A Spiritual Path That Leads Straight Up

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A Spiritual Path That Leads Straight Up

To read "The Spirit of the Mountains: Korea's San-shin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship" is to discover a monument in a big city that can seem part of a forgotten past. Too often in Korea the soaring skyscrapers and high-rise apartment blocks seem to obscure the great import that the country's past still has for its present.

Although it can be hard for visitors to equate modern Korea with a natural environment, less than an hour's drive out of any city brings you to Korea's mountainous countryside. Arriving on the other side of Korea, the serene image of mountain peaks laced with clouds and Buddhist temples shrouded in age-old pine trees is overwhelming; it takes seconds to become immersed in the environment that played such a momentous role in distant Korean history.

David Mason, originally from Michigan, did exactly that when he first came to Korea as an English teacher in 1982. He left the city and immersed himself in Korea's mountains, becoming fascinated by them. His interest led him to discover that each mountain in Korea has a spirit. He learned that the spirit was called san-shin (we follow the author's transliteration; it can also be spelled san-sin) and subsequently that the san-shin - the personified deity that represents the Korean spirit - had a kind of magical attraction that kept drawing him back to different mountain peaks across the peninsula.

Upon close observation, he noticed that many local people revered their san-shin and, to his astonishment, that every Buddhist temple held up for worship a mountain god along with an image of Buddha. He kept on asking himself, "Who in the world is this guy? What is he doing in Buddhist temples?"

Mr. Mason's 17 years of research on his interest had been dedicated to visiting mountains in Korea - more than 600 of them - and researching the mysterious identity of the mountain deity. The result of his research is an exploration of Korean legends that are as much as 5,000 years old. The hardcover book of 224 pages (Hollym Corporation) also contains the author's personal collection of colorful photographs of landscapes and artwork.

According to Mr. Mason's findings, the san-shin - in the form of a "grandfatherly figure" - can be found on every mountain and in every Buddhist temple. The physical representation of the god as a male reflects Korean society, historically male-dominated with a patriarchal ancestral line. He observes that mountain gods are personified deities that are "almost always depicted as a seated man with white or gray hair and beard, elderly but still healthy, strong and authoritative, benevolent and kind yet stern and dignified, like an ideal family patriarch," and suggest "longevity, wealth, spiritual attainment or powers."

For Mr. Mason, the identity of Tangun, the mythical founder of ancient Korea, is closely linked to interpretations of san-shin, as he discovered studying various iconic depictions of the mountain spirit, and both inform the perceived "Korean spirit." His analysis of various mountain gods includes an interpretation of the decorative symbols and icons associated with the depictions of the san-shin - ginseng roots and fruits signifying vitality and virility - and accompanying characters and animals - boy servants, tigers, cranes and so forth.

Worshiping the spirit was believed to bring a bountiful harvest and blessings and avert calamities, and the gods were served and embodied by the mansin or shaman who periodically conducted exuberant sansinje or gut - shamanic - ceremonies. This shamanic worship was even observed in Buddhist temples - usually at a separate building or alter within the hall - and the author argues that Korea's indigenous shamanic belief was absorbed into Buddhism, both shaping Korea's indigenous shamanic culture and making Korean Buddhism distinctively Korean.

The san-shin became the subject of the author's master's thesis at Yonsei University in Seoul, and he continues to keep himself inspired by practicing san-shin gido (marathon prayer ritual), researching medicinal herbs, writing a new version of his book to be translated into the Korean language and working as a tourism consultant for the Project Team for Visit Korea Year 2001.

Mr. Mason feels that visitors can only truly understand Korea and its people by understanding the role such ancient mythology and belief has played in forming the "Korean spirit." Koreans' love and respect for nature not only contributes to ecological preservation, he says, but is renewed by such figures as this symbolic mountain deity that contributes toward a sense of heritage. The author sees this act as a "unifying force between the two Koreas" in the 21st century.

"The Spirit of the Mountains" is a highly recommended read that offers a good glimpse into Korea's spiritual traditions. The book is available in major bookstores in Korea and costs 30,000 won ($23). For comments or questions, the author invites you to contact him at 02-318-2187 or e-mail at mntnwolf@yahoo.com.

by Inēs Cho

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