Interview: David Mason & the Korean Mountain Spirit

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Korean culture, shamanism, mountain spirit, david masonMeet David Mason, a resident of Korea for the last 27 years with a fascination for Korean mountain spirits. Local culture and history hold no secrets for the native of Michigan, who will gladly share his passion with you and tell us about living and working in the constantly evolving Republic of South Korea.

Korean culture, shamanism, mountain spirit, david masonMeet David Mason, a resident of Korea for the last 27 years with a fascination for Korean mountain spirits. Local culture and history hold no secrets for the native of Michigan, who will gladly share his passion with you and tell us about living and working in the constantly evolving Republic of South Korea.

Also see: Words of Wisdom from a Long Time Expat in Korea
David Mason about Teaching & Working in Korea

ME: China and oriental cultures picked your interest back in the 70′s when you were in high-school and since then you have made it your life’s quest to know all about it. How did it all start?

DM: I came over here with a backpack in 1981. China was closed back then, so I went around, in a circle around China then East-Asia and I stumble across Korea and it was really interesting. It was similar to China but different with its own flavour. It was unknown, there was very little in English about it. Its culture and history seemed quite unknown, with very little research compared to China and Japan which were studied to death. So it kind of drew me in, it intrigued me and when I first visited the great mountains of Korea with the Buddhist temples and shaman shrines, I was really fascinated. These places were astounding, beautiful, ancient and profound. I thought “wow, this deserves some investigation”. It never was a plan to stay, I thought I was just gonna stay a year or two, write some books and I would be gone to some other country, somehow it just never happened. So I first arrived in Korea July 1982 and spent a whole year here at that time, then China opened-up. They finally started giving-out visas and I jumped over there immediately. I was one of the first 1000 foreigners to get an individual travel visa into China.

David Mason, korean culture, korea expats, travel in koreaME: Most countries around the world used to have myths and stories around their mountains. What is it then that makes Korea’s mountains so special and unique?

DM: The idea of sacred mountains, holly mountains and a worship of some kind of mountain spirit is found worldwide. But it really is stronger in Korea, especially currently then in any other place anywhere, because Koreans really devoted themselves to their mountain spirits as a central part of their culture. It is linked up with Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as well as their own native Shamanism and was never really taken over by any of those. It remained kind of an independent spirit linked to all these religions and kind of linked them to each other. Koreans made a really elaborate culture of shrines. A few hundred years ago, artwork about the mountain spirits just reached a more elaborate level, more complexity in beauty, effort and money put into them than in any other country anywhere has ever done. That continues today remarkably. The government kind of tried to wipe it out during the 20th century, but it has really been bouncing back amazingly.

ME: In your opinion, what is it that is drawing contemporary Koreans towards the mountain spirit tradition and how can it flourish in a society striving towards modernity?

DM: Well, that is kind of a contradiction, the government and many Koreans are so proud of being modern and globalized and feel kind of insecure about that really, so they keep emphasizing it. A lot of people don’t want to talk about this and you ask many Koreans about mountain spirit and mountain worship and they will say “oh, we don’t do that anymore, it has disappeared”, which is flagrantly untrue. When you go in the mountains you find all these brand new shrines with bigger and bigger paintings and statues. It is really a flourishing religious thing, but they don’t want to talk about it. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism refuses to promote this. They act like it is some old superstition and shameful. But, on the other hand it is so much flourishing, Koreans are really into it. There are 10 thousand shrines all over the country and somebody is the customer, somebody is going there donating money. Some are very large and wealthy shrines that cost a whole lot of money.

Now why it is flourishing? National identity; Korean mountain spirits are really unique and indigenous, it is real Korea. So much of Korea’s religious culture is imported, first from China and then later Christianity mainly from America. But this is a really fundamentally Korean and just exemplifies every traditional value about Korea. It is related to the Dan-gun, the mythical first king of Korea, which is intimately related to the san-shin figure [mountain spirit]. There is a growing national pride in Korea, about Koreaness, Korea’s ancients roots and long unity as a nation. I think that is the really fundamental energy that continues to strengthen this.

travel in korea, expat korea, david mason, tourism koreaME: Visiting all these mountains and their shrines must have been quite an experience, especially at the time when Korea did not have as many foreigners. I am sure you must have many interesting stories to tell.

DM: Especially with what I do, which is going deep into the mountains and finding rather obscure places, I have been to some Buddhist hermitages way up in the mountains and in some cases I think I might have been the first foreigner. Often nuns, monks or hermits living in those places are very surprised to see me. Some are rather hostile and want me to go away, while some are very welcoming opening their door, inviting me in and we communicate the best that we can. Often, it is a Korean style kind of thing, what happens is that they just ignore me. They look at me, stare and then they just decide to go about their business as if I am not there.

This lovely chat with David Mason was an incredible introduction to the treasures of Korea hidden in the mountains. To know more about mountains spirits and Korean culture, pick-up a copy of David’s book,Spirit of the Mountains: Korea’s San-shin and Traditions of Mountain -Worship, and hike with the Baekdu-daegan Trail: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine, by Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch. David’s websites: www.san-shin.org and www.baekdu-daegan.com.

Pictures courtesy of David Mason



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