Korean mountain shrines and Bulgarian monasteries


Desislava Damyanova
Ph D Candidate, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences


In the present paper we are going to compare some of the most spectacular Korean mountain deities, sanctuaries and especially the Daoist tradition, with the most popular Bulgarian Christian monasteries and rock temples. Both Republic Korea and our country have a long and illustrious history as well as rich and celebrated cultural heritage. Koreans and Bulgarians love their mountains – they give us peace, harmony and splendor, but there is another reason for this attitude in Korea: its mythical origin is a mountain story. Old Bulgarian legends, mythology and tales of rebels (the so called ‘haidouts’) also are rooted in the ancient stories of the Balkan mountain. So we will listen to the voices of the far-off days and follow the path of the past centuries in attempt to assemble piece by piece this remarkable puzzle.
Historically, mountains have had a strong impact on Korean life and culture. The worship of mountain deities in Korea is a part of the nation’s folk religion and reveals some remarkable aspects of the traditional East Asian beliefs. The Korean mountain-spirit cult is focused primarily on a grandfather-like spirit called San-sin. There are also different cultic practices that propitiate the minor, localized spirits of individual mountains, known as yo-sansin – native female deities. Modern researchers of Korean folklore have already disclosed that many mountain place-names, mentioned in legends, provide rich evidence for the belief in and propitiation of mountain spirits in every dynastic period of Korean history .
In Old Bulgaria with the attack on paganism by Christianity before it peaked, the main heathen divinities disappeared. A lot of pagan beliefs of the Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians (the last came from Central Asia) remained, although converted. ‘Dii minores’, as the little gods were called, were created. These divinities’ origin was explained as them being the spirits damned from heaven because they rebelled against the superior god who created all. These spirits fell on a variety of places - those who fell in fields and forests remained evil; those who were in contact with humans often became kind spirits. In folklore through the ages there were also female wood nymphs - mountain and river spirits, called ‘Samodiva’.
There are many mountain ranges in Korea, but one is more outstanding than the others. This range begins at Mt. Baekdu, or Baekdu San on the Chinese-Korean border, runs east and then turns south. It spans almost the entire length of the Korean peninsula and finally ends close to the southern tip of South Korea. The length of the range is estimated to be about 900 miles and it is considered to be the spine of Korea and to contain a mighty ‘qi’ flow, which is the source of energy and power. There are several sacred mountains along this range and Daoists, Buddhists, and Shamans can be found there even today practicing in temples and caves. Koreans have long believed that their strength and life force come from this energy channel mountain range. The Japanese, during their occupation of Korea from 1910-1945, wanted to break this qi flow and, using eight-foot long iron spikes, “drove them into geomantically strategic mountain peaks and passes throughout Korea in order to geomantically sever the ties between the Korean national spirit and the energy of the land on which they lived.” [Mason, 1999: 150]
In Bulgaria such a mountain is Stara Planina (literally ‘The Old Mountain’) - it runs through the whole country from the border between Bulgaria and Serbia in the eastward direction until it reaches the Black Sea Coast. It is also known as the Balkan mountain range and is situated in the heart of the country, dividing it in two almost equal parts – Northern Bulgaria and Southern Bulgaria. The mountain spreads from the Timok River to cape Emine on the Black sea and is 555 km long. In ancient times the Thracians and the Greek called the range Haemus after the name of the King Haemos of Thrace from Greek mythology. Slavic people called it Matorni Gori (‘Mother Mountains’), and the Turks called it Kodjabalkan (Large, Powerful Mountain), or Balkan. The mountain gives the name of the Balkan Peninsula.
The Stara Planina Mountain plays a significant role in our history and traditional beliefs - in medieval times it was a natural boundary of our state and also a home for freedom fighters in the whole history of Bulgaria. Bulgarian myth draws on the three mythologies of its ancestral cultures: Orphic, Slavic and Proto-Bulgarian. The Bulgarian folk narrative embraces all spheres of life, work, customs and beliefs, and contains traits of ancient heathen and Christian rites, images of supernatural creatures, legends of heroes (yunaks and haidouts), and epic events. The heroes were often historical figures, warrior leaders from the 13th and 14th centuries, who became overlaid with an earlier Bulgarian mythology. Voivodes (chieftains) such as Momchil, Marko (King Marko, also known as Marko Kralevity) and Doichin reflected human strengths and weaknesses on a grand scale. The tales are raw, exciting and poetic, and as powerful as any classical tragedy.
There have always been a variety of spiritual practices in the Korean mountains and most shamans are women. They perform rituals during which they go into a trance and contact the spirit world. These rituals, or kut, are performed in order to bring good fortune, abundant harvests, cure illnesses, and improve communication between spirits and humans. Shamanistic rituals and practices in Korea are several thousand years old; Daoism in this country is less well known. The first Korean Daoist organization appeared in 1967. Whereas China has many historical documents about Daoism and Daoist practices, only few such documents exist in Korea. Historical records of the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.E. – 668 C.E.) evidence that Daoism first came to Korea in 624 C.E. when the Chinese Emperor, Gaozu, sent Daoist priests to give practice instructions to King Yongryu. Records from the earlier Three Kingdoms era, however, show that Daoist cultivation practices existed before 624 C.E. Currently there is an active debate about whether Daoism existed in Korea before the importation of Chinese Daoism in 624. [Jung, 2000: 794]
Daoism is, nevertheless, a significant part of Korean culture and Daoist practices exist in the Korean mountains today. An example of Daoism in Korean culture can be seen through the concept of San-sin which means mountain spirit shown as a Daoist immortal.   Let’s begin with a brief description of this principal mountain deity – the worship of San-sin is usually conducted either at a ‘sansin-gak’, a Mountain God shrine (most often located within the grounds of a Buddhist temple), or at a ‘songhwang-dang’, a pile of stones set up at the top of a mountain pass. Mountain God in the sansin-gak is generally portrayed as an elderly man with a long white beard, comfortably seated beneath a pine tree. Beside San-sin lies a tiger, who is believed to be the god’s messenger, or sometimes the deity is mounted on the back of the animal. The picture may also contain one or more of the following components: a second tiger, a boy making tea or offering a peach to the god, a female spirit (conceived to be the god’s manura - wife).
Many paintings of Daoist immortals are found in Buddhist temple complexes in the mountains. Buddhists wanted to show respect for the local mountain spirit when they constructed their temples so they would enshrine him in a separate building in the complex. Giving recognition to the mountain spirit, Buddhist monks recognized the significance of Daoist immortals in Korean mountain culture, which helped them gain respect and support from the local people. Buddhist paintings, although not intentionally, have preserved an important part of ancient Korean Daoist culture. Mason said that each San-sin painting has its own style and atmosphere, “since they are all drawn by different craftsmen, whether they be active shamans, or secular, or Buddhist artists. They are a uniquely Korean form, although portrayed with Chinese artistic motifs.” [Mason, 1999: 97]
On these paintings often is depicted the great crater lake at the summit of Mt. Baektu - in the seminal foundation myth of Korea Dan’gun, the founder of the first Korean kingdom, is born atop this mount and after an unusually long reign, is transformed into the Mountain God San-sin. “Koreans associate the origin of their history with the great crater-lake mountain on their northern border Baektusan, or White Head Mountain.” [Cumings, 2005: 22] As Dan’gun is also described in this saga as the grandson of the Ruler of Heaven, the Mountain God is perceived to be an extraordinarily powerful spirit. Therefore San-sin is not simply the deity of a mountain, but a guise of the Father of the Korean nation. He is the god of all the mountains of Korea, and therefore serves in the role of a national guardian spirit, differing from the mountain spirits in adjacent areas of Asia.  The mythical Dan’gun is still an integral part of Korean culture - during times of crisis, Koreans turn to this divine master to restore their sense of identity.
Chai-shin Yu states that Korean Shamanistic Daoism is based on what he calls Dan’gun philosophy – “according to the legend, when Tangun…was 1908 years old, he became a hermit in a mountaintop retreat, and there became the protector of Old Choson. Later in the state of Silla, the institution of the Hwarang adopted facets of Tangun Thought, worshipped nature with song and dance, and made sacrifice to the mountain spirits in memory of Tangun.” [Chai-shin, 2010: 2] The national identity with Dan’gun and Daoism is also evident in the South Korean flag.  Designed and created in 1882, readopted in 1948 and 1984, the flag is white with a ‘yin-yang’  symbol in the center. The Yi-Jing trigrams  for Heaven (or Sky), Earth, Fire, and Water are located in the corners.
The heart of Korean Daoism is not just the figure, represented on the flag, but embraces actual practices that can be found in the mountains and urbanized places. Sundo is the main form of Daoist yoga in South Korea today; other practices have evolved from it and are known by different names. Sundo focuses on dan-tian cultivation . During the Confucian dominated Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), Sundo, along with Buddhist and Shamanistic practices, retreated to the mountains. It remained a practice only for mountain dwellers until the late 1960’s when it began to reappear in cities and towns. Breathing techniques, postures, meditations, and visualizations are central to Korean Daoist practices. Their underlying principle is that in the macrocosm of nature, humans form and exist between heaven and earth - the inner energy and structure of a human follows the structure of the macrocosm. 
The contemporary worship of San-sin is oriented towards obtaining blessings of two types: birth of a male heir and protection during travel; health, wealth, or a success in examinations may also be sought. Anyone who goes hunting, gathering food and herbs, or mining on a mountain should make offerings to the Mountain God, who is perceived as its master and owner of everything on or under it. Women without sons go to peculiarly shaped rocks deep in the forest to pray to San-sin to bless them with a boy child. In Bulgaria there is also a belief that childless, sick, lame people can be healed after visiting certain monasteries, holy places like the so called ‘Cross forest’, ‘Rupite’ and ancient stone shrines in Phodopi Mountain.
South Korea’s emergence into the modern world is often referred to as the ‘miracle on the Han’, a reference to the Han River which runs through the center of Seoul. Miracle on the Han primarily pertains to the economic success of a country that lay in ruins in 1953 when the Korean War armistice was signed. But there are other miracles and treasures here in this glistening peninsula. The Korean researcher, Bruce Cumings, posits: “The Korean mind-heart is attuned to the spirits that inhabit the nature of all things. (...) This is the human mind connected to the viscera and the body in touch with its natural environment...” [Cumings, 2005: 21-22]. When climbing to the top of a mountain, you become closer to heaven and more in touch with the spirit and energy of the cosmos. Other sacred mountains with shrines are Taebaek-san (the Grand White Mountain), Myohyang-san (the sacred “Mysterious-Fragrance Mountain”), Gyeryong-san (the Rooster-Dragon Mountain), Geumgang-san (the Diamond Mountains), The Five Peaks (the Sacred Gyeongju Mountains and City - The Ancient Capital of Korea), etc.
It is impossible to understand the place which Bulgarian monasteries took in the nation’s consciousness without knowing more of the historic fate of the nation itself. Ever since they came into existence, monasteries in Bulgaria were something more than ecclesiastical formations for religious ecstasy and sheltering places for escaping from worldly life. Not simply a religion, but a whole culture was to be forged behind the monastery walls and this turned into a self confidence capable of preserving the national values in the course of five centuries of foreign rule. Monasteries are sanctuaries of enlightenment, temples of art and monuments of architecture, centers of people’s innermost hopes and aspirations, where the script and literature of the Bulgarians were created. Starting with the struggle to establish the Cyrillic alphabet, passing through their role as fortresses against the Byzantine oppressor, and ending with the tragic but valiant annals during the Ottoman rule, they left a chronicle of the greatest trials and triumphs Bulgaria had faced.
After the adoption of Christianity by the First Bulgarian Kingdom in the second half of the 9th century, the monasteries built near Pliska and Preslav - the earliest Bulgarian capitals – carried out, apart from their church-and-ritual functions, broad cultural, educational and economic activities.  In the period between the 9th and the 12th century the monasteries and the churches were centers which, during the Byzantine rule, managed to preserve the Bulgarian language, written culture, habits and national self-consciousness. During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (13th-14thcentury) the monastic communities in Bulgaria made good progress – the construction of monasteries grew in scope and they also acquired new churches, fortress towers, residential buildings etc, thanks to the donations from rulers and noblemen. The pictorial style in architecture reached new highs of perfection – it became an East-European analogue of the “burning Gothic style” of Western Europe. Striking examples of this are to be found in Nessebur, Nikopol, Lovech, Melnik etc. The monasteries near the royal city of Veliko Turnovo, supported by the Court, the Bulgarian Patriarchy, the clerical and administrative aristocracy, turned into centers of most significant cultural and artistic undertakings.
During the period of Ottoman domination (15th-19th century) and particularly of the National Revival (18th-19th century), the monastic communities acquired a key role in Bulgaria’s public life, since their spiritual efforts never ceased. Many monasteries were destroyed during the Ottoman invasion, but the others turned into important socio-political, educational and artistic centers as a field of expression of the reviving Bulgarian nation. Monastery schools were set up in many places which, like the one in the Rila Monastery, developed into big learning and cultural circles. The most educated people had studied there and later became teachers, clergymen, enlighteners. During the National Revival a hundred large and small monasteries were restructured, completed or erected anew as complete ensembles, in perfect blend with surrounding nature.
Monasteries like Preobrazhenie, Dragalevstsi, Bachkovo, Dryanovo, Troyan, Arapovo Monastery etc. treasured the sources of Bulgarian history, the images of Orthodox saints, commemorative inscriptions dedicated to Bulgarian rulers from the past. They are depositories of historical information, of artistic and language traditions. Many of the learned monks such as Paisyi Hylendarski, Sophronyi Vrachanski, Neophit Rilski, Yosiph Bradati and others played a key role in the National Revival – through their activities they called atmosphere of creativity and patriotic feelings among their community, which spread all over the enslaved country. Educated in the monastery study circles people took an active part in the revolutionary struggle for Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman oppressor – they fougth for the freedom of mind, nationality and religion.
The rock sanctuaries like Aladzha and Ivanovo Monasteries epitomize the search for the conceptual link making a reference to the Hesychast religious movement that occurred in the last years of the Byzantine existence and the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. The Hesychasts of those times believed that everything mortal was doomed to death but what had to be saved and what had to survive were the spirit and the Orthodox faith. On the eve of the Ottoman occupation of the Balkan Peninsula, the Hesychast movement of the 14th century returned to the pure faith of the first Christians as a reaction to safeguard the Balkan Orthodox identity. In the beginning of the 21st century the ancient Hesychast concept bearing the initial Christian ideas are more than necessary with their true faith, intact morale and genuine dedication of spirit.
The ancient spirit of the Bulgarian land, whose roots have been marked by the cultures of Thraceans, Romans, Slavs, Proto-Bulgarians, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks - a spirit combining the pagan and Christian traditions - is our heritage giving us inspiration and a sense of national identity. The Bulgarian monasteries preserve unique artistic proof of woodcarving, graphic arts and masterpieces of three main Schools of painting – in Tryavna, Bansko and Samokov. Having existed throughout the entire history of Bulgarian art as a fruit of popular imagination and Church canon, the creative vision and the Christian conception of the world gained unlimited possibilities of embodying personal images of donors, icons of Orthodox saints and all the artistic themes appropriate for the sacred abodes. The religious and artistic values of the Bulgarian monasteries are closely connected with the historical, cultural and spiritual development of our country; therefore they are so treasured and handed down from one generation to another.
The very end of the 20th century was a time of severe trial for the Bulgarian people and the Balkan peoples as a whole. Our belonging to the European Christian civilization both in geographical and cultural, as well as in historical aspect is certainly doubtless. Most threatening to the Bulgarian nation today are not the political failures, the economic instability, not even the demographic collapse, but the weakness and impersonality of spirit. In such times, each nation turns to the stronghold of its traditions and history where its hidden strength lies. It is to reach the roots of that strength and to draw invigorating spirit from the shell of the Bulgarian identity that this religious and cultural study was carried out, as the bridge from the past to the present.


1. Chai-shin, 2010: Chai-shin, Yu. Korean Thought and Culture: A New Introduction, 2010
2. Cumings, 2005: Cumings, B. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. Updated Edition N. Y., 2005
3. Grayson, J. Female Mountain Spirits in Korea: A Neglected Tradition Asian Folklore Studies (1996) 55
4. Mason, 1999: Mason, D. Spirit of The Mountains: Korea’s San-Shin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship. Seoul, 1999
5. Jung, Jae-seo, Livia Kohn (ed) “Daoism in Korea”. Daoism Handbook. Boston, 2000
6. http://www.bulgariamonasteries.com/nay-populyarni_manastiri_v_balgaria.html
7. http://www.san-shin.net/Sacred-Mtns-03.html