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Korean mystic shamanism

Category: Mystic groups and systems

 

The title of this entry is an attempt to give a name to the system in Korea that is the melding of Shamanism with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism

Just as Tibetan Buddhism is a melding of Buddhism with shamanism, the introduction of Buddhism into Korea created the same intermingling of ideas.  Shamanism was the indigenous religion. 

Where the Korean mystic system benefits, however, is by the addition of Confucianism and Taoism.

The Four pillars of wisdom

Although at the time of introduction of Confucianism, it was not without its opponents, Confucianism added a vital fourth 'pillar' to the four pillars of wisdom, a pillar which Tibetan Buddhism lacks.

The four pillars of any system of spirituality need:

  • Direct spiritual experience [people who are able to do this] – provided by Korean shamanism - People able to have direct contact with the spiritsBuddhism added new types of experience to those existing and new techniques
  • Teachers in how to have experiences and the spiritual path -  Buddhism and Korean shamanism - People able to teach and progress people along the spiritual path
  • Defenders of the faith - Confucianism – People able to defend the faith with laws, justice and even armies of defence against those who would destroy it
  • Metaphysicians and philosophers – Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism – People able to interpret the experiences and build a metaphysical and philosophical picture of the spirit world
America with its descent into materialism and rejection of religion
and spirituality also threatens this area

Tibetan Buddhism lacks any defenders of their faith, and this is why they are being systematically destroyed by the Chinese who are in effect at war with Tibet and taking over their country.  In contrast, the Korean system has [or at least had] defenders in Confucianism and its use by the state apparatus of kings and governors, lawyers, army, parliament and so on.  North Korea has, in some ways, become a buffer halting the encroachment of the Chinese and Russians into Korea, protecting the culture of S Korea.  The missiles in N Korea point in all directions.

Korea today showing its vulnerable position between Russia, Japan and China, all of which have become aggressive materialistic nations.

China

Since the Communists took over, China has posed a very significant threat to the spirituality of Korea.  The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (Chinese: 清除精神污染) was, and is, a campaign spearheaded by conservative factions within the Communist Party of China, whose aim is simply to stamp out anything remotely spiritual in their own or other countries.  China's is a materialistic culture - whether Communist or Capitalist.  If it cannot destroy Korea's spiritual heritage via direct interference, it appears to be doing so via Korea’s food supply and health.  The Bohai Sea (BS) and Yellow Sea (YS), are adjacent to the most urbanized and industrialized areas in China, themselves environmental disaster areas.  Two high concentration areas containing toxic metals exist in the central south YS and north of the Shandong Peninsula. They contain Hg, As, Cd, Ni, Pb, Zn, As and Cd, probably meaning the fish in the area are highly poisonous. [Ref PMID:  28336206].  As such although Korea is well armed, it appears that China, whether deliberately or not, is still a great threat to Korea.

American imperialism

The General Sherman, an American-owned armed merchant marine sidewheel schooner, attempted to open Korea to trade in 1866 [in much the same way they attempted to force Japan to do the same - bringing in, rather ironically, the age of Japanese Imperialism]. After being ordered to leave by the Korean officials, the American crewmen killed four Korean inhabitants, kidnapped a military officer and engaged in fighting. After two efforts to destroy the ship failed, she was finally set aflame by Korean fireships.  In response, the United States confronted Korea militarily in 1871, killing 243 Koreans in Ganghwa island before withdrawing. In 1882, Korea signed a treaty with the United States, ending centuries of 'isolationism' [protection of its heritage, traditions and culture].  It was the start of the decline of Korean culture and its spiritual heritage.  Materialism and the godless nature of all these aggressor nations is a major threat to Korea.  And to the world.

Myth and more myth

 

The Korean word mu (무) is thought to come from the same root as the Chinese wu (巫), defining a shaman-priest of either sex, and in some interpretations a god

And in this we have some fascinating parallels with the myth of Atlantis. 

According to myth and legend there was an island – a continent in fact that sunk beneath the waves.  The people that managed to escape from this catastrophic event fled to Korea, Japan, China and Siberia and became the shamans of these countries, descended from the ‘gods’.  

Korean Muism shares a great deal with Chinese Wuism, Japanese shamanic traditions, and with the Siberian, Mongolian, and Manchurian shamanic traditions.

The mu are mythically described as descendants of the "Heavenly King", and the "Holy Mother", with investiture often passed down through female lineage.  In other words their heritage is very similar to that of the Picts, who until around 500 AD were matrilineal.  Perhaps more than one continent with similar beliefs and practices, sank beneath the waves; there are at least three mentioned in myths – Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu.   It may also mean that all the Pacific islanders and practitioners of Kahuna - yet another shamanic movement with identical symbols and practices, may be a remnant of the lost continent of Mu.

 History in more detail

Muism , Mudang and P’ansu

Korean shamanism is known as Muism (Korean: 무교).  It is the ethnic religion of Korea and the Koreans, the oldest system and was the basic belief system of the people who inhabited the Korean peninsula before Korean culture was influenced by either China or Japan. 

 

White shamans – the Mudang - This system was matriarchal – the majority of shamans were women and, interestingly, still are women today.  They are generically called mudang, [any male shaman is called a paksu] and perform the normal Shaman’s duties – healing, weather control, psychopomp, and intermediary between the spirit world and that of the mundane world.  They use music and drumming as well as chanting and dance in order to enter trance states.  There is no use of drugs.

Although the term mudang is used generically, four distinct practitioners are differentiated.

  • Non Trance mediums - Two types do not go into trance, the widespread hereditary tan'gol of Korea's southern coast, and the shimbang on the southern island of Cheju.
  • Trance mediums [kangshinmu] – Two types of shaman go into a trance state – the actual  mudang and myongdu (together with cognates), and experience ‘the descent of the gods’.  They are possessed by a god or gods.  The god is called a Momjushin - the mudang's god
    • Mudang are found in central and northern Korea, and suffer an initial illness, known as shinbyong, interpreted as the call of spirits.
    • Myongdu are typically found further south and are possessed by the spirits of children [hobs], spirits who usually have some claim to kinship.

There appears to be no evidence from the records gathered by anthropologists, that the trance mediums go out of body.  Their Higher spirit does not leave their body to meet the gods, the gods descend and possess them temporarily and speak through them, much in the same way that D D Home was 'possessed' when he was in a trance state.  

Korean Shamanist Ritual - Symbols and Dramas of Transformation - Daniel Kister
In 1973, when South Korea's population was almost thirty-three million, the number of [mudang] registered in the Kyongshin Hoe, an organization of shamans and fortune tellers, is said to have been almost 49,000 (Harvey 1979:12); and in 1983, when the total population was almost forty million, the number registered in the same organization was approximately 43,000, or about one shaman for every one-thousand inhabitants (Guillemoz 1992b: 115-116).

 

Black shamans – P’ansu - Whilst the Mudang are ‘White’ shamans, The P’ansu are a type of male ‘Black’ shaman.  They do not use trance, nor do they get involved in ceremonies such as the Kut.  In the past they were nearly always blind, and their principal function was to heal the effects of demons - evil.  They visited client’s houses, reciting incantations and spells [called mu-gyong, a gyong is a magic spell] with the objective of expunging demons and thereby healing psychosomatic illness caused by hurt – either inflicted hurt or hurt perpetrated by the person themselves.  P’ansu were also capable of performing full scale exorcisms.  ‘Black shamans’ are nearly always men because the role is so dangerous.  Black shamans only ever work alone for this reason.
Given that the Black shaman is having to deal with evil spirits, it is inevitable that the pantheon with which he deals - the gods, are entirely different to those recognised by the Mudang.

Shamanism, music and the soul – Keith Howard

Shamans, of whichever type, are grouped together, and the largest organization today, until recently was known as the Korean Federation of Associations for victory over Communism and Respect of Beliefs (Taehan sunggong kyongshin yonhaphoe) .  The name reflected widespread persecution in the recent past and the fact that many of its members are refugees from what is now North Korean territory.  In the early 1980s, it claimed a membership of over 40,000 spread between 215 branches. The belief system has adapted to recent change, perhaps assisting its survival, and rituals now placate, for example, the spirits who arrive with white goods and who run the amazing internal combustion engine.

Korean Buddhism

 

Buddhism was originally introduced to Korea from Former Qin in 372, or about 800 years after the death of the historical Buddha.  At the time, the Korean peninsula was politically subdivided into three kingdoms:

  • Goguryeo in the north (which included territory currently in Russia and China),
  • Baekje in the southwest, and
  • Silla in the southeast.

Some Korean Buddhist monks traveled to China or India in order to study Buddhism in the late Three Kingdoms Period, especially in the 6th century. In 526, for example, the monk Gyeomik (謙益) from Baekje travelled via the southern sea route to India to learn Sanskrit and study Vinaya.

Respect for nature, and recognition of underlying ‘spirits’ is as much a part of Buddhism as it was of Shamanism, as such Buddhism blended in with Shamanism, adding richness. The mountains that were believed to be the residence of spirits in pre-Buddhist times became the sites of many Buddhist temples.

 

During the Goryeo period (918–1392), this merged ideology became the state ideology.  Goryeo (고려; 高麗; [ko.ɾjʌ];), also spelled as Koryŏ, was a Korean kingdom established in 918 by King Taejo. This kingdom later gave name to the modern exonym "Korea". It ruled most of the Korean Peninsula until it was removed by the founder of the Joseon in 1392.   Two of this period's most notable products are celadon pottery and the Tripitaka Koreana—the Buddhist canon (Tripiṭaka) carved onto more than 80,000 woodblocks and stored (and still remaining) at Haeinsa.

According to Wikipedia:

Korean Buddhism is distinguished from other forms of Buddhism by its attempt to resolve what it sees as inconsistencies in Mahayana Buddhism. Early Korean monks believed that the traditions they received from foreign countries were internally inconsistent. To address this, they developed a new holistic approach to Buddhism. This approach is characteristic of virtually all major Korean thinkers, and has resulted in a distinct variation of Buddhism, which is called Tongbulgyo ("interpenetrated Buddhism"), a form that sought to harmonize all disputes (a principle called hwajaeng 和諍) by Korean scholars. Korean Buddhist thinkers refined their predecessors' ideas into a distinct form.

As it now stands, Korean Buddhism consists mostly of the Seon lineage, primarily represented by the Jogye and Taego Orders. The Korean Seon has a strong relationship with other Mahayana traditions that bear the imprint of Chan teachings as well as the closely related Zen.

Confucianism

Punishment - Confucian style

General Yi Seonggye overthrew King Gongyang in 1392, establishing himself as Taejo of Joseon. The Joseon era lasted over five hundred years, and during this time Confucianism was introduced.  Its introduction was not without its traumas. 

Wikipedia
Only after Buddhist monks helped repel the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98) did the persecution of Buddhism and Buddhist practitioners stop. Buddhism in Korea remained subdued until the end of the Joseon period, when its position was strengthened somewhat by the colonial period, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. After World War II, the Seon school of Korean Buddhism once again gained acceptance.

Cheondoism

Confucianism is not a mystic or spiritual movement, however, Cheondoism originated from the Donghak ("Eastern Learning"), a Confucian movement that was founded by the Confucian scholar Choe Je-u and codified under Son Byeong-hui. Cheondoism is thus essentially Confucian in origin, but it incorporates elements of Korean mystic shamanism.  It began in the 19th century during the Joseon dynasty, as a reaction to Western encroachment, especially Christianity.

A scene on Dano day Hyewon pungsokdo

In the 1890s, the twilight years of the Joseon kingdom, American Presbyterians and Methodists arrived and gained significant influence; they led a demonisation of the traditional religion through the press, and even carried out campaigns of physical suppression of local cults.  As such the threat was real.  The Biblical religions in general do not fit well with eastern thought, being extremely political in their institutionalised form.  None of the mystic forms of the Biblical religions ever reached the east, principally because they were so heavily suppressed in the countries they were found.  If anything eastern thought provided a sustaining breath of life to all the struggling western mystic movements, as such there is not a little irony in the intrusion of missionaries into Korean culture.

The name Cheondoism, (Korean: Cheondogyo; hanja 天道教; hangul 천도교; ] literally means "Religion of the Heavenly Way".  There is an emphasis on the spiritual path and ‘Heaven’ as the ultimate principle of good and justice; as one improves their innate nature, one comes closer to ‘Heaven’.  Followers of Cheondoism work to create a paradise on earth through peace, moral virtue and Confucian propriety, while reforming society and overcoming old, outdated customs in Korean society.

In contrast, according to Wikipedia
Fundamentalist Protestant antagonism against Buddhism has increased in recent years. Acts of vandalism against Buddhist amenities and "regular praying for the destruction of all Buddhist temples" have all drawn attention to this persistent hostility against Buddhism from Korean Protestants.

 Songs and ceremonies

Kumgangsan_by_cheongseon

Muga

Muga are the songs of the mudang.  It is a generic term, and as a consequence covers a whole host of different sorts of song with different purposes.  There are for example:

  • Spells – weather spells, healing spells and so on.  I could find no evidence of the use of the death prayer in the mudang, probably because they are women.  A spell by definition has to be exactly right to work, and in this case the mudang learn them word for careful word
  • Rhymes and poems – the equivalent of nursery rhymes which are memorable songs that help children and adults learn and remember the universal symbol system.  From what we can see the symbols in use are those we have in the symbol section.  Some can be very long, and the story spun around each symbol can change as long as the meaning is brought out and made clear
  • Prayers – With the same meaning as in the west – a request or plea to the spirit realm for help.  The words here do not have to be exact, they are simply a means of giving the person a pre-formed request
  • Songs of praise and thanks – joyful appreciation of the world, and the gift of life, as well as thanks for the beauty of the creation
  • Chants – used by the mudang and monks to go into trance states.
    Most of the chants are learnt directly from a senior mudang, as the text cannot provide the rhythm or melody to be used, and the texts are often so effective, that if the senior mudang is not present some initiates go into a trance if they read it by themselves, which can be quite dangerous “after you have read half a page you become sleepy” [Sing Songnam].

Kim T’aegon
The muga are a comprehensive systematization, directly expressed in words, of all thinking of the mudang -from their view of the gods, their view of spirits and ghosts and of the afterlife, to their view of the origins of being; therefore, we may regard them as the Oral Scripture of Korean shamanism.

Kut

 

The gut or kut (굿) is the ritual performed by Korean shamans, involving music, dancing, various forms of offering, drumming, rhythmic movements, including the muga mentioned above.  Just as people in the Christian church have a Harvest festival with hymns, so do the Korean mudang, and with much the same added intention of strengthening the bond between the spiritual and the mundane world. 

There are any number of types of kut, for example, chaesu kut, chinoi kut, pyong kut, naerim-kut, dodang-kut,  ssitgim-kut and so on.  Kut are also performed through a number of ceremonial phases called gori.  One of the methods we have shown to be effective at promoting experience is enacting ritual and ceremony, as such Kut are also a method of promoting spiritual experience in the audience not just the shaman, this will then help any healing required.

Korean Shamanist Ritual - Symbols and Dramas of Transformation - Daniel Kister
The trustful "venturing forth" of the kut community to the gods in the belief that the gods venture forth to them in their risks and pain is something that takes place in the present world of everyday reality.
 - The Chejudo ritual playlet seeks the good health of children.
 - A Seoul Chaesu-kut, or Rite for Good Fortune, seeks family stability, health, and good fortune.
 - A Chejudo or East Coast village kut prays for abundance in farming, fishing, business enterprises, and childbearing.

During a Kut , the shaman wears a very colourful and extremely symbolic costume and normally speaks in a trance state; a shaman may also change her costume several times, depending on the spirit/god to be contacted and the purpose of that stage.  An explanation of the costume symbolism is provided in the observations.

Many elements of the Kut develop in a three-fold pattern (for example, dances repeated three times).  The Hindu concept of Creation, Maintenance and then Destruction – the three aspects of the Trimurti come into play here and in Korean belief are represented by the three aspects of Haneullim [the Ultimate Intelligence] - Hwanin, Hwanung, and Dangun.

Korean Shamanist Ritual - Symbols and Dramas of Transformation - Daniel Kister

The last quarter of this century has seen not only a growing scholarly interest in studying Korean kut, but a growing, if sometimes begrudging, governmental interest in preserving them as a part of the Korean cultural heritage.

 

Without, however an appreciation of the real-life religious drama to which kut give theatrical expression, the rites that scholars study and that the government seeks to preserve are nothing but lifeless museum specimens.
In a sense, the well-deserved recognition of various kut as "Intangible National Treasures" by the Korean Government may do just as much to destroy as to preserve the kut heritage. For such recognition honours the shell of the rites without the religious spirit that gives them life; it preserves the kut repertory as a gallery of folklore specimens to be studied and admired, not as living events to be celebrated.

 

Of awe, wonder and the sense of beauty

Korean Shamanist Ritual - Symbols and Dramas of Transformation - Daniel Kister

Korean founding myths, with their preoccupation with a vocabulary of brightness and whiteness, are said to imply an ancient Korean sense of beauty as the radiance of the God of Heaven shining in the world (Min 1994:20-22).

Shamans are not theologians, but the artistry that Korean mudang manifest in several rites suggests that they perceive the godhead and the revelation of the gods as not just wondrously strange, but at times beautiful.

The ancient mythic belief that the realm of the gods radiates life-nurturing harmony has been said to underlie the whole Korean Shamanist tradition (Kim I. 1987:57 ff.). In concrete form, it underlies much kut artistry. In accord with that line of Korean aesthetics that finds beauty in ordinary things, kut artistry transforms the everyday "worldly stuff' of nature, the home, birth, and an individual’s death into a world touched by the radiance of divine presence.

In the rite greeting the god in the Pyolshin-kut, the mudang transforms commonplace, down-to-earth means - paper flowers, the rhythmic beat of simple musical instruments, the natural setting at hand - into a harmonious sign that is both hierophanic and beautiful and that can stimulate the village community to maintain something of a god-centered harmony in daily life.

References

Books and Papers

  • Korean Shamanism – Muism – Dr Kim Tae-kon.  Dr Tae-kon was the Professor of Korean Literature and Director of the University Anthropology Museum at Kyung Hee University.  He was also President of the International Shamanism Association.  The book is in English and translated by a bi-lingual Korean Dr Chang Soo-kyung.  The book is clear, extremely well researched, well ordered and explained, and has the enormous advantage that it was written by a Korean who had some sympathy with the culture and beliefs of the people he was writing about.  In my opinion the best of the books on this subject.
  • Korean Shamanist Ritual - Symbols and Dramas of Transformation - Daniel Kister.  A good complementary book to the above, having a more personal and humanistic look at the underlying motives and emotions underpinning the rituals.  Kister was one of the recipients of the award for excellence in shamanist research presented by the International Society for Shamanistic Research in 2004.  He taught literature and drama at Sogang University in Seoul and has the advantage that not only was he in the country he wrote about, but he appears to understand the nature of spirituality and its effect on people's lives.
  • Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox - Dr Chongho Kim  – First published in 2003, this is an excellent book, looking at Korean Shamanism from a completely different perspective – that of the users of their services as opposed to the practitioners.  Chongho Kim argues that it is the very contradictory position which shamanism has within Korean culture, which has, paradoxically, ensured its survival throughout Korean history. His is probably unique as a study in showing how materialistic, contemporary societies and the shamanic world simply cannot be reconciled.  As he says “Misfortune cannot be dealt with by medicine, misfortune manifests as illness and this is why people seek shamanic healing.  Medical practitioners work in the field of [physical] sickness, but shamans work in the field of misfortune.“
  • Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry – edited by Peter Lee.  A very comprehensive selection, and very enjoyable, we have selected only a very small number for illustrative purposes.
  • Bibliographie coreenne – by Maurice Courant. The Supplement a la bibliographie coreenne (jusqu’en 1899) published in 1901 is said to contain under no 3681 a book called Yoso onch’om, which is described as ‘Formules en langue vulgaire pour les sorciere’.  The book is in han’gul.
  • Choson sinhwa yon’gu by Hong Kimun – describes written records kept by the mudang called sinssok, which were magic texts/spells or chumun as well as magic pictures – pujak or pujok.
  • The Old Mudang - In the 12th century A.D., Yi, Kyubo, a famous scholar of the Koryo period (935-1392 A.D.), wrote a Chinese-style poem, No Mu P'yon (“The Old Mudang”), which contains material about the Mudang ritual, the properties used, and the audience of the time; however, there is no record of song or text, it being stated only that the Mudang sings a chant.
  • Mu-ga: The Ritual Songs of the Korean Mudangs - edited by Sok-Chae
  • Yi, Chong-yong 1983. "Divination in Korean Shamanist Thought."  Korean Folklore. Ed. The Korean National Commission for UNESCO.  Seoul: Sisa Yongosa.
  • Yun, Sun-yung 1983. "Magic, Science and Religion on Cheju Island." Korean Folklore. Ed. The Korean National Commission for UNESCO. Seoul: Sisa Yongosa.
  • Mar Pollut Bull. 2017 Jun 15;119(1):381-389. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.03.027. Epub 2017 Mar 20.  Toxic metal pollution in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea, China: distribution, controlling factors and potential risk.  Xiao C1, Jian H2, Chen L3, Liu C1, Gao H1, Zhang C1, Liang S4, Li Y5.
  • Collection of Contemporary Korean poetry in translation - a lovely website with a changing selection of poetry often of a very spiritual nature and very sensitively translated - follow the link.
  • Kim, Tae-gon 1966. Hwangch'on Muga Yon-gu (A Study of Mudang Chants for the Spirits of the Dead).  Also

    • , ed. 1971 and 1980. Hanguk Mugajip (Collected Mudang Songs) I and IV.
    • , ed.1981 . Hankuk Musok Yon-gu (Studies in Korean Shamanism)
    • 1983. Hankuk Mingan Shinag Yon-gu (Studies in  Korean Folk Beliefs)

 

The Word of the Wind by Mah Jonggi (1939-)

After all of us leave,
if my spirit passes by you,
don’t think even for a moment it is
the wind that sways the spring boughs.
Today I will plant a flower
on a corner of the shadow
where I got to know you;
when the flower grows to bloom,
all the distress that stemmed from our acquaintance
will turn into petals and fly away.

People

 

Information about the following people, also involved in the same system, can be found by following the links:

  • Master Naong (Hyegun, 1320-1376) - was a Korean poet, mystic and Buddhist monk, who, together with T'aego Pou (1301-1381) and Paegun Kyonghan (1299-1375), was regarded as one of the three prominent monks of the later Koryo period.
  • Seo Jeong-ju (May 18, 1915 – December 24, 2000)  - was a Korean poet and university professor, who wrote under the pen name Midang. He is widely considered as one of the best poets in twentieth-century Korean literature and was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in literature. His grandmother’s stories and his interest in Buddhism had a strong influence upon his writing.  His works have been translated into a number of languages, including English, French, Spanish, and German.
  •  Taejo of Joseon (27 October 1335 – 24 May 1408) - generally known in Korean mystic literature as General Yi Songgye, was the founder and the first king of the Joseon or Choson Dynasty of Korea, reigning from 1392 to 1398.  He was the first king to establish the fourth pillar in the Four Pillars of Wisdom
  • Hiah Park  - is a korean shaman (mudang) who specializes in the art of ritual dance. Since her initiation as a mudang in 1981, Park has traveled extensively, performing shamanic ritual dance, trance dance, and traditional korean dance throughout the United States, Europe, and Korea. She also conducts lectures and workshops dealing with spiritual healing and techniques of ecstasy. 
  • Kum-Hwa Kim - born in 1931, is a Korean mudang,  and also an educator and entertainer. Her performances and ceremonies included both healing and unusual feats of environmental control – such as knife blade walking in bare feet.

Observations

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