Mudang spiritual experiences – The healing of Dr Chongho Kim by Sutra chanters
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Korean Shamanism – The Cultural Paradox – Dr Chongho Kim
…. it appears that sutra chanters ( gyeongjaengi, dokgyeong, gyeongmu, gyeonggaek, gyeongsa, chuksa, gyeongjang, gyeongmunjang, beopsa) exist widely in Korean society, although ordinary Koreans are less clear about the identity of these types of healer than they are regarding shamans or geomancers. The sutras used are Okchugyeong, Okgabgyeong, Chuksingyeong, and the like.
This tradition of healing has been rarely studied, and the only existing study I was able to find was that of Dr D-S. Suh (1992: 303-20, orig. 1968), in which he states that the gyeongmu (literally 'sutra shaman') are a variety of Korean shaman, and that the sutras are a result of syncretism between shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism. Although Suh's study is of great importance and rarity value, his statements are debatable.
First, I think that it is misleading to classify sutra chanters as shamans because they do not perform kut, Korean shamanic ritual. Also, …. the government does not classify them as shamans either. It seems to me that they originate more from Taoism and esoteric Buddhism than from shamanism. In fact, the sutras contain many Taoist and Buddhist gods and technical terms.
As I describe … when younger, I once suffered an illness which was interpreted as being caused by spirit-possession. At that time, my mother chose a sutra chanter rather than a shaman for my treatment - probably because sutra healing is less stigmatized than shamanism in Korean society, along with the fact that shamanic healing is much more expensive. Sutra chanters also worked in Soy during my 1995 fieldwork.
At that time, I was 19 years old and had just passed a university entrance examination. In those days, as today, university entrance was highly competitive, and Seoul National University in particular was extremely hard to get into. Before finishing high school, I applied for the university, but failed. I had to spend another year preparing for the examination - it was a horrible experience. There were over 100 000 young people who were in a similar situation to mine, and some of them even spent another three years preparing for the examination after graduating from high school. They were so depressed that I heard of many cases of suicide.
Borrowing from Hamlet's famous soliloquy (To be or not to be. That is the question'), there was a common joke saying, 'To get into a university or not to be. That is the question.'
The situation was known as 'The Hell of Entrance Examination' (ipsijiok), and it still exists.
Fortunately, I passed the examination at the second attempt. Both I myself and my family were overjoyed. My mother, in particular, was very proud, because I was the first one, not only in my kin group but also in my hometown, to get into Seoul National University. She threw a big party for her neighbours at home, and my father took me to my ancestors' tombs, where we made offerings – it was a custom to report to the ancestors when a descendant achieved a big success.
The incident in question occurred the day after the offerings.
According to my mother, I behaved quite strangely that morning. I left the house immediately after waking up, while she was cooking in the kitchen. 'Where are you going?' she asked.
'Fishing,' I replied simply.
To start with, my mother thought that I was joking, so she joked in return. 'Going fishing? How many fish are you going to catch?'
'I'll have to catch lots of fish today, because I have my family to feed,' I answered. At that point, she realized that something was wrong with me. My voice sounded different from usual. Also, my appearance was somewhat bizarre. I had a towel wrapped around my head and one leg of my trousers was rolled up halfway. I looked like a Korean fisherman!
She tried to prevent me from going out by holding my hand, but in vain. So she used a trick. 'Hey, mister! You haven't had breakfast yet. No matter how much you have to hurry, you can't work if your stomach is empty. Come back and wait inside until I finish cooking.'
I followed her and lay down on the floor of my room. While I waited, she called in a medical doctor - one of my father's friends – who lived nearby. However, I refused to allow him to examine me with a stethoscope, and shouted at him, 'Get away, you bastard! I'm going to kill you if you touch my body.'
I resisted so strongly that he abandoned the attempt and advised my mother, 'He has probably been quite nervous because of the entrance examination. Let him take a rest.' After giving my mother some tranquillizers for me, he left. But my mother could not calm down. As I trembled and broke into a cold sweat with chills and fever (hanyeol), she wondered whether I had been caught by a ghost illness (kwisin byong).
This was not an unusual reaction.
The literature reports that other Koreans have regarded these symptoms as typical of ghost illness (for example, Ryu, 1993 144; T-S. Suh, 1992: 77). In addition, I refused any medications including the tranquillizer the medical doctor had given. This was also regarded as a symptom of ghost illness. As far as I know, almost all cases of so-called ghost illness show resistance to medical treatment (Harvey, 1979:55; Yoon and Lee, 1987:69). As a result, my mother was in a hurry to find a trusted healer who could cure me.
Because her experience of ritual healing was very limited, she consulted many of her relatives and neighbours on the telephone and was able to contact a sutra chanter (doggyeong in my mother's words) who lived about 10 km away from my place. That evening, the male Taoist healer came over to our home and began to work.
Laying out a small number of offerings and a bowl of water, he beat a drum and chanted a sutra all night beside me. My mother said that I was quiet during the ritual and did not refuse the healer, unlike when I was being treated by the medical doctor. The healer finished his work at dawn and returned to his home.
After the ritual I recovered completely and was able to continue my study. The only medication I had after the ritual was herbal medicines for two weeks, because my mother thought that I was weak due to the long period of preparation for the examination.
My mother was amazed by the result of the ritual healing, and also curious about the spirit which had possessed me. According to the healer, the spirit was one of my relatives who had died of drowning when fishing. But my mother had no idea about the spirit because as far as she knew none of my relatives had died of drowning. So she asked her eldest sister-in-law, and got an answer.
One of my ancestors, who was about to get married, lived near my grandfather's house and made a living from fishing. One morning he went fishing by boat, but did not come back. His parents thought that he had died of drowning, but they did not provide annual offerings to him, because they did not know the exact date of his death. Also, he had died before his marriage, so his life was incomplete.
In traditional Korea, marriage was extremely important and it was a sin to die before marriage. From the Korean cultural perspective, his spirit could be dangerous because he had not properly been sent off to That World (jeoseung), where the spirits are supposed to live. This had happened before my mother was married to my father and this was, she told me, why she did not know the man.
'Lights are usually followed by shadows, and a happy occasion will attract many evil spirits,' answered my mother when I asked for her explanation. 'We rejoiced over your success in the examination, so much that the spirit was probably jealous of our happiness. It seems to me that he attached to you when you were at the tombs. He might have a grudge against humans because he had had no offerings. You might not have recovered if you had been hospitalized.'
My mother was very happy with the outcome of her decision. In fact, it was quite an adventurous decision if one considers the situation of Korean society in 1973. So-called 'superstitious' healing practices, including shamanic healing, were highly dangerous at that time, when the modernization campaign was at its peak. This was one reason why my mother found it difficult to find a ritual healer.