David A. Mason, Promoting Traditional Korean Culture

David standing in front of the tiny Yeonhwa-sa in the alleyway next to Kyung Hee University

This is my second Skype interview with David Mason. The first was on Korean mountain spirit. (Link). The photographs are used with permission and come from his websites. (Link) (Link) – I highly recommend spending a couple of hours browsing through the many pictures and stories.

I began by asking David when he first came to Korea and under what circumstances.

David’s story

Cheoneun-sa with a new lantern

Well now, I was one of those Lonely Planet book carrying, backpack travelers that everyone loves to either admire or disparage. In East Asia this kind of travel didn’t get going until the 1970s. I left America in 1981 with just a backpack and very little money. I really wanted to see China and Chinese culture, but the People’s Republic was closed then.

You mean closed to independent travelers.

Yes, group tours could already get in there. A professor of mine at the University of Michigan Philosophy Department went there in ’76, and that seemed kind of miraculous to us. He was on some kind of academic group tour. But I couldn’t get in, so with my backpack and very little money I went around China—Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taiwan I heard that Korea was worth visiting. I didn’t know anything about Korea except something vague about the Korean War. The Lonely Planet company put Korea and Japan in the same book, which must have infuriated the Koreans. Other people considered Korea just a branch of China, which also would have infuriated them!

I took a test-journey up there and was immediately intrigued. I thought it was a third, distinctly separate, independent culture, noticeably Northeast Asian, but with its own flavor, different from Japan and China. I thought of it as a mystery country I didn’t know anything about, and few others seemed to know much either, I was inspired to hang around and check it out.

In March of ’83, I was teaching English in Korea when the PRC opened to independent travelers. I started making plans. My visa number was 00000978, so apparently it was the 978th independent visa, one of the first thousand to get in as independent; I was proud of that. It was very restricted, and many Chinese had never even seen a foreigner. They had no idea what to make of a foreign tourist. By contrast, Korea seemed sophisticated!

I’d first arrived in South Korea in July, 1982. The country was still noticeably suffering under brutal dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, an unpopular dictatorship because nobody liked him or wanted him. People were very grim, and there were soldiers were out on the streets, sandbag bunkers and even tanks near the universities. It was a very locked-down atmosphere. This surprised me because I didn’t know the recent history. When I started teaching English at a hagwŏn, or for-profit language school, the first thing I was told was not to talk about democracy or civil rights. “Don’t even say the word ‘democracy’ in your classroom.” I was pretty weirded-out by that.

It sounds like I had more freedom teaching in China in 1984.

Yeah, maybe… I stayed in South Korea for a year. After that I thought I was done with it. I went home and spent two years in California with a small business. But I kept thinking about Korea. I felt there was some karma, something unfinished that involved research, study and discovery. In January 1986, I returned and haven’t managed to change my country of residence ever since. My attention was captivated by the traditional culture and how little of it was known to the world, how little was available in English. Very slowly, step by step, I started making a career of explaining Korea to the world, exposing parts of its traditional culture in English, getting it on the internet, getting it in books and academic articles, things that had not been reported before. For maybe the first fifteen years I was English teacher doing my Korea stuff as a hobby. Slowly the hobby became a career, which is what it’s been for the last fifteen years. So that’s been quite gratifying.

Could you talk about your books and your work as a travel expert?

The Spirit of the Mountains

The first big breakthrough was co-authoring with Robert Storey the 1997 Lonely Planet comprehensive travel guide to Korea. That got me into the tourism business as an international writer about Korea. The second big break was with the book about the sanshin mountain spirits that we discussed in our previous interview. It was the first publication ever in English which treated the spirits in depth–with the deities, the art work, and the role the spirits played in Korean culture. Since it was groundbreaking, it created a lot of interest among Korean professors, the Korean government and other aficionados who celebrated its having been done for the first time.

Because of the sanshin book, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism hired me for the 2001-2002 Visit Korea Year Program. For five years I worked for the Munhwa Cheyuk Gwangwang Bu and also the National Tourism Organization, which gave me five years of experience with tourism programs and official promotion of Korean culture to the global community, another step up the ladder. I was one of a twenty-member committee which designed and implemented the TempleStay program.

When were you first working on that?

In 2001 Korea held the World Cup soccer finals in the summer of 2002. In connection with that we had a two-year long promotion of Visit Korea Year. The TempleStay program was one of many programs and projects, initially just for the spring and summer of 2002. But it was very successful. The Jogye Order of Buddhism, which had at first resisted, came to like it too. We kept it going for one more year and then gave it over to the Jogye Order. After a one-year hiatus, they picked it up and got it running. It’s been very successful as a part of Korean tourism and as a Korean cultural-missionary-religious activity.

I’ve seen the signs when I’ve come into Korea, but the temple-stays I’ve done were organized earlier through the Lotus Lantern Buddhist Center.

The book on hiking the trail

The TempleStay program was over the long run probably the most successful thing I’ve been involved in. It was a big step. So then I was hired as a professor of Korean cultural tourism, not as an English teacher, based on my five years with the government tourism industry and my master’s degree in Korean Studies from Yonsei University. So I spent nine years teaching at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, which had one of the biggest national hotel and tourism colleges. In a large faculty they had space to hire an unusual person like me to fill a certain niche.

After becoming a professor of cultural tourism, I started a new project promoting the Baekdu-daegan or the White Head Great Ridge, essentially the backbone of Korea. It’s the main mountain range that runs through the whole peninsula from north to south, the geographical-topographical definition of Korean landscape. It was totally unknown to the world community, without even a magazine article to explain it. There was some stuff in Korean, but not in any other language. I found out everything about it, put it in English and start promoting it to the world. This was my fourth big step, and it was also very successful. We started a website, baekdu-daegan.com and wrote a guidebook about hiking along the 735-kilometer mountains trail within South Korea. You can hike from near the south coast all the way up to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, through seven national parks and four provincial parks. It’s a wonderful hiking opportunity and a great way for Korea to promote itself. We were the pioneers who got it all into English and on the map of international hikers.

I have a picture in my head of the map of that mountain range. Is the trail mostly on the ridge?

The Baekdu-daegan range

Yes, the trail runs along the crest-line, from peak to peak to peak along the ridges that directly connect the peaks, so it’s never broken by water. Water never crosses this trail. Each stream or river in Korea begins on the eastern slope or western slope and flows from there out to the ocean. So that makes it a very special trail. There are other trails like this in the world, but only a few are this long. Think of the Appalachian Trail or the Sierra Crest Trail in the United States. They’re mostly about beautiful nature, with only a little bit of culture along the way. But on the Baekdu-daegan you’ve got Buddhist temples, little hermitages, shaman shrines, Confucian shrines, old battlefields and other historical sites and lots of shamanistic mountain worship. So it can also be a pilgrimage trail.


The Seorak Dinosaur Range

Probably lots of Buddhist statues too.

Certainly. There are a few spectacular Buddhist carvings high up on the crest-line and many others nearby. If you hike down from the crest into some mountain valleys, you can find many cultural treasures. Some of Korea’s greatest Buddhist monasteries are near that trail; let’s say within five kilometers of it.

Can you give me some examples?

The trail begins in the Jiri-san National Park, where you’ve got three temples, Ssanggye-sa, Hwaeom-sa and Shilsang-sa. Further up there are very famous temples like Jikji-sa, Buseok-sa and Jeongam-sa. Then all the way up at Seorak-san National Park are Shinheung-sa and Baekdam-sa. They’re all some of Korea’s greatest, most historic and most famous temples.

The combination of the TempleStay program and the hiking trail is really fantastic. You can stay overnight at some great monastery, live like a monk, get yourself some monastic education and meditation, hike for two or three days along the Baekdu-daegan crest-trail, then come down to another great monastery for another TempleStay. You can hopscotch through the mountains using the guidebook that we wrote, giving you a religious pilgrimage experience as well as the experience of hiking through splendid nature.

Passage to Korea

For the TempleStay do you have to make arrangements in advance, or can you just show up at the temple?

You have to arrange it in advance. There are some temples that run a regular program so you can arrange everything only one day in advance just by letting them know you’re coming. There are others where you have to arrange a week or more in advance, and maybe you have to have a group of people to do it—not just one person. We devised a website, templestay.com, where you can make those arrangements. You can find the information, decide where you want to stay, like in some of the twenty great temples in the Seoul area or spread out over the rest of South Korea. You decide on which temple and what kind of program. You can check the availability and make a reservation right there online. This is the only program like this in the whole world, really. People can stay in temples in Japan and Thailand and other places, but there’s no organized system like this with a central website, information in English and a standardized program in English.

How much does the TempleStay typically cost?

Around 50 USD, which is really very reasonable for a 24-hour experience with everything included: vegetarian food, green tea ceremony, meditation practice, spiritual lectures and formal ceremonies.

The encyclopedia

My next step, let’s say part five of this effort, was to co-author an encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism with Ven. Hyewon. This was something that needed to be done. There had been some dictionary efforts in Korean culture, religion and even specifically Korean Buddhism. But nobody had done an encyclopedia with the key terms given attention, long explanations in very clear English and reference to international terminology in order to make very clear what Korean Buddhism was all about. The encyclopedia was connected to the TempleStay program and was a major part of the target audience. The people running the program really needed it, and a hundred of them did buy copies. They needed to know how to explain Korean Buddhism—the deities or the art work or the type of building or some type of Zen Buddhist practice—in clear, simple English foreigners would understand. Some foreigners who really love the program have been buying the encyclopedia so that they can look things up and have a deeper understanding of what it’s all about. So I think this has been another breakthrough, the globalization of knowledge about Korean traditional culture, getting it clear and accurate, not in a rah-rah booster way, but in a very realistic way that’s acceptable for a foreign audience. We started doing the encyclopedia three years ago, and it was finally published a year ago. In the past year it’s been reasonably successful.

My ambition is to get the Encyclopedia into the twenty-first century by making a digital edition with the entries properly linked to each with cross-links, hot-links like a Wikipedia page. It could be online and searchable and even in an app with different terminology for a hand-phone or an iPad. That way someone standing in a temple can look up more information on the spot.

I want to digitalize my works so the public can use them as digital information sources. I’ve broken my book about the sanshin mountain spirits into a few different sections, and I plan to publish those in a self-publishing, digital, downloadable fashion so that people can read them on a Kindle or an iPad or a hard copy, as they choose. Digitalization would also permit cross-linking and enlarged photos and everything else that goes with digital content. For someone who is already fifty-seven years old, it can be a little difficult to get going with this twenty-first-century technology, but I’m trying my best to figure out how it works.

You’ve also been giving lectures for the Royal Asiatic Society?

Guiding a tour on Jindo Island

Yes, I would have to say I’ve been keeping pretty busy. I do half a dozen public lectures every year for various organizations. I guide maybe twenty to twenty-five tours every year recently for various organizations, tours to mountain areas and temples and shaman areas and Confucian shrines. I’m showing Korea’s traditional culture in a very personal way to those clients who are interested. I give lectures for universities and organizations like the Royal Asiatic Society, explaining Korean culture in English, trying to say something interesting that foreign audiences can get something out of it.

All this is in addition to your teaching career.

I am now with Chung-Ang University in southern Seoul, south of the Han River. Chung-Ang is another one of the top ten or fifteen universities, a big school with a great reputation. They’re treating me well, and I have good students. So I might be there for the duration of my career, for eight more years.