SEOUL, Dec. 23 (Yonhap) -- When the idea struck Tony MacGregor in 2007 to start a more than 400-kilometer-long modern-day pilgrimage in the footsteps of Wonhyo (617-686), 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 7th 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 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.
Portrait of Wonhyo
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.
A veteran of seven pilgrimages, McCarthy recounts an experience on the eighth day when the group arrived at the little town of Nammyon-ri.
Photo of Yongmun-sa taken on the ninth day of the journey (Courtesy of Chris McCarthy)
"We stopped and rested ourselves against a stone wall lining the side of the road, dividing up what little rations we had at the time," notes McCarthy. "We were in need of food but everything was closed."
A short time later, the group was met by a local woman who brought them a gas stove along with tofu and noodles.
"The woman took us to a nearby greenhouse that provided protection from the wind... proceeded to huddle around the stove and eat our noodles. We insisted that we pay but the woman refused. This was just one of many genuine gestures we experienced along the way."
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 7th century was an enormous challenge.
"As much of the trail that Wonhyo had initially walked is either grown over or no longer there, we were somewhat concerned of how arduous the terrain would prove to be," McCarthy said. Yet, with the input of both him and Mason, a 27-year veteran of Korea, the group was still able to average 40km a day of steady hiking.
The group stayed at temples and were even given money from monks for hotels, an indication of how strong an impression Wonhyo has left among modern day Korean monks.
As ambitious an undertaking the pilgrimage turned out to be, it was a resounding success. There is already talk of another in the works.
"The group has led the way for future pilgrims and are working to develop a guidebook for their use," says McCarthy, who staunchly believes the pilgrimage, even without spiritual aspirations, is a good for the soul. "Walking in nature provides an opportunity to connect with the enchantment of the present moment and embrace a slower existence."
For MacGregor, the journey was physically demanding but very uplifting. "My expectations have been met. It has renewed my knowledge and faith in Korea and the kindness of Koreans, which is what initially drew me to the project in the first place," he said.
Details of the journey are posted on http://www.inthefootstepsofwonhyo.com