A gorgeous representation of San shin from Songnimsa Temple in Daegu.
Hello Again Everyone!!
One of the most popular and well represented shaman deities at a Korean Buddhist temple is San shin, the Mountain Spirit. This article only acts as a mere introduction to San shin, if you want a more thorough introduction about San shin please check out either David Mason’s “Spirit of the Mountains,” (unfortunately out of print) or his personal website: san-shin.org. With all that being said, I still hope you’ll continue to read this article.
Mountain worship is found all throughout the North Asian people, which includes China, Japan, and Korea. According to these North Asian people, the reason that the mountain is such a venerated object is that it symbolizes a centre axis of the world; the place where Heaven and earth are believed to be connected. And with Korea’s landscape being occupied by over 70% of mountains, it’s no wonder that Koreans have historically worshipped mountains.
A look up at Chiseosan Mountain that towers above the famous Tongdosa Temple.
The way in which Koreans have historically (and currently) worship these mountains is through the shaman deity, San shin, which literally translates as “mountain spirit.” Historically, the townspeople prayed for good weather, bountiful crops, health, and good fortune. However, because each mountain in Korea is shaped differently, has different weather, flora, and fauna, this relationship has developed into a complex interaction between people and the mountain. San shin, and the mountain that it occupies, has long been known to be the main protector of neighbouring villages and towns. As a result, Korean kings and queens have funded elaborate ceremonies to San shin as symbols of legitimacy, as well as to gain favour. Interestingly, in Korean history, Tangun, the founder of the Korean nation, was thought to have been transformed into a San shin upon his “retirement.”
A healthy and virile looking San shin from Beopjusa Temple.
It is from this shaman origin and belief system, and the absorption and acceptance of everything religiously indigenous, that San shin soon became an indispensible part of Korean Buddhism. While shamanism has used him for protection against the elements and good fortune, Korean Buddhists have employed him more personally for good health and vitality. In fact, Buddhist monks regularly perform ceremonies called “San shin-je,” which is a kind of recognition for allowing the temple to take up residence on the mountain (which a large percentage of Buddhist temples do in Korea).
San shin in the company of three tigers. This is extremely rare and it’s at Dongrimsa Temple.
So what exactly does San shin look like? In Korea, there are literally thousands of different images of San shin; however, there are certain characteristics that all San shin possess. In general, San shin is depicted as a seated figure. He’s an old man with long flowing white hair and an equally flowing white beard. Yet, even though he’s old, he’s still strong and healthy. He’s situated in a pastoral setting that is perfect for meditation. He’s joined by a few attendants called “dongja.” The clothes that he wears are dependent on the Buddhist, Confucian, or Daoist ideals San shin is meant to convey; however, his clothing does denote a royal rank. Almost always, he possesses something in one or both of his hands like a fan or a walking stick which symbolize health, longevity, virility, scholastics, or spiritual attainment. One of the easiest ways to identify San shin is that he’s always accompanied by at least one tiger. The reason that the tiger is there is that it’s the king of the mountain animals and the enforcer of San shin. Occasionally, San shin will be joined by a female figure. Generally, this is believed to be another female San shin like at Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.
A male San shin with a female San shin from Magoksa Temple.
Historically, San shins were female, but with the Confucian influence during the Joseon Dynasty, San shin’s gender changed to be that of a male. Still, there are mountains in Korea like Jirisan and Cheonseongsan, where San shin is still depicted as predominantly female.
A female San shin from Nojeonam Hermitage.
So where can you find San shin at a Korean temple? Generally, the most common places you can find San shin is in one of three places. First, and much like other Korean shaman deities, you can find San shin in the shaman laden “Shinjung Daenghwa” guardian paintings inside the main hall of a temple or hermitage. These indigenous shaman deities inside this painting are protectors of the Buddha’s teachings. Usually, you can find the painted figure of San shin to the centre/right of the central Dongjin-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings) figure.
The guardian painting from Banyaam Hermitage. Below, and to the left of Dongjin-bosal, and across from Yongwang (The Dragon King) is San shin at the centre of the painting.
The two other common places that you can find San shin are in halls, usually to the rear of the main hall. Sometimes, San shin will be housed in a hall all by himself. If this is the case, the shrine will be called a “San shin-gak.” The “gak,” instead of a “jeon” hall that houses various Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, is a word that denotes a slightly lower ranking hall at a Korean temple. The exterior and interior of this hall will be adorned with various San shin figures as well as a fiercely painted tiger mural.
A uniquely painted white tiger from the exterior of the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Gyemyeongam Hermitage.
A haloed San shin fading on the exterior walls of the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Unmunsa Temple.
The second hall that San shin may be occupying is in a Samseong-gak shrine hall, which literally translates as “The Three Sages Shrine.” Accompanying San shin are the two other shaman deities that form the shaman “Holy Trinity”; namely, Dokseong (The Recluse) and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). Inside this hall San shin is situated on the far left upon the altar, while Chilseong is usually in the centre and Dokseong is on the far right. Both the interior and the exterior of this hall have various murals of these three shaman deities. Also, and of note, these two halls that house San shin are just as elaborate in design and decoration as any other hall that takes up residence at a Korean Buddhist temple.
The Samseong-gak shrine hall at Chukseoam Hermitage.
So the next time you’re looking for a little better health at a Korean temple, look for the white haired and bearded older looking gentleman or lady with shaman roots and a fierce looking tiger. San shin is pretty easy to find, because if there are no other shaman deities represented at a Korean Buddhist temple, you’re at least sure to find San shin.