A SHORT STORY
“In every truth there is non-truth; in every fiction there is non-fiction."
By Thomas H. Ward (Amazon Author)
The year was 1980 it was my second trip to South Korea. President Park had just been assassinated a few months before, so the entire country was on high alert and there were rumors of a coup in progress. Korea a land of mystery, was also known as the hermit kingdom for hundreds of years because outsiders were not permitted into Korea. To enter the country meant certain painful death. The Koreans have a lot of secrets and a way of life that had not changed in an eon. They wanted to keep it that way.
Here I was, in the land of witchcraft, mystery, and hermits which is 80 percent Buddhist with a 100 percent Confucianism lifestyle. Most Koreans, even today, do not trust foreigners but are polite and honest to all who visit. I had come here on business but there was another reason that was far more important to me. I had heard about a special mountain. A mountain where one could find the answers to life. Why are we here on earth? What is the purpose of life and what happens after death? These questions could possibly be answered by an ancient monk who lived in a hidden cave on top of a mystery mountain, so the story goes.
Many had searched for this mystery mountain and cave, but few had found it. Even fewer had seen the ancient monk or spoken to him. Rumor was that only the pure of heart and soul would find the mountain cave where the monk would be revealed.
I have climbed many mountains just for fun, such as Pikes Peak, Mount St. Helens (before the eruption and after), Mount Fuji in Japan, and the Grand Tetons to name a few. I read about this mountain in an old Korean book that was translated into English. I found it a fascinating story that actually could be true, at least the hidden cave part. Since I was now in South Korea, I definitely had to find and climb this mystery mountain. I had to find the hidden cave and the ancient monk, assuming he was still alive. There were no recent reports, since the Korean War, of anyone climbing a mountain and finding any type of hidden cave.
Based on the book I read, the mystery mountain was located somewhere between Pusan and Seoul. So, I knew it wasn’t in North Korea. I asked some Korean friends about the mountain but they laughed and strongly suggested the story about the mystery mountain and the monk is only a fairy-tale told to all the children. Their response sure didn’t encourage me to continue my search.
However, I continued my research because my motto is: In every truth there is non-truth; in every fiction there is non-fiction. I went to the Seoul City Library, the main library for the entire country. Surely someone there would have a book or information about this mountain. After inquiring at the information desk, I was pointed in the direction of the Director's Office.
There, I meant the Library Director Ms. Kim, an older lady who was very knowledgeable on the subject and she spoke perfect English. I explained that I was searching for the mystery mountain to find the ancient monk and the meaning of life. She knew the story well and had done her own research years ago when she was young. She also wanted to find the mountain. The mountain was also known as the “mountain of life” because whoever climbed the mountain could obtain a blessing from the monk. According to her the real name of the mountain was kept secret by the local people to prevent its use by those who were evil.
I was very lucky to find this woman who knew so much about the mountain. I asked, “Do you have any idea where the mountain is located?”
She replied, “I am not sure, but I believe it is one of the mountains located near Gumi City. It could even be Guemosan. But young man, I must tell you I have climbed it many times but never found the cave. So, it must be hidden very well. I suggest you start your quest there.”
“Thank you so much, Ms. Kim. If I find it, I’ll let you know.”
“One more thing. When I was searching, years ago, a monk once told me, ‘That which you cannot see is not invisible.’ "
“What does that mean?”
“Good question. I don’t know. He also commented, ‘Turtles have long life.’
I said, “Well, that one is pretty clear. They do live to over a hundred.”
Ms. Kim replied, “These were clues given to me to find the mountain. Keep them in mind during your quest.”
I bid her farewell promising to contact her if I happened to find the mountain and cave. However, after our discussion, it seemed unlikely that I would find either. Needless to say, my spirit had dropped a little, but on the other hand, it became more of a challenge since she also believed the story to be true.
I packed up my climbing gear and arranged for my best friend in Korea, K. Y. Lee, to pick me up for the drive to Gumi the next day.
Arriving in Gumi it was late in the afternoon. We checked into the Guemosan Hotel which was at the foot of the Guemosan mountain This hotel was very shabby and not well kept. You could tell it wasn’t a big tourist resort as it was intended to be. It was built years ago by President Park who was just killed a few months ago. Judging by the parking lot there were not a lot of paying customers. I guessed maybe ten at most because only five cars were in the lot.
We had a typical Korean dinner and I had no idea what the heck I was eating. But the garlic and red-hot peppers killed any bad taste. The hot spices lit my mouth on fire. A couple of OB beers later the fire was put out. We asked our waiter where was the best place to start to climb the mountain. He advised that we should just go up the road about a half of kilometer and there we would find a trail.
I asked Lee, “What does the word Gumi mean?”
He replied, “It means turtle’s tail.”
“Well don’t turtles mean long life?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“The Library Director told me the mountain was also known as the mountain of life. Since Gumi means turtle tail it could be a clue.”
Lee laughed and commented, “Yes, maybe you are right and maybe you are wrong.”
I replied, “She also told me; that which you cannot see is not invisible.”
“What the heck does that mean?”
“I don’t know and neither did she. Some monk told her that when she was searching for the cave.”
Lee said, “Monks are very tricky with wording like that.”
Waking early, we ate a good breakfast and double-checked our climbing gear. We didn’t know what we may need but we had 100 feet of rope, gloves, climbing picks, water, two radios, flashlights, and energy bars. This was going to be a fairly easy climb since it was not a steep rock climb. Guemosan mountain was estimated to be less than 5,000 feet in height.
The climb gradient started very gradually and proceeded to become steeper and steeper as we gained altitude. It also became rockier. Huge rocks made climbing in a straight line impossible. We had to weave around them while paying attention to our footing. It became so steep that any slip could mean a bad tumble and possibly a broken arm or leg. The climb became almost vertical, straight-up, the last 20 feet and we grasped for hand and footholds.
After stopping several times to rest we finally made the summit. The top of this mountain was about half the size of a football field. Not all mountains come to a sharp tiny peak. We spent over an hour searching around the top. We turned over every large stone and rock that we could move looking for an entrance to a cave.
Lee and I sat down exhausted from the search. I said, “We have to be missing something. The cave isn’t here on the very top of the mountain. So, it must be inside the top.”
Lee replied, “What do you mean inside the top?”
“Right below us inside the top. We passed the cave entrance climbing up here. The entranceway has to be on the side of the mountain near the top.”
“Yes, that makes a lot of sense, but where? It could be on the other side of the mountain.”
“Right. Let’s go back down to the point where the climb became vertical and search around the mountain at that level. You go one way around the mountain and I’ll go the other. If we find anything we’ll use our radios to advise what’s going on.”
Retreating down from the top to a point where the vertical rise started, we split up. I proceeded to the right and Lee to the left. By this time, I was exhausted and started to feel weakness in my legs and I was breathing very heavily. The altitude was getting to me. We had been on the mountain for more than 6 hours.
I had no idea of the distance around the mountain or circumference at the altitude we were at. I assumed it could take a few hours. About one hour later I came to a dead end on the north side of the mountain. Straight ahead of me there was a cliff with what appeared to be a 1,000-foot vertical drop. A solid stone wall was on my left. The wall was a cliff, that went straight up to the top of the mountain while at the same time bent and curved at almost a 90-degree angle. I concluded that this stone wall had to continue around the side of the mountain for some distance. At this point, the only direction I could go would be down the mountain. So, I couldn’t proceed around the mountain as planned. I couldn’t go up the wall and I couldn’t go straight. Standing on the edge of the cliff I could see the whole tiny city of Gumi. Cars were the size of ants. I was unable to clearly make out any people. It was an awesome unobstructed view.
Taking out my radio I advised Lee of my situation. Lee told me he also could not proceed around the mountain any further due to a similar reason. He had not seen any cave openings. We decided to meet back where we started.
I sat down on a rock pulled out a power bar and gulped down some water while peering out over the cliff at Gumi City. After a short rest and some refreshment, I moved down the mountain walking along the edge of the cliff. I was trying to see around the stone cliff 90-degree angle but going down the mountain didn’t improve my view.
I went back up to the cliff wall and held onto the stone surface with my left hand as best as I could, while leaning out over the cliff I looked directly along the stone cliff 90-degree angle, which I couldn’t see before, and visually scanned it up and down. Then I saw it. I was standing just a foot away from a hidden ledge. It was right in front of me, one step away. Unless you were looking down at the ledge, right on top of it, you couldn’t see it because it blended into the stone wall becoming an optical illusion. A ledge that went seemingly around the stone cliff face. It was about 2 feet wide for a distance of 4 feet and then the ledge width increased to about 3 feet.
I pulled myself back and thought about what I had just seen. Could that ledge lead me around the mountain to a cave? I was willing to try it. The ledge appeared to be secure and solid. It was dry so it wouldn’t be slippery.
My radio hissed, “Hey, where are you?” Lee asked.
“Lee, keep coming this way. I found something.”
“Ok, I’ll be right there.”
Lee and I studied the ledge closely. It looked dangerous alright because one slip and you would fall to your death. However, I did bring 100 feet of rope so we could tie it off to stop my fall if I slipped. I calculated if I could get to the wider part of the ledge, it would be a cakewalk.
Lee commented, “We can only see 20 feet of the ledge, so you don’t know what happens to it after it curves around the mountain.”
I said, “Tie off the rope around one of those pine trees. I have to find out if this ledge leads to the cave.”
“Man, I don’t think you should risk it.”
“Lee, I have to risk it. The cave could be just around the corner. Remember what the monk said, ‘That which you cannot see is not invisible.’ "
“Yeah, right. I just don’t want to call your wife to tell her you died in Korea looking for a monk. She’ll never believe that one.” We both had a good laugh at that one. I laughed so hard my gut hurt.
Lee tied off the rope and I made a type of harness that fit around my body. Stepping forward I put my back to the wall. I said, “Wait! Here take my wallet and money just in case I fall. Send it to my wife.” We both started laughing again which was a defense mechanism against the fear I felt.
I took a deep breath and let it out to stop laughing. This was serious shit now. With my back to the wall, I looked down and moved sideways along the narrow ledge as Lee slowly fed out the rope. One step at a time shuffling slowly sideways. I reached the wider part of the ledge. I was safe but still moved slowly one foot, one step at a time. After about ten steps I was out of Lee’s sight.
The ledge was winding around the mountain. The end was not in view. I guess I had moved about 75 feet and knew my rope was running out. I yelled to Lee that I was going to remove my safety rope before it ran out of slack.
With the safety rope off I took 15 more steps sideways and the side of the mountain opened up revealing a large cave opening. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a big beautiful opening into the side of the mountain, not a tiny hole. You could drive two pickup trucks into it.
Finally, I wasn’t on the ledge anymore. I was at the cave entrance, and I stepped inside to safety. I pulled out my radio and advised Lee I found the cave and was going in.
Immediately I spied a large picture of Buddha hanging on the cave wall. Other than this the cave was empty. There were lit candles, hanging on the walls, leading the way deeper inside. I wondered who lit those candles? I followed the candles with great anticipation. Was the ancient monk still here? Would my questions be answered?
The cave made a slight bend to the left and then to the right. Daylight was almost gone inside the cave and the candles flickered their dim light off the dark walls. Then the monk appeared out of nowhere like magic. He was sitting on a plush rug in the middle of the dirt floor. Around him were flowers and green plants along with hundreds of candles lighting up the small room at the end of the cave. He wore typical plain dull gray monk clothes with an outer traditional gray jacket that had wide sleeves.
The monk sat cross-legged, just like you see in the pictures of Buddha. His head was down and he was chanting prayers. I wondered if he knew I was even there. I sat down a few feet in front of him being as quiet as possible. I heard my radio hiss, so I quickly turned it off. Now he knew I was there.
Finally, his chants stopped, he placed his hands and forearms inside his jacket sleeves, folding his arms, and looked up at me. He was blind. I could tell by his eyes. The monk was old alright. Possibly he could be 80, 90, or even 100 years old. His head was shaved, and he had no facial hair. It was difficult to tell his age with the flickering candlelight casting shadows.
I removed my hat and waited for the monk to speak. He was looking straight at me even if he was blind, he could see me somehow. He was observing me, possibly looking into my very soul. Checking my character to see if I am worthy to be in his presence. It made me feel small and unworthy to be here with this holy man.
I sat and didn’t move or speak waiting for him to speak first. This is the traditional Korean way to exhibit politeness. We stared at one another. I tried to peer directly at his eyes hoping he could somehow read the thoughts in my brain.
After 10 or 15 minutes he spoke a traditional formal Korean greeting of hello how are you. “Annyeonghasimnika,” the monk said.
I replied, “Annyeonghasimnika.”
Suddenly, I remember that I am not fluent in Korean, so I turned on the radio for Lee to translate.
In English, the monk said, “Turn off the radio. I can speak English. You are not allowed to use electronic devices in the house of Buddha.”
I quickly turned it off and said, “I didn’t know you could speak English.”
He smiled and replied, “I have nothing to do but study here. It is my job to study and learn everything I can. I saw you coming up the mountain and had a feeling you would find this cave. The energy in you is strong.”
“How could you see me?”
“My eyes may not work but I can still see with other senses.”
“I understand, I think.”
The monk asked, “What brings you here all the way from Miguk (America).”
“I read a book about this cave telling there was an ancient monk who lived there that could answer the questions of life.”
The monk laughed, “I am old but not ancient. What type of questions do you have about life?”
“First, what is the meaning of life?”
The monk replied, “Putting it in simple terms, life is what you make it to be. It could have great meaning or no meaning. It is up to you to make it meaningful.”
I pondered what he just told me. Does he mean life is not planned out for us? We have control of our own lives. “Thank you for your answer,” I replied.
The monk nodded. “What other question do you have?”
“Why are we here?”
“You are here to live life and help your fellow man as much as you can.”
Again, I thought carefully about what he just told me. The first and second answers are related to each other with the addition of helping your fellow man. Yes, that made sense to me for some reason.
“My last question is what happens when we die?”
The old monk said, “Many have asked this question. You will find out a human never dies. Only the body dies but your spirit lives on. But what happens to your spirit after your body dies depends.”
I asked, “Depends on what?”
“What happens to your spirit depends on what you do during this life. That is all I can tell you.”
“I think … I understand. Thank you so much.”
“Go now. Tell others what you have learned but I ask you to keep this cave a secret from everyone except Ms. Kim.”
“How do you know about Ms. Kim?”
“I cannot see but I am not blind. I know she helped you find this cave.”
After that amazing statement, I bid the monk farewell.
I told Lee everything the monk had advised me. He was pleased that the answers were simple. The monk more or less verified our thinking and understanding of life. The spirit part was another matter. We still don’t know exactly what happens.
Lee said, “See, I told you the monks gave tricky answers.”
Lee and I laughed all the way down the mountain. We were happy and felt renewed by our findings. I informed Lee that the monk knew of Ms. Kim at the Library. Lee was also amazed about that and suggested I should phone her.
A few hours later, while sitting at the hotel bar I pulled out her name card and entered her cell number. I told her the entire story and she advised me that earlier in the day she had a vision about the cave and the monk. She would be coming to Gumi to meet the monk to answer her questions about life. I wished her the best and thanked her again for her kind help.
It was almost dark and we had a long drive back to Seoul.
Lee asked, “What is our next adventure?”
“I think that’s enough adventure for a while.”
“You know, there is a story of a King’s missing treasure. Many have searched for it but it has not been found.”
“Wow! That could be worth millions,” I said.
“Exactly, So, are you in or out?”
“Okay Lee, count me in. This is going to be a great quest; I can feel it.”
You may wonder if this story is true? Did this really happen? All my stories leave you wondering if they actually happened since they are fiction based on real facts, places, and history. To tell you the truth parts of this story really did happen and parts of it are fiction. Every good story has some truth woven into it and where there is non-fiction there is fiction. If you liked this story, then read one of my books. Critical Incidents and The Finger Collector are good ones to start with. Templars Quest is another great series based on facts and history. All locations mentioned in my books are real places that I have traveled to or lived.
You can find all my books on Amazon: Amazon.com: Thomas H. Ward: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle