Those people who visit Korean Buddhist temples will find many manifestations of the Korean’s ancient belief in the
There is a very strong trend in the past few decades, however, for these Sanshin–gaks to be replaced by relatively new and larger shrine buildings called
This paper is a theoretical case–study whose findings are mainly based on the author’s more than two decades of research into this topic and its related subjects, including extensive fieldwork all over the Republic of Korea, with over 1,500 Buddhist temples visited and photographed with an emphasis on the Sanshin–related shrines and artworks, and discussions with the religious leaders of those institutions.
For the more than two thousand years of Korean history, the residents of this mountainous peninsula have believed that the peaks and slopes are spiritually alive, inhabited by a
Sanshin has been regarded first among all native Korean deities, perhaps only because Korea itself is mostly mountainous. Korea’s mythical founder
Sacred icon–paintings and statues (most usually, the combination of a simpler statue in front of an elaborate painting) of Sanshin have been made in Korea for more than 300 years, and have come to replace the simple stone shrines that once served four veneration of an offering two the mountain spirit at the rear of temples. However, Sanshin icons are not only historical treasures. Visitors to temples will find many newly created and enshrined paintings and statues of the Mountain–spirits, tending to be ever larger and more elaborate, and more prominently displayed. These works are generally more elaborate than the antiques, incorporating a higher number of symbolic elements that extend the range of religious associations, such as Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian symbols of enlightened authority, ecological wisdom and vibrant health. Many are intricate and complex paintings of high artistic value, offering aficionados a great variation in iconographic elements or artistic styles.
Most Korean Buddhist temples have an altar set up with a painting or statue of the
The Mountain–spirit is almost always shown holding objects in one or both hands which symbolize healthy longevity, scholastic or spiritual attainment and his earthly or spiritual powers. These have deep backgrounds in Shamanist, Daoist (and Daoist–military), Buddhist and Confucian philosophies and iconography. The most common such objects are a long wooden staff, often gnarled like the pine trees and with a hollow gourd is tied with a ribbon to its upper end, a stiff (non–folding) fan made of the outer feathers of a white crane on a handle or else silk or even an actual green leaf, a fly–whisk made from the tail of a horse, a sprig of
In most of these paintings, Sanshin is depicted as sitting on a flat rocky cliff–top or clearing in the high mountains with a grand view. Actual such places are easily found while hiking among the crags of the Baekdu–daegan range, and are often referred to as
There is a tiger beside the “Mountain–King,” his pet–companion, taboo–enforcer and alter–ego. Tigers as the “kings of the animals of the mountains” are the primary symbols of Korean culture, extremely common in traditional folk–paintings and still a favorite motif; the nation or its economy or citizens are often depicted as tigers in cartoons or promotional materials, and a friendly baby tiger was chosen as the symbol of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games.
A couple of child–attendants, called
There is usually at least one gnarled pine tree beside
Most scholars seem to agree that many if not most
Official Sanshin–je are held by monastics once or twice daily at the Buddhist temples that enshrine the mountain spirit, with lighted candles, incense, and simple offerings of water and vegetarian food. Informal such rituals are held by lay–believers by themselves at any and all times of the day or night, with additional offerings of cash, alcoholic drinks or packaged foods, according to the whim or decision of the lay men or women. Sometimes, by request or previous arrangement, monks will lead the lay–believers in the ceremony. All of these types of Sanshin–je held in Korean Buddhist temples involve some combination of chanting, bowing, prostrations and meditation; there is no orthodox established way to perform the ritual, but rather the monks and common people do it the way that they have learned, or the way that they intuit is best. There are by now a couple of fairly standard chants that are usually performed by the monks, accompanied by a
Across South Korea, larger–scale “public” Sanshin–je with the explicit themes of national identity, protection, and re–unification have been held with steadily–increasing frequency and prominence, usually in conjunction with traditional lunar calendar holidays or local festivals and held at that area’s most famous shrine. Mayors and other high local officials are often seen as leading officiants of these ceremonies. This sort of open government approval of and support for
1The major exceptional case of a female Sanshin being enshrined and venerated is found around the eastern “Cheonwang–bong” summit of Jiri–san. Others are readily found at Gyeryong–san, Moak–san and Seoul’s Surak–san. 2Most notably at western region mountains such as Gyeryong–san [Rooster Dragon Mountain], Moak–san [Mother crags Mountain] and some mountains around Seoul. The East–West male–female theory here seems unique to Korea, and known or held by only a few traditionalist scholars and Buddhist monks.
Most temples or shrines used to house these icons in a separate shine building with walls covered with Daoist–themed paintings, called a “
At most Buddhist temples in Korea, the local Sanshin came to be enshrined in a separate building, starting at least three centuries ago, usually enshrined by itself but sometimes together with other spirits of Korean Shamanist origin. The building is of the same architecture as other Korean Buddhist worship halls, but was much smaller than those which enshrine Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Occasionally, unique designs have been used such as improved grottos, artificial caves or cliff–front pavilions; this tendency has been seen to be increasing. In a few such cases, the Sanshin shrine is built up against a sheer cliff, so that one interior wall is the naked granite of the cliff. Sometimes it is far up the slope above the temple, only reached by a hiking–trail and surrounded by thick forest.
These shrines are most usually on their signboard as “
Professor Grayson declares (1992, 205) that the inclusion of this shrine within a Korean Buddhist temple–complex is an excellent example of “Low Syncretism,” the more superficial accommodation made by a “world–religion” with an indigenous cult, which is usually what is understood in academia to be the process of religious syncretism:
Most frequently in contemporary times, elaborate Mountain–spirit altars and colorful icons are right at the center of large and uniquely–designed new altar–shrines. As Korea’s native culture has gained increasing respect and followings, these shrines have gotten larger, sometimes even equal in size to the Main Buddha Hall.
If a temple is too small, poor or new to have a Sanshin–gak its Mountain–spirit painting may be found in the Main Hall off to the side of the main altar, often near the
3Note that the suffix –gak is used to denote a non–Buddhist shrine, ordinary residential hall or even just a pavilion; while –dang is used for the enshrinement of lesser Buddhist deities, practice–halls and major residential halls, while –jeon is always used for the larger Halls containing regular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are a few exceptional cases where the shrine has another Buddhist–themed name with a –jeon suffix. There were older names with more of a folk/Shamanic flavor that are hardly ever used at temples, such as Guksa–dang [National Teacher Shrine]. Sometimes, each of the three doorways of a Samshin–gak has its own signboard, indicating three shines in one: Sanshin–gak, Chilseong–gak and Dokseong–gak. 4The Main Hall enshrining the principal Buddha is usually named Dae–eung–jeon, meaning “Great Hero” or “Great Victory” Hall, referring to Sakyamuni’s overcoming of delusions to reach enlightenment. One good example of a Sanshin–gak built as large as a Main Hall, and in fact named with the suffix – daejeon [Great Hall], is at Jiri–san Sudo–am. This phenomena, however, is considered unorthodox by most Korean Buddhists.
These days more and more temples are reconstructing or newly–constructing “
Samseong–gak buildings enshrine at least two other major folk–spirits alongside the Sanshin, to make a symbolic Triad. They are usually the
It is essential for the purposes of this study useful to understand these other figures who are usually enshrined together with Sanshin in the Samseong –gaks, in order to understand what this transformation from Sanshin–gaks to the relatively newer types of shrines can tell us about their identity and function within Korean Buddhist compounds.
Of the various other spirits enshrined together with Sanshin, the most common is
This would explain why he is “lonely,” and why he is treated as a not–really–Buddhist spirit, enshrined together with the native/Daoist/Shamanist Sanshin, and supplicated by the laity to gain practical or worldly benefits (longevity, having a son, wealth). His iconography is certainly related to and may derive directly from the “Long–Eyebrow Luohan,” China’s popular folk–Buddhist figure who is also often conflated with Daoist Immortals.
He is usually painted in a similar style to the adjacent Sanshin, with the two icons as a matched–pair. They are in fact usually painted at the same time by a
The third painting of these shrines, usually placed in–between
Several other deities surround Jeseok–bul in these paintings, including a flanking pair of “
In the upper half of the painting are seven identical standing buddha–figures, each with one stylized star on top of his head. They are the Chilseong [Seven Stars] themselves, and represent an ancient and very important Korean Shamanist deity imported in this form from Chinese Daoism, thought to control good and evil fortune in general (life and death, health and illness) for both individuals and whole families (especially children). Although depicted as ‘buddhas,’ these are actually Heavenly devas of much lower rank, and serve under
Constellations have long been used in Korea’s ‘Daoistic Shamanism,’ and a wide array of them are still used in ceremonies (often depicted on flags), especially those with nationalistic overtones. There is evidence that Chilseong may once have been at least equally important with Sanshin in Korea’s folk–culture, although it currently seems to be fading into obscurity, bowed to by lay–people without much understanding, and only specifically used by professional Shamans–while the various Sanshin cults continue to flourish.
Alongside those Seven Stars, usually near one upper corner, is an old man with long white beard and long white eyebrows, a huge bulging–upwards bald head (symbolic of great wisdom), often holding a gnarled wooden staff. He is the
Yet other figures are occasionally present in the
A more occasional shrine–companion of Sanshin is the
In his own painting he is shown sitting on a throne in that undersea palace, dressed in royal robes with a Korean Joseon–dynasty–style crown. He is always depicted as an old man with while hair; his most distinctive traits are that his beard, moustache and eyebrows are (usually) “spiky”–protruding in sharp points, sometimes resembling coral–and his eyes are often bulging out like those of a fish. He most often holds the flaming Pearl of Wisdom, but sometimes a branch of coral or a sword. Often in his altar–painting enshrined in Buddhist temples,
Dragons have long been seen as protectors, whether of the world itself, the person of the Buddha, the Buddhist dharma, or particular communities. In China and in Korean Neo–Confucian culture they are symbols of heavenly powers, and in Geomancy they symbolize Earth–energies (especially as mountain–ridges, as blue or yellow dragons), but to Korea’s folk–culture they have mostly been associated with water–forms in a wide variety of ways. Similarly with
Other deities who might be found sharing a shrine with Sanshin are Korea’s ‘mythical’ first founding–king Dan–gun Wanggeom, a portrait of the temple’s founder (in the case of a small temple that can’t afford its own Founder’s Hall) or another historically–great Buddhist master, such as Wonhyo–daesa or Seosan–daesa, and other shamanic or purely local spirits. There are a wide variety of arrangements, according to the whims of the religious leaders operating any particular temple.
For greater understanding it should be noted that there is almost always another Sanshin icon found in Korean Buddhist temples, within the
5Referring to the seven visible stars of the constellation popularly called the Big Dipper or the Great Bear (Ursa Major), the best–known of all constellations. It continuously rotates around the North Star, sort of pointing to it. 6Otherwise called Cheon–shin, Haneul–nim, Hanna–nim, Hwan–in, the Daoist Okhwang Sangje, or the Neo–Confucian Sangje.
The original stone Sanshin–dan and later Sanshin–gak shrines included in Korean Buddhist temples have always played multiple symbolic and functioning roles. The Sanshin spirit is regarded as the landlord of the temple–site, and supplication of it by the resident monks can be seen as a kind of payment of rent, acknowledging that this spirit existed there long before the advent of Buddhism or any other advanced human religion, and so the monks request to be allowed to live there teaching their dharma to humans. The Sanshin is also supplicated by the monks for their personal health and physical strength, so as to be able to accomplish their meditation programs and advance towards the enlightenment that they aspire to. It further serves as a protective guardian for the temple compound against all sorts of spiritual evils and damages from human or natural forces. It is also very frequently venerated and even worshipped by lay visitors to the temples, seeking real–world practical benefits that it seems inappropriate to ask Buddhas or Bodhisattvas to grant, and its shrines are often very significant sources of cash–donation income for their hosting–temples (Mason 1999, section III.6). Their inclusion in the temples is also significant in our considerations of the attitude of Korean Buddhism towards the natural landscapes that surround it, heavily influenced by Korea’s traditional
The most popular triad found in the relatively–new Samseong–gak shrines, of Chilseong taking primary central position flanked by Dokseong and Sanshin, can be interpreted as a meta–representation of the classic trinity found at the root of most East–Asian philosophy and religious art and customs:Heaven, Earth and Humanity [
In this case the Chilseong as spirits of stars represents the powers and status of Heaven, the Sanshin as spirit of the mountains that make up almost all of the Korean landscape represents the powers and status of Earth, and then the Dokseong as a formerly–human disciple of Buddha represents the powers and status of Humanity. We can further see that this triad represents the maximized ideals of each element of the Trinity: stars are the highest (farthest–away) and most mysteriously beautiful bodies in the heavens, mountains are the apogees of the earth, the closest that landforms come to reaching the sky, and the fully–enlightened Arhant is, at least within the realm of Buddhist thought, the very best status that human beings can hope to attain in their lifetimes.
From this we can tell that the Samseong–gak is more than just a separate enshrinement of the folk–deities that the leaders of Buddhist temples regard as of lesser status than the true Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but yet are not willing to exclude them from temples altogether (except in the case of a few masters such as former Jogye–Order Patriarch Seongcheol Toe–ong, 1912―93, who campaigned against them). They are in fundamental design representations of the traditional
This will help to explain why in new constructions of temple compounds the Samseong–gak are now often being placed in the main courtyards, with a status equal to bodhisattva and monastic residential halls, instead of the former locations of Sanshin–gak at the upper rear of temple properties (behind or sometimes beside the Main Halls).
This elevated status demonstrates a greater level of inclusion and religious acceptance of legitimacy of what were formally regarded as lower–ranking folk–deities. As described above, the Sanshin icons carry with them strong implications of Korean national identity, especially ethno–cultural identity, and this can be seen as assisting the entire trinity represented within a Samseong–gak as achieving a higher status; this will only be further amplified when an icon of Dan–gun is included within the shrines.
In the occasional case is noted above where the Yong–wang is enshrined together with Sanshin, he obviously makes a complementary figure to the land–based Sanshin, both being “kings” of seas and earth, and both being uniquely “Korean” spirits―they can serve as a biospheric
Mountain–worship was once found worldwide, with ancient roots and extensive traditions; scholars have reported it in many if not most pre–industrial cultures. Most mountain–worship traditions sharply declined during the twentieth century, however, and are steadily becoming harder to find, as the vectors of modern industrial civilization continuously destroy aboriginal and agrarian cultures and unique, local traditional religions are replaced by modern universalistic ones (Bernbaum 1990). But various traditions of mountain–veneration and, to a lesser extent, worship of other folk–deities, are still very much alive in South Korea, not only surviving but flourishing out on the edges of what is in most other ways very modern lifestyles; it is even evolving new roles for itself in twenty–first century cultural and political realities. This may be unique to Korea, among all of the technologically–sophisticated industrialized nations. Increasingly, it can be seen as a point of pride to be remaining true to its own ancient national traditions, rather than as a source of shame for “remaining old–fashioned.”
The Samseong–gak shrines and their resident icons as discussed in this paper are a vibrant and prominent part of this process, as they are increasingly found in very publicly–accessible locations within Korean Buddhist Temples. Many of these newly–painted, modernist, retro–folk artworks are quite expensive, and their proliferation indicates that at least these selected folk–spirits are still actually growing in strength and importance within contemporary Korean culture (while many other old Shamanic deities continue to quietly fade away). Samseong–gaks and the remaining Sanshin shrines steadily attract good amounts of donation–cash from lay believers, and in turn increasing funds are being spent in constructing new ones, with larger and more–elaborate icons. They are also being given noticeably higher stature within temple compounds and in the proliferating independent Shamanic shrines.
Despite their relentless modernization in the past century, Koreans still pay respect to their Sanshin and other key folk–spirits in a wide variety of contexts. Their manifestations are readily found scattered amidst the urbanization and modernization, hoary roots of stable ancient wisdom that can be glimpsed underneath the chaotic neon–lit surfaces. Ceremonies with ancient roots are still being held up on high ridges and deep in remote gorges nationwide, all along the Baekdu–daegan Mountain–system, and at shrines overlooking skyscraper–filled downtowns.
Sanshin paintings and their companion icons in Samseong–gaks have also been found to be highly attractive to foreign visitors, who can easily understand their general import of humanistic pantheism. They therefore have good potential to serve as one of the cultural bridges that the Korean government is now building out towards the rest of the world, with
This is happening together with an increasing public “coming out” of Korean Shamanism and official/legal tolerance of and even respect for it (Howard 1998). These manifest changes suggest that a new ‘religion’ may be evolving in South Korea, based on ancient traditions but far more explicit and organized than ever before. It is highly nationalistic in character, based on ancient deities central to Korea’s national identity, borrowing from the altar–forms that developed in Buddhist temples but now beginning to express its own independent identity. How popular it will remain our become, or what forms its future development assumes cannot really be predicted; the best we can say is that it seems extremely unlikely to disappear from this nation. Anyone who travels around the country and hikes up on the trails of the Baekdu–daegan and other ranges will find plenty of both old and newly evolving signs of its ancient traditions of mountain–worship and respect for the
Baekdu-daegan (K) 白頭大幹
Bukseong-shin (K) 北星神
Bullocho (K) 不老草
Cheon-Ji-In (K) 天地人
Cheon-shin (K) 天神
Chilseong (K) 七星
Chilseong-gak (K) 七星閣
Dae-eung-jeon (K) 大雄殿
Dan-gun Wanggeom (K) 檀君王儉
Dokseong (K) 獨聖
Dokseong-gak (K) 獨聖閣
Dongja (K) 童子
Guksa-dang (K) 國師堂
Gwanse-eum-bosal (K) 觀世音菩薩
Gyeryong-san (K) 鷄龍山
Hwan-in (K) 桓因
Il-wol (K) 日月
Insam (K) 人蔘
Jeseok (K) 帝釋
Jeseok-bul (K) 帝釋佛
Moak-san (K) 母岳山
Moktak (K) 木鐸
Okhwang Sangje (K) 玉皇上帝
Pungsu-jiri (K) 風水地理
Samseong-gak (K) 三聖閣
San-ryeong-gak (K) 山靈閣
Sanseong-gak (K) 山聖閣
Sanshin (K) 山神, 産神
Sanshin-dan (K) 山神壇
Sanshin-gak (K) 山神閣
Sanshin-je (K) 山神祭
Shilla (K) 新羅
Shinjung-taenghwa (K) 神衆幀畵
Shinseon (K) 神仙
Shinseon-dae (K) 神仙臺
Ship-jangsaeng (K) 十長生
Taeng-hwa (K) 幀畵
Yaksa-yeorae (K) 藥師如來
Yeom-ju (K) 念珠
Yong-wang (K) 龍王
Yong-wang-gak (K) 龍王閣