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Zen and the Mountain Spirit:
Veneration of the Ecosphere, Factors Beyond Mind
Teacher: Professor David A. Mason

Description: Korean Buddhism is more oriented towards Nature, ecological considerations, and natural-health practices than any other Buddhism in this world, due to a variety of historical factors. Many major temples were in cities and towns during the earlier eras, as in all other Asian nations, but a major effect of the official oppression of Buddhism during the Joseon Dynasty was to drive them totally out of urban areas and into the mountains surrounding cities, causing monks and believers to gather at the monasteries that had already been established deep in the greatest mountains. The result of this is that today most of Korea’s greatest traditional temples are found at its most beautiful and sacred mountains, many of them national and provincial parks, most desirable to live upon for aesthetic and health reasons.  
Out there, they absorbed a lot of folk-village traditions including veneration of the natural guardian deities. Also, Chinese Daoism was imported to Korea ever since the 600s, but never became established and as a national religion, which would be a rival; therefore Buddhism absorbed many of its ideas, practices and artworks into itself. A third factor is that the imported “foreign religion” of Buddhism was compelled to adopt belief in and veneration of many of the spirits that were very important to the nationalistic native population in order to be accepted by both the rulers and the populace. All this led by the Joseon Era to a unique factor within global Buddhism, altars or entire shrines, and appropriate veneration practices, for Folk-Shamanic-Daoist icons within almost all Korean Buddhist Temples (of the dominant Jogye & Taego Orders). These two lectures will explain the main five of these deities, or rational understanding of them, and the roles that they play for the monks and the laypeople.

Session One: June 3 / 7PM Eastern
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Sanshin the Mountain-spirit
Since Korea and Manchuria are almost entirely mountainous, the Sanshin (山神, 산신Mountain-spirit) has always been the foremost indigenous deity, and so many of the sacred mountains believed to be the residences of especially powerful spirits in pre‑Buddhist times became the sites of Buddhist temples. All those temples established shrines for Sanshin, called Sanshin-gak [山神閣, 산신각, Mountain-spirit Shrines], and performed daily rituals asking permission to live there, promising to protect the local ecology and respect the spirit in return; they also request health by natural means and protection from natural misfortunes. The name of every temple (usually 3 Hanja or Sino-Korean characters) is preceded by the name of its hosting mountain on the front-gate signboards, making the mountain a fundamental basis for the temple’s identity. Some sacred mountains became the “residence” of great Buddhist deities, and special sites of enlightenment, due to the power of their mighty Sanshin. There came to be a unique Korean tradition of artworks depicting the king or queen of the mountain. This Dharma-Talk will explain and show beautiful photos of all these factors.

Session Two: June 17 / 7PM Eastern
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Lonely Saint, Seven Stars, Dragon King and National Founder, Enshrined
Now that the Sanshin is thoroughly understood, we will explore four other Folk-Shamanic-Daoist deities that are uniquely enshrined and venerated in Korean Temples. These are the Dokseong, Chilseong, Yong-wang and Dan-gun Wanggeom. The identity and function of each will be explained, and how they are regarded by educated monks and the common laypeople. They used to have independent shrines, or just altars within the Main Dharma Hall, but in the past 50 years in larger temples different combinations of them have come to be enshrined in larger buildings called Samseong-gak [三聖閣, 삼성각, Three Saints Shrine], containing icons of three or more related spirits. This change has profound philosophical implications for how we regard the identity and function of Korean Buddhism, as well as physical and practical changes for the temples themselves. The shift from Sanshin-gak into Samseong-gak constitutes an important and interesting step in the historical development of these spirits’ identities, reflecting their place within the complex divine hierarchy of Korean religions and also the Cheon-Ji-In [天地人, Heaven-Earth-Humanity] philosophy at their ancient root. This Dharma-Talk will explain and show beautiful photos of all these factors.

All classes are recorded and posted within 48 hours. 

About the Teacher: David A. Mason recently retired as a Professor of Korean Cultural Tourism at Kyung Hee University and Sejong Universities in South Korea for 17 years, and is a longtime researcher on the deep religious characteristics of Korea's mountains. Prior to this, he served as a consultant for the national Ministry of Culture and Tourism for Korea for five years. Mason earned a Masters' Degree in the History of Korean Religions from Yonsei University in 1997, and was appointed the national Honorary Ambassador of the Baekdu-daegan Ranges in 2011. He has authored and edited ten books on Korean culture and tourism. He is now a tour-guide and public-speaker, based in Seoul. A native of the USA, he has been living in South Korea for 37 years now. He has proudly been an active member of the Royal Asiatic Society – Korea Branch for four decades.

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