Sunday, September 13, 2015

Korea's Native Faiths, Native Gods

Koreans have traditionally followed Buddhism and Confucianism as their two main religions. However, in addition to these two traditions, there have existed a variety of faiths and gods whom Koreans have worshiped and enshrined. The goal of this excursion was to introduce some of Korea’s unique gods and indigenous faiths in our modern-day urban surroundings.

Around the heart of Seoul, Jun YK Shin led a five-hour walking tour called "Korea's Native Faiths, Native Gods". The tour comprised a peppy walk through the downtown area and commentary on many of the large icons that are readily visible but steeped in shamanic, Confucian, Buddhist and old traditional beliefs. Included in the tour were:

  • Imperial Temple and Altar of Heaven (Hwangudan 환구단) - The tour began here for a better understanding of cheonwonjibang (천원지방, heaven is round and earth is square) and the imperial meaning attributed to the architecture of this octagonal shaped building.
  • Kwangtong Bridge (광통교) - Located above the  Cheonggye stream (청계천), this first stone bridge was rebuilt from leftover stones of a folding screen from the original Jeongneung royal tomb (정릉). The bridge is meters from its original location ... ah, the politics!
  • Bosingak Pavilion (보신각) - the center of the god of five directions
  • a shamanistic shrine
  • a protective old tree in Insa-dong
  • Jogye Temple (조계사) - Located in central Seoul is this chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
  • the National Folk Museum of Korea (국립민속박물관) - In the surroundings gardens of the museum are a variety of objects imbued with Korean folk beliefs such as sotdae (솟대), jangseung (장승), stone piles (돌탑), and stone sculptures of sexual organs, all of which were frequently found in and around traditional villages in the past. The gardens also hold a memorial gate and stone from Buan county which demarks filial piety (효자문/효자각), statues of civil officials (muinseok), a stone tablet, an epitaph discovered near tombs, as well as a tomb replica.
  • Sajikdan (사직단) and its gate - Sajikdan consists of two altars constructed during the Joseon dynasty respectively for offering sacrifices to sa (사, god of land) and jik (직, god of grains). 
Sacrifices were made on these two side-by-side altars during the Joseon. When the capital was moved to Hanyang (present-day Seoul), King Taejo erected Jongmyo to the east of Gyeongbokgung and Sajikdan to the west in 1395. Sajikdan is surrounded by two sets of walls installed with Hongsalmun and Sadan located in the east while Jikdan is located in the west. According to the principle of cheonwonjibang (heaven is round and earth is square), Sadan and Jikdan are square (each side 7.65M long and 1m high). During the Joseon, the grounds also included Sajikseo, an office to take charge of Sajikdan, and annexes for making sacrifices in. After the sacrifices at Sajikdan were abolished in 1911, however, only Sadan and Jikdan were preserved, and the surrounding grounds were turned into a park, unlike its previous secluded and quiet precincts reserved only for sacred services. Other cities also had their sajikdan, but the Sajikdan here in Seoul was the largest. Not only kings but also local governors made sacrifices at sajikdan, which depicts a traditional agricultural society very attentive to the gods of lands and grains. Together with Jongmyo, Sajikdan is a place which symbolizes the orthodoxy of the Joseon.
  • Tangun Shrine (단군성전) - Tangun, Korea's ancient founding-king, who according to folk tradition is said to have founded the ancient Go-Joseon kingdom, is the celebrated figurehead on National Foundation Day, known in Korean as Gaecheon-jeol, "Opening of Heaven Day". The holiday commemorates the mythical Tangun, half-god half-human and grandson of the Lord of Heaven, for founding the ancestral kingdom of Korea 4348 years ago. As written in a booklet for the occasion:
Tangun Wanggeom, who founded Gojoseon, the first kingdom of Korea, is the precursor of our nation. According to "Samguk Yusa" (the historic chronology of the Three Kingdoms written by the venerable Ilyeon), the legend goes as follows: 
A long, long time ago, Hwanin, the Lord of Heaven, had a son Hwanung, who yearned to live on earth and rule the human world. After reading his son's intent, Hwanin looked down at earth and found that the Samwi-Taebaek mountain region looked advantageous to the human beings. So, Hwanin gave Hwanung three Cheonbuin (heavenly seals) and 3,000 heavenly followers and had them descend onto the human world. Hwanun descended onto sindansu (god altar tree) at the ridge of Taebaek Mountain and called the place Sinsi (City of God). Along with his ministers of clouds, rain and wind, he took charge of governing 360 affairs related to human beings such as grains, human life, diseases, punishment, good and evil, etc.) 
At the time, a tiger and a bear who lived together in a cave prayed to Hwanung that they may become human. Upon hearing their prayers, Hwahung gave them 20 cloves of garlic and bundle of mugwort, ordering them to eat only this sacred food and remain out of the sunlight for 100 days. The tiger was restless and couldn't bear to remain in the cave for so long to become a human. However, the bear followed the rules eating only the food allowed and so was transformed into a woman in three weeks (21 days). With no one to marry, the bear-woman, Ungneyo, prayed beneath sindansu to be blessed with a child. Hwanung, moved by her prayer, turned into a man for a while and took her as his wife. She gave birth to a son, who was named Tangun Wanggeom. He grew up and established Gojoseon, selecting Asadal as its capital. Established in 2,333 BC. Gojoseon lasted for about 2,200 years, developing its unique culture represented by mandolin-shaped daggers, dolmen, comb-pattern earthenware, etc.
Tangun's shrine is located near Sajikdan and Hwanghakjeong and just minutes walk from Gyeongbukgung, the first palace and ancestral administrative ground for the Joseon dynasty. Seems rather correct to cherish the founder of Go-Joseon near the palace ground of the modern Joseon.
Tangun founded the ancient Go-Joseon kingdom in Pyeongyang and later moved the capital to Asadal, where he ruled over his tribal land for 1,500 years when he reached the age of 1908. He then became a mountain spirit.
This temple enshrines Tangun, founder of the Korean nation. Placed in the shrine are a portrait of Tangun, painted by Hong Sokchang (115cm x 170cm) and officially sanctioned by the Korean government, and a statue of Tangun also approved by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. All visitors are invited to pay tribute to this memorial of the national founder without distinction of religion. 
Thanks to the donation of Mrs. Sook-bong Lee, Tangun Shrine (Bab-ak Jun) was built by the sisters Jung-bong, Sook-bong and Hui-soo Lee as the first public institution for a Tangun shrine and transferred to Hyunjung Foundation 1968 (4301st year of Tangun era) and designated by the Seoul municipality as cultural property for official preservation 1973 (4306th year of Tangun era). Thanks to the contribution of Sukwon Kim, then-Chairman of Ssangyong group, the Shrine was reconstructed by Hyunjung Foundation 1990. The Tangun Shrine with a floor space of 52.92 square meter stands on the 800 square meter precincts. Its front gate is named Naewoesam-mun, and other gate is Taegukjong-mun. The inscription on the tablet was written by Kim Ung-hyon, Won Joong-shik, Son Kyung-shik and Lee Hyun-jong, respectively. It reads "Tangun Shrine Benefits Mankind Far and Wide". 

Jun Y.K. SHIN is a life member of the RASKB and sits on its council. Furthermore, he leads RAS – Business & Culture Club meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month.

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