Update from the trail: Dragon Gate Gorge
Sept 19, 2012
Traditions Expert Reveals Korean Buddhist Links to Mountain-spirits at Gap-sa Temple
by Tony MacGregor
Today we were visited by a leading expert on Korea’s religious traditions, mountain temples and folk-shamanism.
David A. Mason arrived on Tuesday night at Gyeryong-san Gap-sa Temple where we were staying as we make our way across the Korean Peninsula in a pilgrimage to honor Wonhyo, a 7th Century Buddhist monk who found enlightenment after his journey across the Peninsula. We are making a film of our pilgrimage and the conversations we have with monks in the mountain monasteries we visit.
David has been intimately involved in the pilgrimage, helping us select temples to stay at and giving us guidance in marking out a route. He took us – myself and fellow pilgrims Chris McCarthy, Snorre Kjeldsen and Jiyun Kim – on a climb up the mountain into the National Park beside a roaring stream to the Shinheung-am [Arising Spirit Hermitage].
It took us about an hour to reach the shrine and I stopped a couple of times and rested by small pools of bubbling, boiling, white foamy water and breathed deeply of the misty, oxygenated air. The previous day I had talked with an 80-year-old (Korean age) monk from the temple, Yunwol.
I had asked Yunwol how do you find a teacher. He said everything is your teacher. I thought of his words as I looked into the bubbling pool and listened to the sound of the water rushing over the rocks. It was a happy sound that spoke of rejuvenation and vigor.
What could the little stream teach me?
The shrine we visited was like nothing I had seen before. It featured a huge rock protruding from the side of a mountain in the rough form of a pagoda, named the Cheonjin-botap [Heaven-Truth Treasure-Pagoda]. Legend has it that Indian Emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC), the first great Buddhist emperor, gathered the sari (crystallized post-cremation remains) of the Buddha and had his men distribute the holy relics around his realm. He also held a ceremony in which he gave some sari to the Four Heavenly Kings [Sacheonwang], guardians of the four directions, asking them to distribute the holy relics further around the world.
The legend says that the Heavenly King of the East found Gyeryong-san to be the holiest mountain, and gave the sari to the local Sanshin [Mountain-spirit] who built this natural pagoda and enshrined the relic within it. There have been consistent reports that the rock lights up and shines with a kind of luminosity. One report, recorded in the Stars and Stripes, was by an American soldier who visited the area and saw the mystical light in 1964.
We climbed the rock, which provided a beautiful view of the surrounding mountain ranges. We also looked for a cave which local healers use to rejuvenate their healing powers but we couldn’t find it.
After opening an apple and placing it on an altar near the natural pagoda, David led us in brief ceremony of prostrations and chanting, which honored the Buddha and the relic that supposedly lies beneath the pagoda-shaped rock-tower.
In one of the hermitage shrines we found a painting of the Sanshin, depicted as an old man with a flowing beard in traditional Korean or Chinese garb. He was attended by two dongja or child attendants. They were offering him mushrooms and fruit symbolic of good health and longevity while by his side was a tiger (kind of the animals) and a pine tree (king of the plants). In his hand he held a white, crane-feather fan, which symbolized his control or influence over nature. A little further away from him was a waterfall, full of the shapes of dragons, a representation of powerful natural force that comes from water.
We took a different path down from the shrine, which didn’t provide such an intimate view of the stream but did have a spectacular waterfall that we photographed. A temple meal of rice, bean sprouts, egg plant, tofu and assorted plant side dishes was provided for lunch. Then we saw David off at a bus station so that he could make his way back to Seoul, while we made our way to the next temple, Magok-sa.