The Korean Mountain Spirit

Gigantic new Sanshin painting at Jiri-san
David enjoying tea

David A. Mason has spent thirty years roaming Korean mountains, giving tours, teaching university classes in culture and tourism and researching and writing books and articles about Korean culture, particularly the religious traditions. His Spirit of the Mountains received the 20002 Best Book on Korean Culture Award from Korea’s Academy of Sciences. He was contributing editor to The Baekdu-daegan Trail Guidebook by Roger Sheperd and Andrew Douch and co-author of the 1997 Lonely Planet Guide to Korea. He is currently completing an encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism. This recent interview took place over Skype, when David was in Korea and I was in the Philippines.

The photographs are used with permission and come from his websites (Link) and (Link) I highly recommend spending a couple of hours browsing through the many pictures and stories. Another interview with David Mason is available at (Link)  and a lecture at (Link)

The Seorak Dinosaur Range

The idea of mountain spirits and practices is found all over the world—with the concept of sacred mountains—but Korea has probably the most highly developed and most complex culture of mountain spirits in the world. In Korea this very ancient, well developed system of shrines, art works and practices is connected to almost every kind of traditional religious and spiritual form that has developed here. It is an original part of Korean indigenous shamanism as it came from Siberia and the Mongolian areas, with mountain spirits dating back to prehistoric times. After Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism came to Korea from China and the Korean version was rooted here, the mountain spirits seem to have played a central role in helping these new religions become Koreanized.

A particular example, which is especially blatant and open, is how Buddhists overcame the skepticism and opposition of the local people by including shrines to the mountain spirits within their temples, which were generally put on a mountainside. This gained acceptance for Buddhism and enticed more people to come to the temples, where they could perform mountain spirit rituals and—since they were there already—learn about Buddhism. Of course some of the temple monks also wanted to venerate the mountain spirits. Later on, we find that mountain spirit altars and shrines were a significant income earner for the temples. They brought in as much in the way of donations as the main Buddha altar at the temple did, and they still do.

Three Saints Shrine in Cheonbo-sa Temple
Three Saints Shrine in Ssanggye-sa Temple

A rich culture developed around this and a mutual regard. The Buddhists regarded the Sanshin, the mountain spirit, as the landlord. It was his mountain, and they paid rent with ceremonies giving offerings to the spirit. In exchange they hoped to get the spirit’s protection, a place to live and other benefits of the natural ecology.  So it was kind of a symbiotic relationship. To me it’s fascinating because usually when Buddhism, like most advanced religions, moves into countries it tends to take over the local spirits and make them Buddhist, turn them into some kind of a Buddha or bodhisattva. In Korea the mountain spirit maintained independence. In most art works it is not depicted as any kind of a bodhisattva—only twice out of ten thousand examples. Some of the paintings characteristics show the mountain spirit with Buddhist stature, that is, equal to a bodhisattva or perhaps an enlightened Zen master. So it remains a shamanist-Taoist figure, not Buddhist, although it is included in Buddhist temples.

The three essential elements to a Korean mountain spirit icon are a human figure, generally elderly and wise—it could be male or female—and then a tiger, either realistic or abstract in the traditional Korean folk way, and then a pine tree. Those three are necessary. The tiger represents the king of all animals. Here in Korea, the red bark pine tree is considered the most precious, valuable tree, essentially the king of all plants. The human manifestation of the mountain spirit shows humanity at its best. So this is a kind of idealization of the biosphere of plants, animals and humans. Often mushrooms are included and white cranes, and other elements showing nature at its best and humanity’s relationship with nature at its ideal.

A female Sanshin from Cheongcheon-am Hermitage

Now, you mentioned the male-female divide. Many, many mountains are believed to have female spirits. There are various theories as to which mountains and how it’s divided. But, even when a mountain is widely believed by pretty much everybody to have a female spirit, often the paintings or statues have a male form, a wise old grandfather with a long white beard. This is the influence of Confucianism, which is totally male-dominant and maintains that a kingly spirit must be male; there’s just no option on that. More recently over the thirty years I’ve been chronicling them, there has been an increase in the number and frequency of female Sanshin paintings. It’s an exact parallel to the status of Korean women as it’s been rising from the near-Pakistani subjugation level of a hundred years ago to something approaching equality between men and women. It’s a fascinating revival of religious iconography.

The shrines don’t appear just on sacred mountains, but then you could say every mountain is sacred. Almost any significant mountain or large hill, especially if it’s behind a village or an area where people live, will have a shrine to that mountain spirit. It’s believed that any hill or mountain has a spirit, but the greatest mountains have the greatest mountain spirits. Everything has a spirit—trees, rocks, animals—but the greatest among them are spirits that call our attention to them or deserve our attention.

The Baekdu-daegan range

Throughout the Korean peninsula there are quite a few sacred mountains that are highly sacred and reputed as such throughout the nation. A few of them even are in North Korea, which itself recognizes their sacredness, even though we deem it a supposedly atheist-communist regime. In North Korea, Baekdu-san, or White Head Mountain, on the border with China is maybe one of the most sacred mountains of all the people. It represents the nation and the ideal of unification of Korea. Then Geumgang-san, which is highly significant for Buddhism, is among the most beautiful mountains in the world. Myohyan-san is very rich in traditional culture, both in Korean Nationalism and shamanism-Buddhism. It has all kinds of relics still there, and the North Korean regime regards it as very important. In the South, where we have more freedom of religion and mountain spirit culture flourishes more, probably the number one mountain is Jiri-san in near South Joella Province. It’s our first national park and still the largest, a gigantic sprawl of three major peaks and a couple of dozen minor peaks, a massive mountain area. Jiri-san means Exquisite Wisdom Mountains. It’s a Buddhist name, the specialized wisdom of the bodhisattva. It’s believed that any spirit who has come to that mountain will attain wisdom. A foolish person can turn wise by living around there. On the slopes of Jiri-san, all around it, are up to let’s say a hundred religious sites—from Confucianism and shamanism and Taoism and Buddhism. I can think of no other sacred mountain in the world with that cultural diversity and richness or with that much activity. Three of the top Buddhist temples in the entire nation are located there in Jiri-san.

That mountain is regarded in some sense as the grandmother of the entire nation, the ultimate matriarch, and definitely female. Baekdu-san, the giant volcano on the border between North Korea and China, is regarded as its counterpart, the great patriarch, the ancestral grandfather figure of the entire nation. Then all of the great mountain range that runs between those two, one unbroken range called the Baekudu-daegan, those mountains are all their children. All the mountain ranges that branch off the Baekdu-daegan are their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Together it’s one family that physically defines the Korean peninsula and that serves as the spirit of the entire nation and people, an integrated system

Besides, there are very highly sacred mountains like Gyeryong-san, “Rooster Dragon Mountain,” a rather small mountain filled with probably 60 to 70 shamanist and Buddhist sites. Then near the east coast there’s Odae-san, the “Five Platforms Mountain,” highly sacred to Korean Buddhism, to the north of that, Seorak-san, the “Snowy Crag Mountain, which is actually a highly sacred part of the southern part of the Geumgan-san Diamond Mountain. Below them to the south but still on the east coast, there’s Taebek-san. Its sacredness is mostly shamanistic, National-shamanistic, associated with the entire founding myth of the nation.

[According to the myth, Hwanung, the son of the King of Heaven, descended to Taebaek-san and established a holy city. When a bear and a tiger came to him and begged to become human beings, he gave them mugwort and garlic—sacred food—and told them to stay in a cave for one hundred days. The tiger left, but the bear stayed and was transformed into woman. When she begged for a son, Hwanung mated with her. Dangun, their offspring, founded the first Korean kingdom. – This myth is so widely believed that one of my university students once presented it in a paper as historical fact. He was insulted by my skepticism.]

Most nations don’t really have this kind of variety. Their mountains tend to be sacred to only one religion, whereas with Korea there are five different religious-spiritual traditions that hold different mountains sacred in different ways. [Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, shamanism and spiritual-nationalism] that hold these mountains sacred, different mountains in different ways.

The mountain spirit in Cheonbo-sa Temple

The Christians are the only exception to this, refusing to recognize even the concept of a sacred mountain and regarding the mountain spirits as demons—although they spend so much energy opposing them, denouncing them and trying to have their shrines destroyed, that it shows they think the mountain spirits are important. Protestant Christianity has only been here for about 120 years. It’s a very fundamentalist, narrow-minded, intolerant, bible-thumping kind of Christianity that came from America, causing constant conflict. It’s the same kind that some 80 or 90 years ago banned alcohol, dancing and any kind of fun. That kind of Christianity took root here and flourished. As usual, once Koreans get a religion they don’t change it much. They don’t believe in liberalization or modernization. They did this with Confucianism and Buddhism also. In China, Buddhism has changed and evolved, but the Koreans kept the original schools as they first came from the Song Dynasty, Zen Buddhism and the other doctrinal schools, and refused to update them. In a scholastic sense it’s fascinating.

There’s a wide, stunning variety of mountain spirit shrines. I spent 30 years photographing them, but I keep finding new stuff. The original shrines were just deliberately constructed piles of stone, out behind the temple, sometimes with a large slab of stone with Chinese characters carved in it saying, “This is the shrine for the mountain spirit.” Shrines like that persist until today, including newly built ones. Sometimes they contain a granite statue of Sanshin with a tiger and perhaps a pine tree carved out of granite. Now most common is a small wooden building, like a one-room shack, with a traditional tiled roof. Inside there’s a painting and/or a statue inside and enough space for a person to bow.

Inwang Samshingak
Inwang Samshingak altar

In the last 20 years, Buddhist temples have been enlarging and expanding their mountain spirit shrines so that some have become almost as large as the main Buddha hall, big enough for 20 people to gather inside. These special shrines enshrine three main folk shamanic spirits, the mountain spirit and a Taoist kind of spirit, the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper, and The Lonely Saint, a disciple of the Sakyamuni Buddha who was endowed with magical powers and who remained here on earth to help human beings. He’s lonely because he’s separate from the others in heaven. This kind of shrine is called the Samsung-gak, Three Sages Shrine or Three Saints Shrine.

It represents the ancient Oriental trinity, which is one of the most fundamental concepts in the entire Orient, starting in China at least 4,000 years ago, a trinity of heaven, earth and humanity. This is from the classical I Ching, the oldest philosophical book in East Asia, and it’s just extremely fundamental to any kind of East Asian Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism or whatever, In this shrine, the mountain spirit of course represents earth. The Seven Stars of the Big Dipper, with other heavenly deities in it, represents the powers of heaven. And the Lonely Saint is a kind of supreme human being, an enlightened disciple of Buddha. The shrines are very popular. They get a lot of visitors, plenty of veneration and cash donations.

A shaman at Samgak-san Sanshin Festiva
Samgak-san Festival with participants in Confucian garb

Well, the rituals are some combination of shamanistic, Buddhist and Confucian practices, which is the way things co-developed. People pray in a shamanistic way, rubbing their hands together in supplication and prostrating themselves and praying. Or there is a Buddhist way of doing three prostrations while chanting the name of the spirit and perhaps a Buddhist text associated with the mountain spirit. There’s a more Confucian style similar to ancestor rituals or rituals for the spirit of a respected, departed teacher. All the rituals involve placing offerings on the altar, usually something aromatic so the smell goes up to the spirit. Candles are lit, just as they are in all the world’s religious practices, and incense is burned because that’s pleasing to the spirits. Usually there is a dish of water that is then uncovered—pure water for the spirits to consume. It should be perfectly clean and freshly got from the local stream. Shamans in the deep mountains may do something very simple, like lighting a single candle and having one small dish of water at the base of a great boulder or cliff. It goes from that way of worshipping all the way up to full-scale, Confucian-style productions. The altar table is loaded with 25 different kinds of offerings, and a grand ceremony is held with very senior leaders of the community. These days, local mayors or county heads lead these Confucian-style ceremonies. There can be a traditional orchestra playing traditional instruments and dancers employed as in royal Confucian ceremonies. They can really make quite a big deal out of it.

David observing a Confucian Sanshin ritual

I’d like to add that the mountain spirit culture in Korea is still flourishing. City people may tell you it’s an old-fashioned tradition, “Nobody does that anymore. We’re a high-tech, 21st century country.” But the evidence is entirely otherwise. Driving around in the mountains, I’ve found new shrines being built and larger shrines than ever before, larger statues and bigger paintings than were ever made in classical times, and more elaborate. People are spending a lot of money. The new mountain spirit shrines and paintings and art works are indications to the scholar that this is not a dying religion. It’s still very much a part of 21st century Korea.

I think it’s because the mountain spirit is fundamentally a part of the Korean mentality, even if they don’t want to admit it. It goes really deep down into the national identity and personalizing of who they are. It’s connected to so many of their basic cultural norms, which show up in so many ways, that it’s almost a ubiquitous factor in Korean culture. The spirit has acquired some new roles also, being quite “green,” protecting the environment with the new ecological movement that’s been building for out several years. The Sanshin is a perfect symbol of human beings living in harmony with nature. We protect nature, and in exchange nature protects us, our health and well-being. It’s also involved in praying for national unity. Sanshin is fundamental to Korean culture, respected by both the North Koreans and the South Koreans, so that all Koreans can’t help but relate to culturally and spiritually.

Spirit of the Mountains

After about a dozen years of research, in 1999 I published a book called The Spirit of the Mountains: Korean San-shin and Traditions of Mountain Worship. It was given an award by the government as the best book on Korean culture of that year. Later they translated it into Korean, making it both the first book in Korean about the mountain spirits as well as the first book in English. So it was a highly regarded and highly awarded book and popular with scholars, but never much of a seller. A few years ago the Korean publisher let it go out of print, to my disappointment. The copyright reverted to me, and as soon as I have the time I want to rewrite it including the many new things I’ve learned over the past 14 years. I want to add a supplement and correct it and put out a second edition. But my next book coming out is an official Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism.