Mountain Spirits South Korea

Chungcheongbuk-do, Poun-gun, March 2010
Age Old Mountain Spirits

Koreans, mountains, identity, what does it mean to be a Korean? My work on the study of the Baekdu Daegan in both North and South Korea is all about finding that commonality the Korean people once had when they were One Peninsula. This is before they were idealistically divided with political beliefs and foreign influences. Like a Ship Jang Saeng 십장생 – the mountains of Korea of which I am so attached too, form the main backdrop to this peninsula’s culture, history and commonality.

If I am to think of indigenous traits of the Korean people, meaning things that didn’t arrive here by way of foreign means, then I have to think way back before the introduction of Buddhism in the 4th century period. This period may have been Korea’s purist, despite a Chinese taoist influence; its interconnected mountains confederated Korea uniquely. It was in these mountains that the Korean people chose to find their deities. The King of all these was the san-shin 산신, or Mountain Spirit. It was believed that every mountain contained a san-shin and reverence for that spirit would be practiced wherever the mountains energy was strongest. Mountain worship was practiced all over the world as an early form of environmental awareness. Mother nature was recognized as the most powerful influence on mankind (something all modern civilizations seriously lack these days) before major religions globalized communities and put man before nature.

Where other parts of the world lost preference for nature spirits, Korea’s san-shin remarkably survived centuries of newer religions and is still revered today. In a busy multi religious society, the san-shin gak (shrine) that you can find at the back of most Buddhist temples is still vibrant with devotees paying homage to the mountain spirit. But how has this ancient folk religion managed to stay so popular? Could it be that mountains are part of who the Koreans are? Even for those that don’t acknowledge san-shin, or are non-religious in nature, when you stop to talk to a farmer or a businessman about where he comes from and what mountain is the guardian of his or her village or city, the conversation will be deep and cheerful as he disembarks on a narration of the history and background of his forefathers via mountain history.

My work in North Korea is still new and I can’t yet determine what their knowledge is on indigenous folklores, but I do know that they revere their mountains, and that their mountains do come attached with folk stories and meaning, whether its old stories from the ancient Tangun period or the revolutionary spirit of Kim IL Sung, mountains are attached to their influences. Some major Buddhist temples in North Korea do contain san-shin gaks with paintings, but they are more so cultural relics these days. But I haven’t yet met a North Korea who didn’t know what a san-shin was.

San-shin’s survival in Korea may have been first threatened during the introduction of Buddhism in the 4th century. This was to be Korea’s first real experience of a foreign religion. Early Korean Buddhist saints like Uisang Daesa (652-702) and Ja Jang Yulsa (590-658) scoured the countryside and mountains looking for sacred places of peace and power of which to build their temples upon. Their searches often took them to areas of local worship for the indigenous mountain spirit. Sometimes these communities would repel against the foreign religion as it threatened to take over the worship of their site. An example would be the famous ‘Floating Rock’ legend at Buseoksa Temple in Sobaeksan. Around the same period the Pagans in early Europe were experiencing religious invasion of their sacred sites via the Christians. The deal that Uisang Daesa made at Buseoksa was that in favour of allowing the Buddhists to make their temple there, they would in return build a shrine for the Mountain Spirit; this was repeated around all Buddhist temples in Korea.  The location of this mountain spirit shrine would normally always be placed on the highest piece of land above the main Prayer Hall, giving the mountain spirit landlord status of the temple site. Since then san-shin gaks have remained in Korea. It has out-survived any other faith on this peninsula and has no known date of origin.

During March 2010, I was to get a firsthand experience of this importance whilst living in a small Buddhist hermitage on the slopes of Songnisan mountain. I had spent 3 months there writing my Master’s thesis on Korean religions. The san-shin gak at Sanghwan-am occupies a pristine piece of rock above the hermitage.  Legend and history is saturated at the site on which the hermitage is built. It sits in the nook near the top of a high cliff valley of which a mountain stream gushes down to a place called Saeshim-jang. It was here a long time before the introduction of Buddhism that the place was where taoists practiced ancient forms of Korea’s indigenous Seon-do (a way of life that manipulates the energies of mountains for human transformation) came and resided. The site on which Sanghwan-am was built some 1300 years ago was aptly taken over by the Buddhist monks because of the strong mountain energies it emitted. The san-shin gak there holds prominence over the hermitage because of its million-dollar view.

However, the old red shack was about to be replaced by a newer one and I had been asked to participate in the reconstruction of it. My stay at the hermitage had seen me perform various other tasks that required nothing less than ignorant brute force, something that I am good at, and my role in this next project was to be no different. A gang of workers that had to make the one-kilometer trip up the mountain each morning had disassembled the old san-shin gak and now it was time to transport some of the foundation wares for the new shrine, up the mountain.  The proposal had been made during one of our dinners at the hermitage, and active discussion had ensued on how we would transport 40kg cement bags up the mountain, most of the discussion had been about who was capable more than most.

Jigae-jeol 지게질은 is a skill that Korean peddler’s have been performing for thousands of years. Lumbering large loads on your back with a wooden A-framed device can also be seen as a form of intensive meditation. Some Buddhist’s claim that chopping wood and carrying water is a way to enlightenment. I was to treat this workload with the same appreciation. When carrying immense loads like cement bags, your most vital tool is the sturdy stick you carry. It is more like a wizard’s staff, and with this you can pivot yourself up from a sitting position and use it to counter-balance your course over the numerous boulders and tree roots that fraught the trails. Over a period of days, the team lugged about 1000kg of cement up the steep mountain. The comradely we experienced during our work was blue-collar enjoyment, and the physical exercise was enlightening in itself. However the real work for me was to come later. Whilst the laid cement was curing, the bevy of the gang had left, and four chunks of eighty-kilogram granite stones turned up at the foot of the mountain. These anchors provide the foundation blocks that would raise the san shin gak above the foundation.

Fixing eighty kilograms to one’s back and shipping it up a steep mountain is not something that everyone can say they’ve done. The brain sends doubt signals to your back, joints, and muscles. In my case, it took two men to help me up to my feet. From there I had to brace myself before taking that first step. Should you lose balance, you can’t correct the capsizing of your body. Should you try to naturally correct your capsizing, you will only rip muscle and tendon from bone. As the trail is up a mountain with steep drop offs to one side, then you cannot afford to lose your balance, as this would see you dragged down its face with the rock. It’s simple routine really. It is the strong sturdy stick that you carry in your hands that keeps you balanced and straight. But surprisingly as I found out, its best usage is not as a lever, for I doubt it could contain the collective weight, but better applied lightly like a magic wand, gently tapping adjacent rocks to check your step and balance. it will remarkably steer you safely up the track. It may be the closest sensation one could have to understanding the attributes of a blind man’s cane.

It was a full two days work to get the four blocks up. Recreational hikers would pass by me as I wiled up and down the mountain, wondering what the foreigner was doing? On hearing that it was for the new san-shin gak, gasps would gust through the Songni Forest. Jokingly, sometimes I would stop and cusp my two hands together begging for one thousand won, which would bring out fits of laughter. Packs would instead zip-open and  mandarins would follow.

I never got to see the overall completion of the san-shin gak during my stay at Sanghwan-am, but after I had finished my contribution I admit that I felt part of that san-shin gak. I was tempted to scribe my name into the fresh cement somewhere, out of view of its visitors, in the event that some one thousand more years later, when the next san-shin gak was made, its builders would find this foreign name etched into the base of their indigenous tradition. What would Korea look like by then, I wondered? Whatever the case, I knew that whoever the new landowners might be, there was a strong probability that the san-shin gak would still be there, because like the mountains, its spirit had been there even before humans. It is the real landlord.



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