Thursday, November 20, 2014

Appreciating the Shamanistic Aspect of Korean Buddhism

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Yong Wang, the Dragon King, beside a small spring in a cave at Seong Am Sa, Gyeongsan.

Before coming to Korea, I'd read about Korea's active Shamanist tradition and was keen to try to immerse myself in it. I actually had little interest in Buddhism at all but was fascinated by global Shamanistic cultures. I even had fantasies about becoming one.

After a few months here, that interests dissipated. I began learning about Buddhism and became totally immersed. I spent most weekends traveling to mountain temples and slowly learning what I could manage to understand about it.

Initially, I sought out a few Shaman-related sites but felt no affinity for it. My first solo trip was to a shaman festival but the only thing I found interesting was a Javanese Gamelan performance. Learning about Buddhism felt like coming home, whereas Shamanism felt guarded and unwelcoming. As I learned more about contemporary Korean Shamans, they seemed more like business people and con-artists, charging thousands of dollars to perform ceremonies to expel negative energies from peoples lives. Eventually, it didn't interest me at all.

There are "authentic", traditional shamans who serve as mediums for ghosts and perform colourful, entranced dances, known as "g'ut", as part of their ceremony. I'm not sure how often exorcisms are still performed, but it was something a shaman would be solicited for. Intellectually, I still find these shamans extremely fascinating but on an intellectual level. As far as something to pursue, I had a strong inner sense that it was not for me to be involved with. Recently, though, through my continued understanding of Korean Buddhism, that old interest has been rekindled.

When Buddhism was first introduced to Korea, it succeeded by merging harmoniously with the Shamanistic spirit-worship that was present. This merge went both ways. In temples, especially mountain complexes, there is almost always one or more spirit shrine. The most common is for San Shin, the Mountain Spirit. Throughout my years of visiting temples, I often paid little attention to the Mountain Spirit shrines. I pretentiously believed it wasn't "real" Buddhism, a viewpoint I know regret, I usually ignored them. Occasionally, before a hike, I would enter a hall and do three bows out of respect. Mostly, I just enjoyed the Mountain Spirit imagery, especially when he was holding a ginseng root!

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Professor David Mason, an expert on Korean mountains and traditional spirits, posted an image of the Dragon King. I'd only heard once noticed coming across the Dragon king, and didn't realize that he was a prevalent character. Honestly, even in Buddhism, my interest was mostly limited to the historical Gotama Buddha and the Pali Suttas. The vast array of characters in temple paintings hadn't intrigued me. But something about David's post, the character of the painted image, fascinated me. I wanted to know more about him. I started getting up most mornings at 4:30 am so I could travel from one end of the province to the other searching for images of the Dragon King.

Aside from just his image (wouldn't he make a great superhero?), what really hit me, very deeply, was a reference I came across that broadened my understanding of Korea's ancient religion. Spirit worship was not merely about bowing and making offerings to an idol in a shrine as it seems to have been reduced to. It was to recognize the metaphorical Spirit that lives in the land, in the waters, that wisps through the air. To worship the Mountain Spirit or the Dragon King should be to take care of nature, to keep the balance in within it, to ensure that our way of life is sustainable.

It reminded me of the painful lack of this connection to the Earth that is now threatening existence. To think of how well this balance with nature was kept by spirit-worshiping cultures around the world makes me realize how advanced they were, how much they knew and understood. Despite our technology and complicated theories, we are certainly living in foolish times.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Saying goodbye to Fina's fish

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We woke up Easter morning with no plan for the day, a few ideas but nothing set. Looking out the window at the mountain, to judge the air quality, I noticed that one of Fina's little Siamese fighting fish, Vera, the female, wasn't breathing. And there was our plan for Easter, have Fina confront the death of something she loves for the first time, face to face.

She's had a vague concept of death since she two and we passed beetles in the mountain that had been tread upon. "Dead?" she ask each time we past one. She knows death is said, as I once obtusely blurted out that "I'm going to die" from the work schedule I had at the time. Fina totally lost herself and was inconsolable for nearly 30 minutes telling me not to die because she'd be so sad. Maybe since then, Disney animations have twisted her perception of death to believe that it somehow isn't final, that magic tear drops or a kiss from a prince can somehow reverse it. When I told her about her fish she asked, "Can't you make her feel better?" Not to contradict the Resurrection on Easter morning or anything, but I had to tell her it wasn't coming back.

Wondering what to do with it, Eunbong told me to flush it down the toilet. Scooping it out with a plastic spoon, I brought it over to the toilet but hesitated. It just didn't feel like the right thing to do... Then Fina came in frantic that I was going to flush her fish, tried to slam the toilet lid shut and inadvertently knocked the fish into the toilet bowl. No, no no! Don't flush it!" she pleaed, and I scooped it back up again.

Standing there, balancing the poor little thing in the spoon, I looked at Fina and asked, "Do you want to bring it to the little temple in the mountain and put it in the brook? We can pray to Jijang Bosal and Kwanseum Bosal to watch out for her." "Yes! Let's go right now! Let's go, et's go, let's go!"

Arriving at the temple, we went down to the tiny brook that trickles down the mountain and passes in front of the temple. I asked Fina if she wanted to put Vera into the water but she told me to. I emptied the bag of water I'd put in in into a small pool between some rocks and we put our hands together and chanted Gwanseum Bosal and Jijang Bosal, three times each. Fina cried a little and I told her that they would take care of her. "Can they make her better again?" "In a way, but not in that body. They'll show her where to go so she doesn't get lost." "Will they take her up in the sky?" "Umm, maybe for three or four days, then they'll take her to find a new body. Maybe another fish, or maybe a bird or a puppy..." Fina said, "I think she wants to have wings!" "Okay, then they can make her into a bird!" "Will I ever see her again?" "No, we're not going to see her again"

We then went into the temple together to bow and I asked her to "Buddha sit" with me. After a couple of minutes, I asked her what she was thinking about. "I can't stop thinking about my fish, Vera. I'm so sad." "That's okay. Just feel sad, then" She gently whimpered a little, then we got up to go. As we left the little hall amd headed up the mountain, I told the sad news about life. We all get old and we all die. "Really? But in Korea, some people don't get old and they don't die. And in Canada, too! Some people don't get old and they don't die." "Really? Wow! I never met anyone like them before! They're really amazing!" "Yes. They're really amazing." Maybe, it's best to leave it at that until another day...

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Danna (Giving)

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With Christmas on the way, I was curious what Buddha's teachings had to say about giving so I searched Access to Insight. He actually had a lot to say about giving and considered it one of the essential preliminary steps of practice. The merits of giving are beyond comprehension.

At the end of the Danna (Giving) Sutta, he explains:

"Just as it is not easy to take the measure of the great ocean as 'just this many buckets of water, just this many hundreds of buckets of water, just this many thousands of buckets of water, or just this many hundreds of thousands of buckets of water.' It is simply reckoned as a great mass of water, incalculable, immeasurable. In the same way, it is not easy to take the measure of the merit of a donation thus endowed with six factors as 'just this much a bonanza of merit, a bonanza of what is skillful — a nutriment of bliss, heavenly, resulting in bliss, leading to heaven — that leads to what is desirable, pleasing, charming, beneficial, pleasant.' It is simply reckoned as a great mass of merit, incalculable, immeasurable."

It's a short sutta that can easily be read in it's entirety here:
Dana Sutta: Giving" (AN 6.37), 
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013


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Mucalinda statue, below the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

In the weeks following Buddha's enlightenment, he sat in seven week-long meditation sessions, "sensitive to the bliss of release".

During the sixth week, a sudden, out-of-season storm cloud rose in the sky, bringing seven days of intense rain, wind, cold and darkness. At that time, Mucalinda, the mystical serpent king, ascended from his dwelling, coiled his great body around Buddha seven times and spread his massive hood over the Buddha, not to let the elements disrupt his meditative state.

Mucalinda thought to himself, "Don't let the Blessed One be disturbed by cold. Don't let the Blessed One be disturbed by heat. Don't let the Blessed One be disturbed by the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and creeping things."

When seven days past, Buddha emerged from his deep concentration. Mucalinda, seeing that the storm had passed uncoiled himself from around the Buddha and took the form of a young man. Placing his hands over his heart, he stood before Buddha giving homage. 

Acknowledging the significance of the event, Buddha exclaimed

"Blissful is solitude
for one who's content,
who has heard the Dhamma,
who sees.
Blissful is non-affliction
with regard for the world,
restraint for living beings.
Blissful is dispassion
with regard for the world,
the overcoming of sensuality.
But the subduing of the conceit "I am" —
That is truly
the ultimate bliss."

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Quoted text from 
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. 
Access to Insight 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Our Greatest Accomplishment

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In the known history of human existence, the Buddha's enlightenment, in my opinion, is our greatest accomplishment. The selfless pains and trials he passed through, without the aid of instruction or guidance, in relentless effort to understand the condition of suffering for all beings.

Through the round of many births I roamed without reward, without rest, seeking the house-builder. Painful is birth again & again. House-builder, you're seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole dismantled, immersed in dismantling, the mind has attained to the end of craving.
—Buddha Dhp 153-4

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bodhi Day (Enlightenment Day), December 8th

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Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

Today is the day, on the Gregorian calendar, that the Buddha's enlightenment is celebrated.

Thanks, An Upright Stone, for the reminder!

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. I discerned, as it was actually present, that 'This is stress... This is the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress... These are fermentations... This is the origination of fermentations... This is the cessation of fermentations... This is the way leading to the cessation of fermentations.' My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, 'Released.' I discerned that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world."

-from Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka (MN 36)
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. 
Access to Insight.

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