|Some worthwhile published reviews of my book
Spirit of the Mountains:
Korea's San-Shin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship
November 1999, Hollym Publishing, Seoul; Second Printing 2002; ISBN# 1-56591-107-5
The original review in the Korea Herald newspaper "Mountain Spirits Still
Watching over Korea -- new book catalogs nation's vibrant tradition of Sanshin
worship" in December 1999 is preserved on Tom Coyner's website here.
Writer-on-Korea James Card on Salon.com, August 2006:
Mountains make up the geographic soul of Korea, and people head to them in good times and
bad. Guerrilla partisans kept fighting after the war's end by hiding out in the Jiri Mountains after
the end of the Korean War, and today hordes of hikers tromp up the mountainsides while they
stay at guest-houses to rejuvenate their spirits when urban blight takes its toll. There are so
many mountains that there's an old saying: If the mountains of Korea were flattened, the country
would be as large as China.
The American expatriate scholar David A. Mason spent the last 20 years putting in trail miles
and doing fieldwork devoted to his research of mountain shamanism. His book, "Spirit of the
Mountains: Korea's San-Shin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship" (1999), offers a revelatory
look at how this native religion is quietly practiced at individual shrines and Buddhist temples
across the country. San-shin, a mythical persona, is depicted as a wizened white-bearded
sage who inhabits the mountain valleys, creating sacred spots of power and spirituality.
In the first sentence of the book he writes, "Right at this moment, as you read this page, no
matter what time or season it is, mountains are being worshipped in Korea." Mason dissects
the iconography of tigers, pine trees and ginseng, and the book doubles as a travel guide to
the shrines. Many guidebooks will tell you a thousands facts about a famous Buddhist temple,
yet Mason's book teaches you to explore behind the temple and follow a jagged path in the
woods that leads to a weathered stone altar dedicated to the spirit of the mountains.
By Gerald Feeney, religious scholar and
Host of the WELL's Christianity Conference, 2000:
The new book, Spirit of the Mountains: Korea's San-Shin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship, by
David A. Mason, is at first striking because of its physical appearance. The luxurious thick glossy stock
and abundance of beautiful, full-color photographs enable it to easily pass for an elegant "coffee-table
book." But don't let its looks fool you. The text is substantial and informative. What's more, it informs
on a subject that is certainly obscure for most non-Koreans, and perhaps for many Koreans, as well.
Writing in an easy-going, first-person narrative style, David Mason treats the reader to a compre-
hensive survey of Korean San-shin imagery, together with a thorough analysis of its composition,
history, development, influences, etc. While Mason's writing is casual in style, it is at the same time,
quite scholarly, given its numerous references, notes, and a substantial bibliography.
San-shin means "Mountain-spirit, Mountain God, or Spirit of the Mountains," he tells us. It refers to the
belief that each mountain is the home of a spirit or mountain-god that can grant protection, healing, and
even spiritual gifts. The iconography associated with San-shin is amazingly diverse and rich in
symbolism. The essence, though, is nearly always a grandfatherly figure, a tiger, and a gnarly pine tree
in the background. The book contains several hundred photographs of various San-shin icons (as well
as of other subjects), and Mason offers the reader explanations and analyses of the underlying
meanings of the symbols.
Mason explains that mountain worship is both primordial and universal in origin, but at the same time,
San-shin has been assimilated and syncretized with other traditions that make it uniquely Korean. For
instance, he writes that nearly a century ago, a Christian missionary observed that Korean mountain
worship had certain similarities to worship practices he'd found on mountains in the Middle East.
Indeed, those instances as well others found in the Himalayas, Greece, among natives of North and
South America, and elsewhere, allude to the mythological construct that Joseph Campbell referred to
as "the central mountain of the earth." But Mason also shows how San-shin evolved from ancient
shamanism and over time blended with Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Korean nationalism to
form part of the core of the collective Korean psyche.
It's interesting that the mountain worship practices have survived and flourished to a far greater extent in
Korea than anywhere else on earth. Given that "Seventy-five-percent of the Korean Peninsula is
nearly-uninhabitable mountainous terrain," it should come as no surprise that a "Mountain Spirit" or
"Mountain God" became a central feature of Korean self-identity. Perhaps what is surprising is how
well San-shin has assimilated with other religious and cultural traditions. From the book, it appears that
the only serious clash has been with certain Christians - both Korean and foreign - who regard
San-shin as devil-worship and have worked hard to suppress it. Sadly, Mason informs us, there have
even been cases where Christians have vandalized San-shin shrines and relics. The silver lining of
that dark cloud, according to Mason, is that some Korean Christians have actually adopted certain
San-shin practices, even as they deny doing so.
Spirit of the Mountains is visually dazzling, a worthwhile read, and a fascinating pilgrimage to Korea's
sacred sites - one that very few people could ever hope to make in person.
From the Korea Times newspaper, Spring 2001:
Mountain Spirits Loom Large in Korea's Psyche
By Michael Anderson, Staff Reporter
About one-third of the Korean peninsula is composed of mountains, jagged peaks of gray granite
splashed by waterfalls and dotted with gnarled pines. This basic geographic feature has influenced the
Korean people in ways not even they are completely aware of, according to David A. Mason, author of
Spirit of the Mountains (Hollym, 1999). Mason recently spoke to The Korea Times about the ubiquitous
"San-shin" or mountain spirit he said has long informed the sense of national identity here, and
reported on his latest pursuits in the study of San-shin.
Mason came to Korea, serendipitously, about 17 years ago. "I was fascinated by Chinese culture back
in high school," he said, "back when China was all closed up and nobody could get in." So in lieu of
visiting that country, Mason nibbled around it, as it were, traveling to Hong Kong, Taiwan and the
Philippines and hearing tales of a mysterious place called Korea. "Actually, I didn't know anything about
Korea except the Korean War," he admitted. But once here, Mason became infatuated with Korea's
architecture and "general mood,'' and was particularly intrigued by its history, which he said borrowed
elements from China but stood on its own.
Mason settled in and began touring around the country (his first article on Korea appeared in The Korea
Times in January, 1983) and discovered a unique and largely unknown heritage, the animistic concept
of san-shin. With a background as a philosophy major, Mason was fascinated by the way Korea blends
Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism in temple iconography, and above all else by the animism of
mountain spirit worship. ``The first time that I visited a Korean Buddhist temple, I remember looking at
this thing and thinking `this isn't Buddhist,''' he said, referring to a painting of a venerable old man, which
is how the mountain spirit is usually represented. ``And I wondered, why is this in a Buddhist temple?
This would not happen in China or some other such place,'' he said.
Because ``I've always loved mountains, I love mountain climbing,'' Mason was sparked by the
connection between the San-shin paintings, the animist and shamanic beliefs behind them, and of
course the mountains themselves, and set out to catalog the paintings and related objects. He was
encouraged to turn his project into a book by Dr. Zo Za-yong, a well-known collector of folk art.
According to Mason's book, San-shin is ``as ancient as anything else that we know about early Korean
civilization.'' The oldest stone pillar found in Korea, he noted, has an inscription on it dedicated to a
San-shin. While no one is certain when San-shin paintings began to be made, the oldest found in Korea
date back to the 17th century, and Mason speculated that they didn't predate that period by much,
because painting materials were then restricted to the upper classes, who could afford them and had
the time to paint.
San-shin manifested themselves not only as elderly men but as young women and tigers as well.
According to Mason, most San-shin in ancient times were regarded as female, only to be replaced
later by a grandfatherly male, probably from the influence of a patriarchal Confucianism. Occasionally
real persons become San-shin, such as the twin brothers who were monks at a temple on Sonun-san,
or Sok Tal-hae Isa-gum, the fourth king of the Shilla dynasty.
San-shin play various roles in the lives of mountain inhabitants, Mason noted. They provide "benevolent
protection,'' and grant fertility and good fortune, as well as dispensing advice. A San-shin is also "a god
of ecological protection. You couldn't cut wood or do any construction without his permission. He would
not approve of golf courses,'' Mason said.
Mason has visited more than 600 Buddhist temples and shamanic shrines, ``from popular well-known
places to very obscure hermitages several hours up some mountain trail.'' It's impossible to know
exactly how many there are in the country, he said, because accurate surveys have not been made.
Asked whether the animism of San-shin and shamanism were synonymous, Mason said ``No, it's a little
different idea. Shamanism really refers to the Northeast Asian style of going into a trance and
contacting spirits. It doesn't necessarily say what kind of spirits you're contacting. Animism of course
refers to the natural world and animating spirits.'' He added that ``Koreans have tended to believe that
natural objects are manifestations of spirits,'' and they ``have always worshipped mountains, always
believed in some kind of San-shin, as far as we know.'' However, shamans often invoke the San-shin.
"For many shamans, the mountain spirit is a primary spirit. When they go into a trance, the mountain
spirit inhabits them, and they can sort of speak with his voice, or they can travel to a mountain spirit and
make deals with him for good fortune for people,'' Mason said.
"I've met women who are up 1,500 meters up on the peaks of Taebaek-san, at stone shrines, and they
set up a tent, and they live there for three solid years, praying incessantly, every day, and people bring
them supplies. They believe after three years they can be fully inhabited by that spirit,'' Mason noted.
And Korea's particular blend of religious beliefs extends to the shamans who inhabit Buddhist-looking
temples, but are not ``seunim'' (Buddhist monks) and who play mediator to the San-shin while
surrounded by Buddhist paraphernalia.
Even today, San-shin are worshipped by the average Korean, and surprisingly are even given a stamp
of approval by the government. ``Just two weeks ago I found a county government-built San-shin statue
and plaza in Jiri-san,'' Mason said. And he went on to add that one of the unifying threads between
North and South Korea is governmental acceptance of San-shin, along with Tangun, the mythical
founder of Korea.
Mason has most recently been readying a shorter paperback version of his book to be published in
Korean, and has set up a Web site, www.san-shin.org, which he said was under construction. He's also
working as a travel consultant for the Ministry of Culture & Tourism's Visit Korea Year 2001 project
team, no doubt spreading the word on San-shin to vacationers everywhere.