If you’ve been to a Buddhist temple in Korea before, you might‘ve noticed a little shrine to the back of the temple that’s home to the image of a bearded old man with an odd-looking tiger laying at his feet. This wise and aged being is not some kind of Buddha or Bodhisattva, but rather the San-shin (산신), or Korean Mountain Spirit. He is a key deity in indigenous Korean Shamanism (무교) and he happens to be one of my favorite figures in Korean mythology.
Mountain worship (and shamanism in general) is an ancient practice in Korea and dates back for millennia. It’s still possible to discover individual shrines to the local Mountain God in remote villages and mountain valleys. However, most San-shin shrines are found on the grounds of Buddhist Temples (not in the least because most Korean Buddhist temples are in the mountains). As Buddhism rose to prominence on the peninsula, it synergized with the local folk religion and absorbed a lot of shamanistic rituals and deities into its practice. Local spirits and deities are given their due respect in Buddhist temples as spiritual landlords while the temple residents go about their business of spreading the Dharma and working to alleviate human suffering.
However for the man-shin (만신, lit. “10,000 spirits”), or Korean shamans, San-shin worship is more serious business. The Mountain Spirit is an important figure in the diverse and seemingly endless pantheon of Korean Shamanism, along with the Dragon King (용왕), the Big Dipper (칠성) and the mysterious figure of the Lonely Saint (독성). The San-shin of particular mountains are potentially powerful allies who the man-shin can call upon for aid when performing a “gut,” (굿) or ritual, and entering a trance to engage the world of the spirits. It is not unheard of for a man-shin to spend months or even years on a mountain retreat in order to gain the patronage of a particularly potent San-shin!
That said, the figure of the San-shin transcends any one religion in Korea and holds an important place in the local collective unconscious. In Korean myths and legends the Mountain God appears frequently in dreams usually to bestow wisdom, medicinal plants of magical gifts upon seekers. And in these modern times, urban Koreans of all faiths still flock to the mountains on the weekends in part to recharge their “ki” (기), known as “chi” in the west, from the power of the mountains. In fact the habit of Korean hikers to stack rocks on each other for good luck is a hold over from more ancient pagan traditions, not unlike tossing a penny in a wishing well in the West.
So the next time you’re poking around a Buddhist Temple here in Korea, don’t forget to duck around back and say “hi” to the local Mountain Spirit before you go. He might just drop into your dreams bearing ginseng sometime; you never know. And if you’d like to read more on the Korean San-shin, Kyung Hee University professor David Mason has written extensively about the subject both on his website as well as in his book, “Spirit of the Mountains.” If you’re curious to learn more about the beliefs and practices of Korean Shamanism in general, check out “Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea” by Alan Carter Covell or “Folk-religion: The Customs in Korea” by Choi Joon-sik.