On-line Interview on "the Inkwell"
-- May/June 2002 --
Page Two
Inkwell.vue topic #150:   David Mason:  Spirit of the Mountains
            --  continued  --

#23:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Sat 18 May 2002

Well friends, it's the morning of Sunday May 19th here.  This year that's the 8th Day of the 4th Moon,
oriental Lunar Calendar.  Sakyamuni Buddha's Birthday, big National Holiday here since 1975 (set to be
parallel with Jesus’ Birthday Dec 25th, also a holiday, for equality of religions).  In Korea, the big public
stadium-rally followed by street-festival and huge lantern-parade down Main Street was held last
Sunday 5/12.  So that they wouldn't interfere with the ceremony-festivals at each individual temple today.

Which i'm off for.  I'm a tour-guide today, for the Royal Asiatic Society; we're bringing two bus-loads of
"foreigners" to three big temples in northern Seoul, to see the rituals, dances, etc (including, i'm sure,
a bit of mountain-worship).  Gotta leave now.  I'll be back to the conversation tonight when i return.

To you all: *Seong-bul hapshida!*  [let's go achieve enlightenment!]

#24:  Gerry Feeney (gerry)  Sat 18 May 2002

Enjoy, David.  I look forward to hearing all about it when you return.

#25:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Sun 19 May 2002

And i'm back.  The crowds were heavy, the music & dance were good, the lectures were boring, the
Lotus-Lanterns were colorful.  Everybody on my tour seemed to have a good time.  I sold 3 books  :-)
And since we went to a half-dozen temples & hermitages, most of which i had never yet visited, and i
was quick with my camera while guiding the group thru each set of shrines, i picked up photos of 6 new-
to-me San-shin paintings!  Including 2 real antiques and a great statue.  Great weather for it all.  a
Buddha's Birthday well-spent!

#26:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Sun 19 May 2002

up in #18, Mitsu asked:  
> in addition to the portraits of the San-shin spirits, to what
> extent is there present in Korean art a tendency to make paintings
> or drawings of the physical mountains themselves?

This is hardly ever done in San-shin paintings-- much to my surprise over the years.  I wonder why not?
Mountains are usually shown in the background of these paintings, as you can see in my book or on
the website, but they are almost always stylized idealized mountains and not identifiable as any
particular ones, by shape or other characteristic.  You would think that the artistic would try to depict
the particular mountain whose spirit he is painting... but I'm not sure that I've ever definitely seen that.  

There there is one icon show in my book in which the background peak is obviously the great extinct
volcano on the border between North Korea and China called Baekdu-san [White-head Mountain]. That
is the highest peak on the peninsula, and since the early 20th century has been maybe the most sacred
mountain of all, a symbol of all that is holy in Korea and of the aspirations for national reunification. But
this painting is enshrined in a temple at a second-class mountain in the south, not up at Baekdu-san;  
so it's just as a religious symbol and not as a physical depiction.  

Early Korean aristocratic landscape painting followed the Chinese Sung Dynasty way of idealized
fantastic-shaped mountains.  Starting in the late seventeenth century after 75 years of horrific foreign
invasions, however, there was a new movement of realistically painting the actual mountains (and folk-
scenes) of Korea.    This produced some of the greatest national-treasure masterpieces, but never
carried over into the paintings of Mountain-spirits which also started around the same time.  I really
have no idea why, except landscape painters were aristocrats and painters of San-shins were low-class
artisans (although some did very fine art!).    I'd like to know why....

#27:  Gerry Feeney (gerry)  Sun 19 May 2002

David, in the book you mentioned that San-shin shrines still exist in North Korea, but that there are
apparently no practitioners.  I'm wondering if you've learned anything further about the state of
religious practice, in general, in North Korea today.  I gather that you're not able to travel there
yourself, but do you have (or have access to) correspondence with anyone in the North?  

#28:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Sun 19 May 2002

That's right, I'm a USA citizen and thus not able to travel to North Korea myself (along with most South
Koreans), except for the fenced-off Diamond Mountains just across the DMZ on the East Coast.  I went
up there for 3 days over this past New Year's Eve, with my wife and boss and a dozen ambassadors-to-
Seoul.  Stunningly beautiful, even in the bitterly-cold winter.  But so desolate -- no North Koreans in
sight except the soldiers; no temple sites can be visited.

I follow news reports about North Korea closely (as my LIFE depends on how the end-game goes
there!), and have corresponded with some travellers who've been there (Canadians Euros Aussies etc
can visit although it's very restricted & expensive).  I wrote the North Korea chapter in Lonely Planet's
KOREA guidebook in 1996/7, so i'm quite familiar with the details.  No, i don't have "correspondence
with anyone in the North" -- nobody does.  No mail, no phone, no e-mail.  Utterly cut off from the world,
except a few narrow gov-controlled channels.  Weird.  Horrific.  The #1 very worst government in the
entire world, it is fair to say.

During the Korean War the US Air Force pretty much bombed every building in the North, down to
farmer's outhouses; very few historic structures remain there.  Some of the greatest Buddhist temples
were rebuilt by the gov, in some cases including the San-shin shrines -- according to photos i've seen.  

But those are just empty buildings; all ministers, monks & shamans were forcibly secularized in the
1950s, if they resisted they were killed.  Many fled to the south.  None left up north, and there's no
practice or practitioners of any sort of religion or folk-belief that we know of.  The state retains a
monopoly on religion for its own "Juche" cult -- really, the entire nation is a giant paranoid armed-to-the-
teeth David Koresh / Waco kind of semi-shamanic cult!

The surviving artwork in those temples has mostly been removed by the Army, we hear, and sold in
China for cash-to-stash.  The S K gov supposedly has a secret fund/operation to buy up the best of it in
Hong Kong etc and save in warehouses for the inevitable reunification.  I hope that's true.  I hope the
purchases include some great old San-shin paintings...

#29:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Sun 19 May 2002

But, there's exciting New News on this.   The N K gov has never permitted any sort of spiritual activity
on it's soil, including in that cut-off tourist-area of the Diamond Mountains (formerly a very sacred set
of peaks).  

However, just 6 weeks ago they suddenly allowed an association of several dozen S K shamans (and
200 followers) to come up to those Diamond Mountains (by ship, the only access) and conduct a full-
scale Mountain-spirit Ceremony!  They did it at the ruins of Shingye Temple (which S K Buddhists have
offered to reconstruct).  They also held a ritual for the Dragon-King at the beautiful area where the
mountains reach the East Sea.

I have photos of this historic event (from a journalist who went); they are now up on my web-site,
at:  http://san-shin.org/diamond1.html

Now, WHY did the northern authorities permit that ritual, after 50 years of suppressing such...?  I'd love
to know, but they aren't talking (whoever is "they" is not even known).  Clearly, they're softening up on
national-identity/culture stuff, starting with Dan-gun (mythical Founder-King) and proceeding to San-
shin, which is exactly what i predicted in my Chapter 4 (on the future of San-shin in Korea; see all that
discussion of N K there) !!

Very exciting for me!  I'll be watching this closely as it develops.
I'd send the leaders copies of my book, if there was any postal service to them...

#30:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Sun 19 May 2002

up in #18, Mitsu asked me about:  
> the extent to which you might feel Korean Shamanism and/or the
> San-shin tradition can be found influencing everyday Korean customs and culture.  

Very few Koreans will admit to you that they visit fortune-tellers or bow/donate at San-shin shrines or
patronize Shamans.  But hey, SOMEbody is keeping thousands of professionals employed full-time and
financing the construction of ever-fancier shrines...  When a new building etc starts construction or is
opened these days, it has become common to hold a Shamanic Ceremony, incl a San-shin ritual.  But
other than those -- not much.

> That is to say, not so much the conscious awareness of this, but
> rather unconscious habits of interaction or ways of thinking or
> perceiving.  In what ways does it show up in language and/or
> customs and/or societal structures, as you have observed?

Very interesting question, sure.  But i'm not a Professor of Social Psychology, so have no research or
speculations of my own. I've read some authors who posit that the Korean mind works in layers that
follow religious history -- a Shamanic core dominating the sub-conscious, a layer of Buddhism over that,
a strong layer of Neo-Confucianism over THAT, and now a layer of modern-westernism covering all,
superficially.  Makes sense to me, fits with what i've seen, but i can't speak to validity of this theory.  

Recent Korean language, customs and social structures remain very different from Euro-American
models,  of course.  They are influenced heavily by the Korean past, without a doubt.   But i won't go
out on a limb on exactly which has led to what...

#31:  Pseud Impaired (mitsu)  Mon 20 May 2002

I would imagine North Korean leaders are opening up in these ways primarily because they are
desperate.   Very sad tragedy unfolding in the North.

Is Korean shamanism primarily an oral tradition, or are there many extant texts describing the
practices?   Do they have a tradition of secret texts?    Is the lack of Korean scholarship on San-shin
paintings accompanied by a similar lack of scholarship regarding Korean shamanism as a whole?

#32:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Mon 20 May 2002

> I would imagine North Korean leaders are opening up in these ways
> primarily because they are desperate.

I dunno.  Surely most of their recent "opening" (the barest crack of the door) has been out of
desperation, trying to elicit cash & food from the South and foreigners -- to keep the army content and
the elite in power.  But what benefit do they get from allowing S K shamans to do a Mountain-spirit
Ceremony?   That won't impress other powers a whit, and not even impress the S K decision-makers
much (they probably have little support for "old superstitions").

Now, maybe this Association of S K Shamans managed to give a huge amount of cash or rice to the N K
authorities behind the scenes, and thus got permission for this, who knows?  But i look at it, perhaps
too optimistically, as part of the early stage of an ideological change.  Just like what has happened in
China -- the previous ruling philosophy (Marxism, Maoism, Juche) is dead, dysfunctional, nobody really
believes it anymore.  So the dictatorship turns to raw Nationalism to keep people pumped-up &
distracted, and justify their power.

This fits with the legitimization of the Dan-gun myth ("It is true history!", Pyeongyang now says) starting
7 or so years ago. San-shin will be the next step...

The bad news is, hysterical isolationist-nationalism isn't going to make them any easier to deal with than
paranoid isolationist-communism ever did.  

But i *do* regard re-instating important elements of traditional Korean culture as possible first steps
towards sanity, and allowing re-unification someday on the cultural level.

#33:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Mon 20 May 2002

> Is Korean shamanism primarily an oral tradition, or are there
> many extant texts describing the practices?  

Oral. As it was ignored / suppressed by the Confucians for 300 years or so just as much as by the
authorities of the 20th Century, there are very few records or scripts of any sort before about 1980.  
Some reports of observations by Christian missionaries 1885-1925 are valuable, tho of course biased
and uncomprehending.

> Do they have a tradition of secret texts?

No.  Some of the semi-shamanic "new religion" cults promote their "formerly secret but now unveiled
ancient text", but those all seem bogus.

> Is the lack of Korean scholarship on San-shin paintings
> accompanied by a similar lack of scholarship regarding Korean
> Shamanism as a whole?

Until the '80s there wasn't much at all.  Most of the scholarship on Korean Shamanism that has followed,
and there is now a lot from both Korean and foreign researchers, has focused on sociological /
anthropological studies of the Shamans themselves -- their lives & status, or logging the exact rituals
they do.  Since the Shamans are mostly (poor) women, there's a lot of sympathetic feminist-slanted stuff
coming out.   For the best of the western books, see the fine works by Laurel Kendall.

What has NOT been done much is work on the actual deities themselves as subjects of research, as
agents acting and evolving thru Korean cultural history.  That's where i saw a yawning gap and a need,
and jumped on in.  There are plenty of others besides San-shin, but none nearly so interesting -- none
so central, so common, so intricately linked with all major religious / philosophical traditions.

#34:  Pseud Impaired (mitsu)  Mon 20 May 2002

> what benefit do they get?

Well, Castro allowed the Pope to visit a little while ago, presumably also to gain some goodwill capital.  I
imagine that it is a combination of this and the fact that many North Koreans, party members or not,
probably secretly hold some affinity for or perhaps at least agnosticism with respect to the old
shamanism...  But I hope you're right about an actual ideological change.  In any case once reunification
occurs, well, everything will change.

>none so central

Speaking of which, I am curious to know what the relationship is between the San-shin and other
shamanic deities in the system.  Is San-shin thought to be "above" the others, first among equals, or is
there not such a notion of clear hierarchy among them?  Are there also shamanistic deities associated
with, say, streams, lakes, and so forth --- i.e., other natural features?

#35:  Pseud Impaired (mitsu)   Mon 20 May 2002

An additional question regarding North Korea which is somewhat off the topic but I can't help but ask
--- from your vantage point, how is the process of reunification going?  Is it moving forward, likely to
happen soon, etc.?

#36:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)   Mon 20  May 2002

There are various hierarchy-systems among all the shamanic deities and the Buddhist & Daoist ones
and etc -- it very much depends who you talk to!  Since there is no "bible" or "Vatican" of Shamanism,
(and Hinduism, Buddhism & Daoism are all quite loosely structured compared to the mono-theisms),
each practitioners follows their own beliefs & practices -- what "works" for them -- whether they make
them up themselves or learn/adapt a system from a teacher or book.

Many here will tell you that there is a hierarchy of Heavenly, Earthly and Underground (Hell) spirits, and
since San-shin is of the Earth, he/she fits in the 'middle ranks'.

When "Assembly of the Guardian Spirits" paintings were first made and enshrined in Buddhist temples
in the 1700s-1800s, no Mountain-Spirits could be found in them.  Then they started to include San-shin,
but as one figure among many in, yes, the 'middle ranks', only head & one hand showing.  But in the
19th Century works he is frequently found at the bottom, up front and prominent, full body shown with
elaborate details.   See pages 113-117 in my book.   In 20th-Cen paintings San-shin is always prominent,
easy to find.  See the middle of:  http://www.san-shin.org/newdis4.html  for one example.
And  http://san-shin.org/Uam-san-1.html  for more modern cases, one quite unique (includes the tiger).

San-shin used to play second-fiddle to the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper [Chil-seong-shin] and others.  
But without a doubt, among all the Shamanic deities of Korea, it has become the primary one, rising far
beyond all others.  As mentioned above, it's the only one so intricately linked with all major religious/
philosophical traditions and also with such deep connection to the National Identity.  Maybe also it's the
one that represents what people experience in their daily life, that means a lot to them deep-down --
the mountains and Nature.  Certainly, it's the only one still evolving in meaning and form, and having
elaborate new shrines built to it (in ever more public locations -- see  
and the next page... the Seven Stars got nothing going like that!

> Are there also shamanistic deities associated with, say, streams,
> lakes, and so forth --- i.e., other natural features?

Yes, they are thought to contain -- to be manifestations of -- spirits.  Especially waterfalls and their
pools.   But these are not highly-developed, human-form deities like San-shin.  Mostly, people just bow
to them out in nature, make a small offering of food/liquor if they're acknowledged at all.

The Dragon-King of the Waters is the catch-all spirit for bodies of water -- see pages 110-111 for
photos and explanation.

#37:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)   Mon 20 May 2002

> ...regarding North Korea ...  how is the process of reunification
>  going?  Is it moving forward, likely to happen soon, etc.?

Not much visible progress at all.  When Prez Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy led to his stunning summit-
visit to Pyeongyang, schmoozing with a friendly, reasonable and respectful Kim Jong-il (son of the late
"Great Leader", who is now a shamanic deity himself up there), here was a great surge of hope.  And a
Nobel Peace Prize for KDJ (thank gopod they were wise enuff to NOT include KJI in that, like they
included Arafat with Perez! they learned something...).  That was June 2000.

But since then there's been nothing but disappointment, as KJI / NK has not followed thru on ANY of
the agreements they made.  They just continue to dribble out small concessions (like agreeing to hold
yet more talks) as ways to get more aid (food for the soldiers & favored classes).  They frequently still
resort to abusive insulting propaganda announcements or outright military blackmail to get more rice
or cash.   The public here has lost most hope that being nice to them is ever going to accomplish
anything.   Japan is so disgusted with NK behavior that it has stopped all aid -- *all*.   Even China &
Russia won't help them beyond a minimum.

So, the "process of reunification" is going nowhere, dead in the water like an NK submarine.  It looks
like the amazingly evil NK Gov (and i don't use that term lightly) can keep on truckin' as long as their
control of the guns and death-camps remains firm.  Not much anybody can do but wait, watch their
population suffer.   

But then, there's the example of Romania -- only 6 quick days from when the first crack in a pillar
showed to the Great Dictator being shot like a dog in a muddy field.  North Korea could collapse in a day
or two, and it could be *any* day -- some General decides to make a move, has enough troops behind
him, and *splat* the whole house-of-cards comes down in wild bloody chaos.  This Would Be Bad --
i hope i'm on vacation somewhere when/if it happens...

> the fact that many North Koreans, party members or not, probably
> secretly hold some affinity for or perhaps at least agnosticism
> with respect to the old shamanism...

a fact?  i wish i could know.  But as i said, they ain't talking.

> But I hope you're right about an actual ideological change.

we all REALLY hope for a peaceful evolutionary change, like Russia,
China, South Africa and etc. rather than violent collapse / war.

> once reunification occurs, well, everything will change.

Yep, everything. There is pretty much *nothing* in North Korea, from philosophy to songs to electric
generators to clothing, that is in any way useful or viable in the modern world.

#38:  Pseud Impaired (mitsu)  Tue 21 May 2002

A follow-up: though San-shin are considered "middle-level" deities, would you say that there are more
rituals or people devoting time to them than the other Korean shamanistic deities?

You talk a lot about stories of people who eventually become San-shin.  I am curious how many folk
tales/legends there are which actually feature San-shin (i.e., not before they become San-shin, but
afterwards) as characters?   I.e., characters that have dialogue, etc.  Or are San-Shin seen more as
entities that protect and/or defend without really saying very much?

I'd also like to hear you speak more about the idea of San-shin as it might relate to Gregory Bateson's
ideas.    I have long been an enthusiastic fan of Bateson's work, and I was intrigued by your references
to him.    Can you give more details on how you might feel San-shin relates to Bateson's concepts?

#39:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Tue 21 May 2002

> though San-shin are considered "middle-level" deities, would you
> say that there are more rituals or people devoting time to them
> than the other Korean shamanistic deities?

Definitely, yes.  The 'middle' ranking is purely in theory, within the non-Buddhist deities said to defend
Buddhism (the teachings, the holy places and the monks) by the Hwa-eom [Hua-yen] Sutra.  Korean
shamans have always regarded the Mountain-spirit as at least one of the most important in their
practice, from what we do know about them; is usually the first to be invoked and supplicated during a
long exorcism or fortune-seeking ritual ceremony.   

As I said above, these days San-shin has no real rival as far as the amount of time money attention and
shrine building devoted to it.  Running behind the Seven Stars, Lonely Saint (a disciple of the Buddha)
and the Dragon King.  They may've once been equal, but in the last generation or two San-shin has
gotten far more juice.    

I have a funny sort of nerdy rivalry over this going with a woman professor from Oxford -- when I gave
my speech on San-shin in 1990's Korea, she actually heckled me from the audience and then used up
most of my question time, insisting that the Seven Stars were and are and always will be "number one"!  
She got quite agitated about this; I was embarrassed and nobody else in the audience knew or cared.  
She was coming from an entirely theoretical place on it, and I could grant her point in theory, but I have
a decade and 10,000 miles of experience in the field that she doesn't.  I had a hundred photos with me
right there to prove my case, and she had nothing but ideas of how it was supposed to be...    

I've run into this several times, big respected professors who spent some months in Korea talking to
three shamans and two monks, think that they've got all the answers on the final truth about this stuff
and write books pontificating "THIS is how it is, they believe this way and do like this", real simple.  But
my analyzed database of 800 shrines nationwide (and hundred or more practitioners interviewed)
shows a far more complex and contradictory picture, with many more exceptions to the rules they posit
than examples that follow them...

#40:  David A. Mason (mntnwolf)  Tue 21 May 2002

There are many folk tales/legends which feature San-shin as active characters, that speak dialogue,
make judgments and decisions, have interests and concerns, etc.  They are not necessarily real people
who have become San-shin, they can just be "regular" San-shin.

But I can't tell you how many.  The primary source for old Korean stories is the Sam-guk Yusa [Legends
of the Three Kingdoms] written by a great Buddhist monk in 1170 or so.  An an invaluable resource for
everyone who studies Korean traditions. I found a dozen good stories that include San-shin in it.  

For those who are really interested, I refer you to the 450-page
Myths and Legends from Korea by
Sheffield University professor James Grayson, Curzon Press 2001.  Tons of good stuff in there.  
{Although James & i disagree on a key aspect of San-shin's identity; we've argued about it some on the
Internet with no resolution; I mentioned his ideas and my dispute of them in the book}.