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Sanshin-gak: Mountain-spirit venerated in Korean temples

By David Mason, The Korea Times, Aug 11, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- Throughout Korean history, the residents of this mountainous peninsula have believed that the peaks and slopes are spiritually alive and religiously significant, inhabited by or manifesting "Sanshin,’’ which literally means "Mountain-spirit(s).’’

<< A woman looks up at the Sanshingak located in Mt. Gyejok, Yeongwol County, Gangwon Province, in this file photo. Sanshingak are shrines for the “Sanshin,” or the mountain spirit.
/Korea Times photo

They have long been the main protective spirits of most villages and towns, and collectively the guardian of the Korean nation as a whole. Since ancient times Korean kings have funded great ceremonies at grand altars as symbols of their legitimacy, while the common folk prayed for good weather, bountiful crops, healthy children and protection from ill-fortune at their small village or temple shrines.

When I first visited a Korean Buddhist temple almost three decades ago, I was amazed to find a shrine for this spirit prominently located within the temple, behind and above the main Buddha Hall – this location showing the high respect given to this indigenous deity. It was clearly not a Buddhist icon, but rather Shamanic and Daoist in origin and with strong Confucian motifs, and also a few recognizable Buddhist symbols mixed-in.

I’m in love with mountains, fascinated by the great Asian religious traditions. So discovering the figure representing the powerful matrix of mountain-ecology and human life, and displaying the iconographic motifs of all the major eastern spiritual traditions in harmony, has been a major revelation. I soon discovered that this deity is specifically-characteristic of Korean spiritual culture and also functioning at the very center of it, and that every one out of thousands of major depictions of it are artistically unique _ no two ever quite the same. Finding, photographing and studying them has become my hobby, passion and then career.

Shrines for this spirit, called ``Sanshin-gak’’ or similar names, are found in most of the temples of Korea’s Buddhist Orders. Visitors to these monasteries may come to share my fascination with this profound and complex spiritual figure.

Sanshin are symbols of the relationship between human beings and the ecology of the mountain where they live. Each mountain has its own particular "character" due to its topography, weather, water sources, fauna and flora, and the people that live at its feet or on its slopes over the centuries develop a complex interaction with this. They recognize, venerate and direct that relationship through the religious symbol of Sanshin. The most highly-educated might feel that it is just a symbol, while others really believe that there is a deity in human form inhabiting the mountain and the local tigers are either his or her manifestations or servants.

Sanshin is first among all native Korean deities, perhaps because Korea itself is mostly mountainous, the grandest mountains generally having the strongest associated traditions. Korea's mythical Founding-King is thought to have become a Sanshin upon “retirement”; all of Korea's religious traditions acknowledge their importance, and the people have always worshipped them before all other deities in the order of their ceremonies. Sanshin can well be said to be an archetypical figure in traditional Korean culture, due to the way in which it connects the various religious traditions to each other, forming the “native center” of the interconnected web of Korean religions.

Sanshin also served and increasingly now serve as the symbol of a cultural ideal, the desired state of humanity living in balanced harmony with nature, enjoying robust health, longevity, abundance and wisdom. These ideals are generally rooted in Daoism but are also shared in Korean Shamanism, Neo-Confucianism, and all types of Buddhism as well as the spiritual aspects of Korean nationalism.

Remarkably, all of these differing religious traditions utilize the Sanshin image and venerate this earthly deity. They regard him as a sort of king of the local mountain, vaguely as a primal ancestor, and as the landlord who really owns the mountain territory, who was there before humans and their religions arrived. Buddhist temples perform regular ceremonies called ``Sanshin-je’’ _ giving offerings and recognition as a kind of rent payment. Monks find that veneration of this figure gives them stronger health and vitality to utilize on their path towards enlightenment.

Most Korean Buddhist temples have an altar set up with a painting or statue of the Sanshin, frequently both with the statue placed in front of the painting. Two candles, an incense-burner and an uncovered bowl of fresh clean water are on the altar in front of the icons, and possibly other offerings. Many of the Sanshin paintings belonging to such temples are now valuable antiques over a hundred years old, and represent the best of Korea's folk-painting traditions.

Sanshin is almost always depicted as a seated man (although a few are female) with white hair and beard; elderly but still healthy, strong and authoritative; kindly benevolent but still dignified, like an ideal family-patriarch. His clothing suggests royal rank. There may be a halo around his head indicating holiness and unusual energy. He is almost always holding objects in one or both hands which symbolize healthy longevity, scholastic or spiritual attainment and his earthly or spiritual powers. He is sitting on a flat rocky cliff-top in the high mountains with a grand view, and these sites are called ``Shinseon-dae,’’ or Terrace for Daoist Immortals, the sort of place upon which meditation and yoga are best performed, and where enlightenment takes place.

There is a tiger beside the ``mountain-king,’’ his pet-companion, rule-enforcer and alter-ego _ ``king of the mountain-animals’’ and primary symbols of Korean culture, favorite motif of traditional folk-paintings. A couple of attendants called ``dongja’’ are usually standing near their master in these paintings, like the servants of an aristocrat in dynastic times; they also hold symbolic sacred objects. Shamanist, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, nationalist and military symbols are used in myriad combinations in various parts of the thousands of different pieces of artwork.

Despite their relentless modernization over the past century, Koreans still pay respect to their Sanshin in a wide variety of contexts. My decades of research have found that this ancient tradition is not dying away, much to my initial surprise, but is in fact flourishing nationwide.

The notable evolution these days is for Buddhist Temples to build a large ``Samseong-gak,’’ or Three Sages Shrine, buildings in their compounds, with ``Sanshin,’’ or earthly powers, grouped together with the ``Chilseong,’’ or Seven Stars of the Big Dipper, the symbol of heavenly powers, and ``Dokseong,’’ the Lonely Saint, who was a disciple of the Sakyamuni Buddha left on earth in human form. This triad therefore symbolizes the fundamental Oriental Trinity of Heaven, Earth and Humanity _ increasing its spiritual profundity and providing a separate shrine for these popular Korean folk-deities within the Buddhist religious context.

The multi-faceted Sanshin artwork, whether enshrined alone in Sanshin-gaks or in Samseong-gaks, are a key factor of Korean Buddhism being truly ``Korean,’’ a unique characteristic that distinguishes it from similar religions of other nations. Sanshin icons should be considered as one of the primary symbols of Korean culture in general, an important facet of the national spirit and its cultural treasury.

My own research on and enjoyment of this subject continues, with no prospect of exhaustion. For much more information on and photos of this, refer to my book ``Spirit of the Mountains’’ or visit www.san-shin.org.

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