsula to honor Wonhyo, Korea’s most beloved and controversial Buddhist saint. We were attempting, metaphorically speaking, to imitate Wonhyo’s famous trek across the peninsula of more than 1,300 years ago, which culminated in Wonhyo’s awakening. It was the first time that a trek across the peninsula had been made to honor Wonhyo in more than 1,300 years.
Our ultimate aim is to establish across
the Korean Peninsula a Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail.
In September 2012, we trekked again across the peninsula. On the second trip we stayed at monasteries and interviewed monks we met. We are making a film of our experiences and the interviews with the monks. It is scheduled to be released in September 2014. Our ultimate aim is to establish across the Korean Peninsula a Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail that we hope will one day evolve into a trail like that of Europe’s famous El Camino de Santiago, which attracts tens of thousands of seekers every year. Why do we think that a Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail is important and worthwhile? It is because of Wonhyo himself, his nature and personality, and his teachings, which transcend generations with a message of understanding and overcoming divisions and separateness for the modern world.
Wonhyo (617–686 CE) himself lived in a violent period (he was once arrested as a spy) and was perhaps the most creative thinker of Korean Buddhism. Today, when violence bursts out spontaneously around the world in conflicts that seem intractable, Wonhyo’s teachings have a message, even in his own homeland, now divided into two hostile camps separated by ideology and misunderstanding. Wonhyo’s theory of “harmonization and reconciliation” is, I think, more relevant today than it was when he formulated it. Why? Because it provides a basis―a spiritual and intellectual platform―for reconciling and harmonizing seemingly irreconcilable differences. His approach offers an understanding of the underlying unity of all things.
Wonhyo’s approach, called hwajaeng, does not make a distinction between positive and negative but stresses that all things are interconnected. He believed that all things are interdependent and share a common origin. The whole and the part, in his view, exist as one. Hwajaeng can be seen to synthesize all teachings and harmonize various streams of thought. Wonhyo was focused on reconciling various Buddhist schools of thought. But I believe there is the potential to expand Wonhyo’s approach to include different religions and ideologies, not just schools of Buddhist thought. Could a Wonhyo trail become a trail of reconciliation, a pilgrimage trail that helps conflicting groups understand each other and reach an understanding?
It is not only Wonhyo’s teachings that make him such an attractive figure to the modern world. It is his personality and the stories and legends about him. Wonhyo has always been at the center of controversy. He is honored, revered and loved as a Buddhist saint, but somehow he just doesn’t fit the mold. He was headstrong. He went his own way. He was not a demure scholar or conformist, but a rebel, a free thinker, a man who did not feel bound by social conventions. At a time of great class distinctions, Wonhyo ignored them. He chose a life of non-hindrance.
Why does Wonhyo’s personality appeal to modern people? Precisely because he is so much like them. The modern era is a time of great searching and questioning of established truths and traditional conventions. Questioning is commonplace. Now the original thinker and the non-conformist are admired and respected. Wonhyo was ahead of his time. His unconventional life and behavior open doors that would not have been opened had he been a conformist.
But Wonhyo was not just a non-conformist and original thinker. He was also a deeply spiritual man, and this spiritual aspect of Wonhyo also appeals to the modern world.
At the end of his trip across the peninsula, Wonhyo and his friend Uisang got caught in a storm on a dark night. They were intending to catch a boat at the port of Dangjugye (near modern day Incheon) and sail to China. They took shelter in what they thought was a cave. During the night, Wonhyo felt thirsty and searched around in the dark for water. He found what he thought was a gourd of water and drank deeply from it. It tasted sweet. He felt refreshed and went back to sleep.
When he woke up he found he was not in a cave but in a tomb, and what he thought was a gourd of water was in fact a human skull half-filled with dirty rain water, rotting flesh and maggots. He was so revolted by what he had drunk that he fell on his knees and vomited. As he vomited, the question came to his mind, “Why?” Why was the water so sweet and refreshing in the night and so revolting in the day? And the answer came to him that it was his mind. Truth exists in the mind. At that moment he became enlightened. He decided not to continue on to China, but returned to Silla because he realized that the inner journey was more important than the outer one and that spiritual awakening can take place anywhere. He said, “Since there are no dharmas outside of the mind, why should I seek them somewhere? I will not go to Tang.”
On the cold afternoon of December 18, 2012 we staggered into the area of Wonhyo’s cave, high on Wonhyo-bong Peak southwest of Seoul, the symbolic ending of our pilgrimage (not actually the cave where Wonhyo experienced enlightenment). We were tired. After 15 days on the road we had achieved the first known re-enactment in more than 1,300 years of Wonhyo’s famous journey. Wonhyo was and is our inspiration. The next steps are to complete the film, release it, and then make one more pilgrimage to more carefully designate a possible trail. Then we plan to write a book about the Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail for future seekers.
More information can be found at the website People wanting to contribute to the project can contact Tony MacGregor at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 + 5 =