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The Significance of the Trend of Samseong-gak Shrines Replacing Sanshin-gak Shrines in Korean Buddhist Temples
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The Significance of the Trend of Samseong-gak Shrines Replacing Sanshin-gak Shrines in Korean Buddhist Temples
Korean Buddhism , Mountain-spirits , Sanshin-gak , Samseong-gak , Folk-religion.
  • I. Introduction and Background Review

      >  A. General Introduction

    Those people who visit Korean Buddhist temples will find many manifestations of the Korean’s ancient belief in the Sanshin [Mountain–spirit or spirit of the local mountain], including shrines to these important deities containing vibrant artworks. As far back as we know–of, there have been simple stone shrines to the Sanshin located at the rear of the temples. For several hundred years, at least, most temples have had a simple wooden shrine, again often at the rear of the temple’s compound, replacing or incorporating the previous stone shrine, often a bit up the mountain–slope behind the Main Hall, that contains a painting and/or statue of Sanshin, with a modest altar. These are called Sanshin–gaks [Mountain–spirit Shrine], and have played a crucial role in the functional practice and nationalized identity of Korean Buddhism (Hogarth Kim 1999, 124).

    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 Samseong–gaks [Three Spirits Shrine] (Heo 2005, 280; Choi, Joon-sik 2007, 86). This change has profound ideological and philosophical implications for how we regard the identity and function of Korean Buddhism, as well as physical and practical changes for the temples themselves. This paper will explain the background of this transformation in an introductory way, and investigate what it means for how we understand Korean temples and the religion practiced within them.

    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.

      >  B. Identity of the Sanshin Deity, in the Korean Cultural Context

    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 that can be male or female, one or more per mountain, integral with it, alternatively either manifesting it or being manifested by it. This has long been the main tutelary spirit of most villages and towns, and the guardian of the Korean nation as a whole. Since ancient times Korean kings have funded great ceremonies at grand Sanshin–dan 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 Sanshin–gak shrines (Canda 1980; Choi, Joon-sik 2006; Mason 1999).

    Sanshin has been regarded first among all native Korean deities, perhaps only because Korea itself is mostly mountainous. Korea’s mythical founder Dan–gun Wanggeom is thought to have become a Sanshin upon retirement, all of Korea’s imported religious traditions acknowledge their importance (even if only in opposition to veneration of it), and its people have always worshipped them before all other deities in their ceremonial orderings. It can well be said to be an axial 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 “web” of Korean religions.

    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.

      >  C. Iconography of Sanshin

    Most Korean Buddhist temples have an altar set up with a painting or statue of the Sanshin, frequently both with the statue partially blocking view of the painting behind it. 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. The thousands of paintings are unique, no two ever quite the same, as their artists have been inspired to individualize them according to the characteristics of the mountain they are intended to represent. 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. Some of those have been stolen by art–thieves and sold for thousands of dollars on the black and gray markets; while quite a few others are now safely kept in museums.

    Sanshin is almost always depicted as a seated man with white or gray hair and beard, elderly but still healthy, strong and authoritative. His facial countenance is benevolent and kind, but still stern and dignified, like an ideal family–patriarch. His distinctive clothing, headgear and noble demeanor suggest wealth, royal rank or at least a ruling official position. There may or may not be a halo around his head or even body, indicating holiness and/or unusual energy. Shamanist, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, nationalist and military symbols are used in myriad combinations in various parts of the thousands of different artworks.

    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 bullocho, the ‘mythical’ fungus–herb of ancient fame that grants immortality or at least great longevity, and an insam [ginseng] root, another herb symbolizing health, healing and longevity. All of these may be considered Daoist symbols with native–Shamanic overtones, except for the fly–whisk which is a Buddhist indicator of an enlightened meditation–master, often used in memorial portraits of them.

    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 Shinseon–dae [Terrace or Platform for Daoist Immortals]. In the Korean view, this is the sort of place on which Buddhist meditations and Daoist yogic practices are best performed, and where spiritual attainments or enlightenments take place.

    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 dongja in Korean traditions, are usually standing near their master in these paintings, like the servants of a senior aristocrat in dynastic times. Some of the older paintings don’t have any, but almost all modern ones feature at least one and up to five of them. They can be either boys or girls, most typically one of each as a gesture of yin–yang balance, and often at least one of them wears a scarf that floats up behind their shoulders as if blown by a strong wind, indicating that they are angelic beings capable of flight. They grasp sacred objects in their hands, as if offering them to the Sanshin or holding them for when he needs them; these could be any of the same objects listed above that the mountain–lord holds, and possibly others such as peaches of immortality or fruits such as pomegranates symbolizing fecundity. Occasionally, one dongja boy is crouching in a forward corner of the painting, tending a fire under a kettle of boiling water for either green tea or herbal medicine; sometimes another one is holding a cup on a platter to serve the resulting elixir to his master.

    There is usually at least one gnarled pine tree beside Sanshin; these symbolize longevity and adaptive survival despite adverse conditions. The landscape backgrounds range from simple and cartoonish to more elaborate works derived from the East Asian Daoist/Neo–Confucian tradition of grand landscape–paintings. They usually include sharp mountain peaks and cliffs, a waterfall or two, and swirling clouds and sometimes the sun. Other symbols of good luck, fertility, vitality and durability are included in the most elaborate examples, such as the folk–Confucian Ship–jangsaeng or “Ten Symbols of Longevity.”

      >  D. Sanshin Genders

    Most scholars seem to agree that many if not most Sanshin were conceived of as female in ancient times, as beneficent mother–goddess–type deites. However, they are depicted in almost all extant temple or shrine paintings or carvings found along the Baekdu–daegan Mountain–system as a grandfatherly male.1 The incomplete transformation seems to have resulted from the increasing Confucianism and other patriarchal cultural forms during Korea’s recent millennium.

    Yeo-sanshin [Female mountain–spirits] usually have completely black hair, as opposed to their elderly male counter–parts, but still go by such names as Sanshin–halmoni which means “Mountain–spirit–grandmother.” They are conceived of as primordial matriarchs and nourishers of all the living beings on around that mountain, including the villages and temples of humans. Cases of female Sanshin artworks have been seen to be increasing around Korea, but mostly in shrines significantly west of the Baekdu–daegan line, thought to represent a general yin–yang–style division of “male in the east, female in the west.”2

      >  E. Sanshin-je Ceremonies

    Sanshin–je is the most common term for the ritual–ceremonies held to venerate the Mountain–spirit. These ceremonies are performed by the priests or members of Korea’s various religious and spiritual traditions, by villagers supplicating their local tutelary Sanshin, and often by mountain–hiking clubs with no religious affiliations. These range from very simple affairs with a single candle, a bowl of water and a brief chanted prayer to elaborate multi–stage ceremonies with orchestras and dozens of costumed officiants stationed before large altars piled high with extensive offerings of animal and vegetable foods. Many Koreans still practice these customs, even if rarely, and visitors to any of Korea’s mountainous regions are more than likely to come across one being performed, or at least the signs that one had recently been held.

    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 moktak handheld drum, and sometimes the lay–believers also learn to use that.

    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 Sanshin worship is truly revolutionary in modern Korea, where officialdom has typically been dominated by Protestant Christians opposed to public expression of indigenous culture. This seems to be giving way to nationalistic revaluation, appreciation and celebration of indigenous and local cultural assets.

    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.

    II. The Older Style of Sanshin-gak Shrines

    Most temples or shrines used to house these icons in a separate shine building with walls covered with Daoist–themed paintings, called a “Sanshin–gak.3 These shrines were once typically a small building in the far back of the temple compound, built up on the mountain–slope surrounded by forest, and in a traditionally–designed temple they can sometimes be a little difficult to find, requiring a steep uphill climb to visit. This tradition traces back to Korea’s shamanic roots, a tradition of enshrining Sanshin as the most important of spirits, with vauge–ancestral and “landlord” status. In mountainous areas Sanshin is sometimes found enshrined alone or with a local spirit; in that case the small building is called a Sanshin–dang. Sanshin is also one of the most common spirits enshrined in the private dang [shrine] of a shaman, usually a large room with paintings of spirits lining the walls.

    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 “Sanshin–gak” [Mountain Spirit Shrine], but many variant names have been found in my research, such as San–ryeong–gak [Mountain Spirit Shrine], Sanseong–gak [Mountain Sage/Saint Shrine] and San–wang–gak [Mountain King Shrine]. They are in rare cases entirely mis–named, as a Chilseong–gak, Dokseong–gak or Guksa–dang, whether through sheer carelessness, making fresh use of a former shrine by that name, or just the preference of the abbot.

    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.4 They often have wonderful folk–paintings and supplementary icons on their ceilings, interior walls and exterior walls–shinseon [Daoist Immortals], tigers (including the cute “smoking tiger” theme) and mountain–landscapes.

    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 Shinjung–taenghwa. This is the case at Bulguk–sa, one of Korea’s most–famous and heavily–visited monasteries, which does not have a Sanshin–gak in order to preserve its historical authenticity of architectural design from the Shilla Kingdom; its Sanshin painting is found in the Amita Buddha Hall, on the left side of the rear wall. Outdoor stone–carved Sanshin shrines are another increasingly–popular alternative, with some new temples constructing artificial caves or large relief–carvings on granite cliff–faces.

    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.

    III. The Emerging Style of Samseong-gak Shrines

      >  A. Shrines for Three Folk Spirits

    These days more and more temples are reconstructing or newly–constructing “Samshin–gak” [Three Spirits Shrine] or, more frequently, “Samseong–gak” [Three Sages or Saints Shrine, conferring a higher status] buildings, with at least two other folk–deities included, within the main Buddhist–worship area. Occasionally the title Samseon–gak [Three Immortals Shrine] is used. Note 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 the major Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are a few exceptional cases where the shrine has another Buddhist–themed name with a –dang or even –jeon suffix. The same Chinese characters used by the Koreans to entitle these buildings as “Samseong–gak” are also used on the signboards of orthodox halls of some Chinese Buddhist temples that enshrine a certain triad of three principal Buddhas, but this type of all is never found in Korea under that name, and it seems probable that the borrowing of this name and transfer of its meaning for more indigenous purposes is the origin of its widespread usage for these relatively new folk–spirit shrines in Korean temple–complexes.

    Samseong–gak buildings enshrine at least two other major folk–spirits alongside the Sanshin, to make a symbolic Triad. They are usually the Chilseong [Seven Stars of the Big Dipper, with other star deities] and the Dokseong [Lonely Saint, a helpful disciple of Buddha]. The Chilseong altar is usually placed in the center of the triple–altar display, granting it the highest status, which is appropriate as it represents the spiritual powers of heaven, has opposed to those of lower realms. Increasingly, however, the shrines have been found to be arranged with the Sanshin in the center, demonstrating the continued centrality of this deity in all Korean traditional culture, as well as its never–declining high popularity. Occasionally, the Yong–wang [Dragon–King] replaces the Dokseong who is enshrined either in his own building, in the Disciple Hall or in the Main Hall, as he is sometimes regarded as more of an orthodox Buddhist deity than a folk–spirt (see below). Sometimes, each of the three doorways of a Samseong–gak has its own signboard: Sanshin–gak, Chilseong–gak and Dokseong–gak, indicating “three shrines in one.”

    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.

      >  B. Dokseong the Lonely Saint

    Of the various other spirits enshrined together with Sanshin, the most common is Dokseong, a little–understood–although frequently–worshipped these days–figure. Dok means “alone” and thus “lonely”; and seong being “sage” in the Daoist or Neo–Confucian sense, or “saint” in the Buddhist sense. Scholars have only recently traced his origins of this popular folk–buddhist Korean deity. Sources indicate that he derives from Chinese icons of the Arhant Pindola Bharadvaja, a mythical disciple of Sakyamuni Buddha exiled from Buddhist heavens until the advent of Maitreya the future Buddha, as punishment for pridefully displaying his superhuman abilities in front of crowds, and directed in the meantime to live on the Earth and assist human beings with his magical powers.

    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.

    Dokseong is always depicted as an elderly man with a distinctly bald head (sometimes protruding a bit at the top) and no hat, with kind but sad eyes and long white eyebrows, wearing Buddhist robes and barefoot, and holding a yeom–ju [Buddhist rosary] and/or a wooden staff. Servants may be shown attending him, and there may also be deer, cranes, books and turtles nearby him.

    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 taeng–hwa artist, upon request of a temple. They show a similar mountain–landscape–behind–shinseon–dae background on an equal–sized canvas, with similar symbols of longevity and spiritual status. These days a statue of Dokseong is usually placed on the altar in front of his painting, as with Sanshin, although a statue of a Buddha or Bodhisattva is sometimes carelessly used.

      >  C. Chilseong the Seven Stars Deity

    The third painting of these shrines, usually placed in–between Sanshin and Dokseong, is actually a conglomeration of spirits collectively given the appellation Chilseong [Seven Stars]5, which is filled with several multireligious associations. Its position at the center of a Samshin–gak trio raises its status in that temple nominally above Sanshin–perhaps because it is iconographically depicted as more of a “Buddhist” deity, and because it represents the collective powers of Heavenly spirits which outrank those of Earth. Some sort of Buddha or Bodhisattva statue is often placed on the altar in front of it. Professor Heo Gyun (2005, 281) reports that some Buddhists regard it as an image of the “Tathagata of Blazing Perfect Light,” and seen in that sense it would certainly have a higher status than its two folkish companions.

    The Chilseong taeng–hwa shows a seated Buddha–figure holding a small golden wheel, with multi–colored rays of light streaming out from him to form a large round body–halo (strikingly more colorful than usual Buddhist art, a Shamanist touch). This figure is called Jeseok–bul, and in his current popular usage seems to be a Buddhist version of Korean Shamanism’s supreme heaven–god.6 However, he originally derives from the Hindu god Indra, King or “manager” of all the powerful and protective Devas (gods and spirits), with authority over in this “world of desires” that we earthly beings experience, and a servant of Sakyamuni Buddha. He also served in Korea as a household longevity god, a household food or clothing god, and a harvest god. He is usually depicted holding a medicine–container or a small golden wheel, an Indian–Buddhist symbol of the dharma teachings; the former conflates him with the popular Yaksa–yeorae [Medicinal Buddha], which is supplicated for the prevention or healing of disease.

    Several other deities surround Jeseok–bul in these paintings, including a flanking pair of “Il–wol Bodhisattvas”―one holding a red disk representing the Sun and the other holding a white disk representing the Moon―symbolizing the balanced duality of Heavenly powers.

    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 Jeseok as his ministers or emissaries. Seven Confucian–style “Star Officials” are usually seen standing below, implementing the Heavenly directives.

    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 Bukseong–shin [North Pole–star Spirit], said to control human longevity. His iconography is an import from China (where he is probably the single most popular folk–god), and renders him very similar to both Sanshin and Dokseong. When he is depicted separately in a folk–icon, he is often holding a giant peach and/or riding on a male deer–actions never performed by Sanshin even though those two symbols are closely associated with it and included in its backgrounds.

    Yet other figures are occasionally present in the Chilseong paintings. At the top there may be servants holding symbols or playing musical instruments. There may be two sets of the Divine Triplets [Sam–shin], a Shamanic conception/fertility/birth god. Occasionally we find standing at the bottom center, under the Jeseok–bul, the Okhwang Sangje [Jade–Upper–Emperor], the supreme cosmic deity of Chinese Daoism, ranking just above Jeseok himself and somewhat similar in function to him. The Chilseong are sometimes said to be his ambassador to humanity, and derive their powers over our fate from him. An kingly old man with a full white beard, usually wearing a white robe and golden crown, holding a scepter, tablet or fan, he might sometimes be mistaken for a Sanshin figure. All of these add–too and enhance or amplify the religious significance of these complex paintings.

      >  D. Yong-wang the Dragon-King Deity

    A more occasional shrine–companion of Sanshin is the Yong–wang [Dragon–King], Shamanic Lord of the entire dynamic hydrological cycle that sustains earthly life―oceans, springs, rivers, lakes and ponds, fish, clouds, rain and storms―with many myths, powers, associations and traditions of his own. Residing in a “Dragon Palace” in his realm beneath the sea, he serves many roles in Korea’s folk–culture, including filler of wells and protector of fishermen.

    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, Gwanse–eum–bosal the Bodhisattva of Compassion is seen somewhat in the background, next to or riding upon a dragon; sometimes his daughter (a figure in many Korean myths, marrying or birthing some hero) stands near him; fish or other sea–creatures are sometimes included. Occasionally he is enshrined in his own Yong–wang–gak, especially in coastal areas or at rivers, springs or wells.

    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 Sanshin, the Yong–wang is thought of in both a general collective way and simultaneously as the Spirit of specific sites–the individual Dragon–kings of the Seas surrounding Korea, of the great rivers and the springs that feed them, and so on.

      >  E. Other Companions and Locations for Sanshin Icons

    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 Shinjung–taenghwa [Spirit–assembly sacred–painting, or “Icon of the Assembly of the Spirits”] large and complex altar–paintings located in the Main Hall and sometimes also in other Buddha halls. These Sanshin figures are often found among the middle ranks but sometimes up at the top or prominently down at the bottom and in front; they have several similarities and differences with those in their individual paintings. He is the same grandfatherly old man with white hair, wearing the same red silk robe and variety of symbolic headgear, and holding the same feather–fan, mushroom–of–immortality–sprig or ginseng–root. However, here the Sanshin is always male and always standing, there is no pine tree and no tiger with him, and no craggy mountain background. In fact this Sanshin often looks like several of the other spirits assembled here, and it can be difficult to pick him out; the giveaway clue is usually the object he is holding, and the kindly wise look on his face. He does not represent the particular mountain that his host–temple resides upon, or any specific mountain at all, but is rather a generalized Mountain–spirit–as–Guardian, regarded as a legitimate minor deity within Korean Buddhism because included in the Hwaeom–gyeong (The Avatamska Sutra or Flower Garland Sutra).

    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.

    IV. Significance Found in this Transformation

    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 Pungsu–jiri [geomantic] thinking (Choi, Won Suk 2010; (Park 2010).

    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 [Cheon–Ji–In]. This cosmic–order trinity is very popular in Korean thought, derived from imported and native Daoism but thoroughly integrated into the Shamanic, Confucian and Buddhist traditions, and is represented in very many of its design–motifs.

    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 Cheon–Ji–In conception of the order of the universe, something that resonates with everyone who has grown up and in East–Asian culture. They are therefore infused with very profound and deeply–layered meanings, although possibly understood by the residents and visitors to the temples more intuitively than explicitly.

    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.

    Shinseon [Daoist “spirit–immortals”] are usually found painted on these special shrines for non–Buddhist deities within Buddhist temple complexes. They are most often painted on upper interior or exterior wall–panels, but rarely ever in their own formal icons or formally enshrined. They are depicted in a wide and colorful profusion of styles and motifs. Idealized landscape–scenes with spiritually potent animals such is the Korean tiger, and/or those animals and plants included in the Ship–jangsaeng [Ten Symbols of Longevity] traditional artistic motif are also frequently painted on the inner and outer walls of Samseong–gak buildings. All these elements represent the inclusion of Daoist philosophy and values within Korean Buddhist temples, a popular syncretic integration made possible because Chinese Daoism never became a separate institutionalized religion in Korea, and thus has not been a serious rival to either Korean Buddhism or Neo–Confucianism during their evolutions.

    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 yin–yang duo. Teamed with the cosmic Chilseong/Jeseok in some Samseong–gaks, they form a trinity of Heaven, Earth and Ocean―an interesting nature―only alternative to the Cheon–Ji–In motif explained above. This combination could easily become a spiritual icon useful to the burgeoning “Green” environmental movement of Korea, if it is interested in exploiting traditional religious motifs to amplify the attractiveness of its public image and promotional activities.

    V. Conclusion: Modern Flourishing of Folk-Traditions and Oriental Philosophical Concepts within Korean Buddhist Temples

    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 Sanshin finding yet another role as a unique symbol of Korea and promotional–factor for its tourism business.

    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 Sanshin mountain–spirits and its symbolically–complementary “shrine–friends.”

      >  Glossary


    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

    Hwaeom-gyeong (K) 華嚴經

    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

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