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Soaking Up Sun in Mt. Seorak

By Horace Jeffery Hodges, The Korea Times, Sept 19, 2008

Mt. Seorak, South Korea -- After a wonderful trip with my family two years ago to rugged, volcanic Ulleung Island, I told friends that I had found South Korea's most beautiful vacation spot, but a recent family excursion to Mt. Seorak Nature Reserve on South Korea's northeast coast has persuaded me otherwise. Despite our brief visit ? three nights and four days ? we had just enough time for a half-day's strenuous hike in the natural reserve and a full day's indolent recovery in a nearby health spa.

Since ours was a family trip with two preteen children, my wife and I elected to hike the approximately 3.6-kilometer trail from the reserve's main entrance on the east to Geumgang Cave high up on the rocky face of Janggunbong Peak, one of the easier trails. Even though it skirts a rushing mountain stream, it maintains a relatively gentle slope until reaching the base of Janggunbong around the end of the third kilometer, where it immediately turns arduous as it heads up a very steep incline for about half a kilometer.

That part of the hike, although hard, does have its advantages. One vantage point came with a stunning view of a mountain valley far below. We were by this time quite far up on our elevated hike to Geumgang Cave, where the famous seventh-century Buddhist monk Wonhyo stayed alone to meditate upon the Four Noble Truths of suffering. This man was not only an adept in the practice of Buddhist meditation but also a great Buddhist scholar.

He is popularly remembered, however, for the story that relates his startling moment of enlightenment, which also occurred in a cave, though not the one toward which we were ascending. Caught at night in a drenching rainstorm during a journey to China, Ven. Wonhyo took shelter in a nearby grotto, where he found what he took to be a gourd filled with fresh water from which he drank to quench his thirst. Daybreak, however, revealed the convenient ``gourd'' to be a human skull and the ``fresh'' water to be repellently foul. At this moment, he experienced enlightenment, utterly convinced that all existence is nothing but consciousness, for his own conscious mind had transformed brackish water from a skull into fresh water from a gourd.

Perhaps Ven. Wonhyo also reached Geumgang Cave through the power of his mind. How he might otherwise have managed it would have required quite a feat of rock climbing, for the cave opens onto the face of a sheer rock cliff that we could scale only by carefully ascending the long, steep, metal stairs bolted onto the mountain's rocky face. The effect is yet more impressive in reality, when one is literally staring down what looks like a nearly vertical drop, though the precipitous steps are not quite a ladder. They gave me that impression as I was clinging to them tightly to steady myself.

Despite the exhilarating climb up that long series of steps, we reached Ven. Wonhyo's mountain cave safely and rested there for about half an hour, looking at the three Buddha statues in the back area of the grotto, gazing out upon the valley and surrounding peaks, and even quaffing a refreshing, earth-smelling drink called ``chikjeup'' (arrowroot juice). I doubt that any of those roots were found upon that mountain cliff that keeps Geumgang Cave so recalcitrantly accessible, but already impressive enough was the fact that a vendor had lugged such homemade refreshment up the entire way we had come and was standing there to greet us with smiles as we entered.

We also encountered in that sacred grotto a Spaniard. His name was Alex, from the Spanish Basque region. He worked as an amateur filmmaker, and he was traveling alone in Korea, getting by despite limited English skills not only on the part of the Koreans whom he encountered but on his own part, too. Koreans were treating him very well, he reported, and I agreed with him that Koreans are generally very friendly and helpful despite language barriers. We also found ourselves sharing the opinion that the view from Geumgang Cave was simply stunning. My newfound friend Alex left the cave before my family and I did, and I later regretted that I had not taken his photo, for he was only the second Spanish Basque whom I have ever met, and I never would have expected to encounter one within a Buddhist grotto situated high up on the sheer face of a remote mountain in South Korea.

Soon after his exit came the time for us to also leave Ven. Wonhyo's cave and brave the trip down the mountainside. After all, we had to get back to our hotel in Sokcho, spruce up to enjoy a fresh seafood dinner on the coast, and make ourselves ready for that spa relief scheduled to begin the very next morning, an entire, languorous day planned for soothing sore muscles in variously flavored hot tubs.

The writer is currently employed full-time at Ewha Womans University, teaching courses on essay composition, research papers, and cultural issues. He obtained a doctorate in history of science at U.C. Berkeley. He can be contacted at his blog: http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/.

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