Monday, October 5, 2015

Sage "Go-un" Choi Chi-won

Professor David Mason was one of many who presented in the inaugural conference for R.I.S.E. (Research Institute for Spiritual Environments), a Korean research institute that will study in order to preserve religious sites (combining conservation and religious as I understand it) on October 4, 2015. At the time, David Mason's latest book on Choi Chi-won was in the final works of being completed, and so this presentation was a taste of what was in his book, which by the way was presented in its near-final manuscript form to all attendees of the conference. Solitary Sage: The Profound Life, Wisdom and Legacy of Korea's "Go-un" Choi Chi-won. 

The picture used on David Mason's book is borrowed from a portrait of "Go-un" in the Seonbo Bakmul-gwan
[Monastic Treasures Museum]. Here Go-un is depicted in Daoist posture with Daoist iconography.

Sage "Go-Un" Choi Chi-won and His Related Spiritual Environments

"Go-un" Choi Chi-won (857-10th century) was a noted Korean Confucian official, philosopher, poet, scholar, writer and spiritual sage of the end of the Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935). He remains one of the world's favorite figures of all Korea's cultural history, displaying so many virtues and talents, and symbolizing many key themes. He exemplifies the spirit of the Silla Kingdom's waning days, and the incipient harmony among Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. He remains to us today as one of Korea's most interesting and iconic historical figures. He can be considered a sort of hero of traditional Korean culture, particularly its Daoist traditions known by such native terms as Seondo or "Immortal Way" and the Sinseon-sasang or "Spirit-Immortals' Ideology". Following a remarkably successful career as a brilliant Confucian government official in Tang China and then back in his native Gyeongju, Choi Chi-won is considered to be one of four Koreans who achieved the highest level of Daoist sage-hood during the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla eras. He is held by popular opinion and old folktales to have achieved sinseon status at the peak of Mt. Gayasan rather than dying as a normal human, and therefore during the 20th century recountings of Korea's cultural history the dates of his life have generally been written as (857-???) to indicate that we just don't know any certain facts about the date or circumstances of his death.

He was a brilliant student and then scholar who studied for six years in the Tang Chinese capital, passed the Tang imperial examination, and rose to high office there before returning to Silla, where he made ultimately futile attempts to reform the governmental apparatus of a declining royal government there. He is recognized today as the progenitor of the Gyeongju Choi clan, which has produced many illustrious figures in the 1100 years after him.

Korea's great Confucian-Daoist, the "Lone Cloud" Sage-Hero and his life, achievements and legacy
(more information about Choi Chi-won on David Mason's web site)
There are many sites all around South Korean that claim association with him, asserting that he was present there at some point and perhaps accomplished some spiritual feat. He is known to have left Chinese characters in his calligraphy carved on rocks and cliffs in various places, and to have authored the inscriptions on at least four surviving biseok stone steles at temples in the mountains (in detail later). Records about his actual biography and accomplishments more than 1000 years ago are only fragmentary however, found in various documents surviving from both China and Korea, and in some cases appear to contradict each other. It has been difficult for scholars to separate the folklore myths and legends about his life from the solid facts, and make a coherent story out of them.

Choi Chi-won was born in 857 in the Saryang District (now Inwang-dong) on the northern-most slope of highly sacred Namsan in the Unified Silla Dynasty's capital Gyeongju, near the end of that fabled kingdom. The noble Gyeongju Choe family, now a clan of many hundreds of thousands, considers him to be their effective progenitor, although it existed for centuries before him (in the lower aristocratic caste of administrators called yukdupum ["sixth head-rank"].

One old tradition holds that in 856 Choi's mother prayed to the sanshin [mountain spirit] for his conception in a high valley now called Sangyeon-dae ["Above-lotus Platform"], reputed since ancient times to be a highly sacred site of strong energy conducive to spiritual disciplines, about 900m high on the southeast slope of Baegunsan ["White Clouds Mountain", summit 1279m a sector of the border of Hamyang-gun County with Jangsu-gun County, part of the Baekdu-daegan Range]. It is recorded that she was reward for her piety with a vision of Gwanse-eum-bosal [Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion] manifesting as sitting on a lotus-flower, hence the name. A sign now on that site says that in 924 Choi Chi-won himself built a Buddhist temple dedicated to that deity on the prayer-site to commemorate this auspicious event that led to his birth. That temple was soon expanded into one of the primary centers of the Silsang-seonjong ["Reality Zen Sect"], one of the Gusan-seonmun that was founded at nearby Jiri-san Silsang-sa Temple. It remained a potent site of religious discipline and purification for more than a millennium; it was destroyed by fire during the 1950-1953 Korean War, but was rebuilt immediately afterwards. It is now a small and charming practice-temple with a great view to the south, fully dedicated to Gwanse-eum-bosal, and still named Sangyeon-dae.

Choi Chi-won heard that his homeland Silla was declining into ruin (as was the Tang itself), and asked Emperor Xizong for permission to return home, which was granted by imperial edict in 885. He was received with great honor in Gyeongju by the court of King Heon-gang (reigning 875-886), and then he was appointed as a mid-level official in various palaces offices by King Jeonggang (reigning 886-887). However, as the Samguk Sagi states, he "had obtained much knowledge and skill through studying in Tang, and upon return he was going to act according to his own intentions, but the political situation had deteriorated; there were many who were suspicious and envious, and so he was not accepted. Leaving the Silla capital (we don't know if this was voluntary or not), he became the Chief Magistrate of Daesan-gun ["Grand Mountain County"].

Paintings and relics of Choi Chi-won in the Jeongeup County Museum, 2013 - Source
Daesan County was of Jeolla-do Province (currently, Jeong-eup, Taein-myeon and Chilbo-myeon districts of Jeongeup City in North Jeolla Province), and he ruled there for seven years (887-893); the Museong Seowon [Military-castle Neo-Confucian Academy] was built there to honor him 800 years later. During this period he may have visited at least 2 famous Buddhist temples and written historical inscriptions for stele monuments [biseok], as they are now dated as within the 887-890 period (discussed later). He is also credited with establishing a few pavilions and gardens in Jeongeup for scholars to discuss ethics, philosophy and government at inspired leisure.

One of those was the Yusang-dae garden where a bending stream of water would float a wine-glass, a design copied at the Gyeongju Namsan Poseok-jeong (where the Silla Dynasty tragically ended), modeled after the Yusang-goksu banquet-site in Nanjing, China (famously visited by ancient calligrapher Wang Cizi); this was washed away in a flood during the early Joseon era, and a pavilion named Gamun-jeong was built to mark the site. Another was the Pihyang-jeong Pavilion overlooking a "realm of the immortals" pond.

Choi transferred to serve as chief magistrate of Buseong County, currently Gunsan City on the northern coast of North Jeolla Province in 894. Gunsan still preserves the Okgu-Hyanggyo [Confucian school] that Choi started there, and the Yeon-eui-seowon that still enshrines him alongside national founding-king Dangun. However, he was quickly promoted to the Achan [sixth-degree bureaucratic rank] post of hajeongsa [emissary, envoy] in 894 by ruling Queen Jinseong (reigning 887-897), although his ambassadorial trip was aborted due to civil disorder.

Silla was by then in an advanced state of collapse, with the central monarchy greatly weakened by internecine struggle and refusal of the aristocracy to pay taxes, with power devolving into the hands of regional warlords who controlled the countryside outside the capital region with their own private armies. Upon his second triumphant return from Tang Choi did his Confucian best to save the kingdom from collapse by advocating needed reforms, writing the famous essay "Ten Points of Restoration" [시므십여조] and presenting it to the Queen Jinseong in 895. However, the corruption of her court was too deeply entrenched, and while his excellent proposals were praised they ultimately were ignored.

Few definite records remain of Choi Chi-won's years after the failure of his reforms to be enacted after he proposed them in 895. Despairing that the necessary reformist measures could ever be implemented and becoming pessimistic towards the troubled times, he walked away from the capital with few possessions, abandoning his hard-won status.

Local legend of the northwestern sector of present-day Hadong-gun County of South Gyeongsang Province say that the very first place he went was the deep remote scenic gorge far above the Ssanggye-sa ["Twin-streams Monastery"] in Hwagye-dong Valley and east of Chilbul-sa Temple. This gorge within the highly sacred Jirisan ["Exquisite Wisdom Mountains"] is reputed to feature extraordinarily pure waters, and they say that Choi 'washed the corruption out of his ears' with the cleansing liquid, while standing on a boulder known as the Se-i-am ["Washing-ears Rock"]. He supposedly left his walking-staff stuck in the ground, and it took root and grew into the gigantic black hackberry tree still growing there above that rock (a registered natural cultural property). Due to this legend, that ravine is now known as the Daeseong-gyegok ["Great Sage Scenic Gorge"]. This story has been given some veracity by the fact that one of the primary physical relics linked to Choi still remains today at Ssanggye-sa (biseoks listed below), proving that he lived and that temple for at least some significant time during his wanderings [sic].

He spent his later years traveling throughout the southern third of the peninsula, occasionally working as a local official for a few years (or so various counties now claim). He visited many beautiful and sacred sites, and held philosophical discussions with their monastic residents, while also writing many excellent powers. His wanderings began just two years before the death of the other Great Sage of those times, Doseon-guksa, Buddhist Master of Pungsu-jiri [fengshui or geomancy], but there is no record that they ever met or corresponded.

Joseon Dynasty copies of Sage Go-un's writings and essays about him, now in the Jeongeup City History Museum. (source)
"He wandered in self-abandon. Below the mountain forests beside the sea, he built a platform-tower [dae] or pavilion [sa] and planted pine and bamboo around it. He used history books as his pillow, and composed poems aloud, inspired by the wind and moon." This refers to his residence on Busan City's Dongbaek-seom Island (now a peninsula), overlooking lovely Haeundae Beach (now Korea's most famous and popular recreational beach), and giving it that name by carving "Hae-un-dae" ["Sea-Clouds Platform"] onto a cliff-stone beneath his pavilion; the carving still exists, and is protected as a cultural asset. Busan has become so proud of this association that in the early 2000s the government erected a large bronze statue of Choi seated in a royal chair surrounded by samples of his poetry and essays engraved on rocks, with a large ceremonial plaza, on the peak of Dongbaek-seom's hill -- quite an expensive public development -- just in-between the prestigious Nuri-maru APEC Meeting Hall and the Westin Chosun Beach Hotel.

Just a few kilometers west of there is another of Busan's sites associated with Choi, a grassy hillock overlooking the busy modern port. They call this place Sinseon-dae ["Immortal Spirit's Platform"], and information signs there claim that Choi attained spiritual immortality on that hilltop and ascended to the heavens. No further background story to this is given, and as we will see, it contradicts the more famous Gaya-san legend told below.

The Samguk Sagi continues with a short listing of places he visited for extended stays: Namsan in Gyeongju (aka Geumo-san, at the front of which he had been born).

Bingsan ["Cold Mountain"] said to have been in Gangju (Strong Prefecture, now Yeongju City although it is now found well south of there in southern Uiseong-gun Couty; this could be a simple mistake). This was actually Bingsan-sa Temple, now a ruined site with only a Silla stone pagoda and a few building-foundations standing, now in the Binggye-gyegok County Park in Chunsan-myeong District of southern Uiseong-gun County, North Geyongsang Provicne. This area has Korea's largest concentration of punghyeol ["wind energy point", a concept of pungsujiri (geomancy], small caves from which streams of cold air flow, very refreshing in the summer heat of humid Korea. It is believed that Choi stayed at Bingsan-sa and enjoyed the punghyeol there. 
Cheongnyangsa Temple in Hapju (now Bonghwa-gun County just north of Andong City). This famous temple founded by Great Master Wonhyo (the largest temple he is credited with starting) is now in the center of the Mt. Cheongnyang-san Provincial Park. There is now a site named both "Goun-dae" and "Chiwon-dae" that overlooks the temple and its valley, on a long terrace between steep cliffs on Geumtap-bong Peak (646m), also known as Chiwon-bong Peak. The terrace is along a popular trailway designated as the "Old Wonhyo Path" in 2011, running from Cheongryang-sa past Chiwon-dae and Eungjin-jeon Hall (shrine for Goryeo queen Noguk) to the Ipseok Trailhead. The first site along the pathway is called "Eo-pung-dae" due to an old myth that an ancient Chinese Daoist Sage named Yeol Eo-gu came there by riding on the wind (pung) and was entranced by the beauty for one moon-cycle. Further along is the site now called Chiwon-dae or Goun-dae, with a shallow cave known as Goun-gul (Goun's cave). It is said that Choi enjoyed the beautiful views, played baduk, read books and wrote poems on this scenic site. Yet further along the pathway is a spring that Choi named Chongmyeong-su ["Intelligence/Understanding Water"] and loved to drink from, as he found that this water made his mind more alert and thinking deeper. Seonbi scholars and Buddhist monks used to visit here to drink this water before taking an examination or writing a new essay; Korean tourists still also do so. Just after the spring, getting near the Eungjin-jeon, is Punghyeol-dae, a hollow in the rocky cliff from which a cool wind blows. Choi is said to have enjoyed sitting here to cool off and enhance his vitality on hot days. 
Ssanggye-sa Temple on Mt. Jirisan, one of Korea's greatest historic monasteries of the Seon and Hwaeom traditions, the "capital" of Korea's Hanguk-chado green-tea traditions, thoroughly covered in my own webpages [sic]. And a retreat-villa in Happo-hyeon County (this site is down on the south coast in what is now Masan City).  
Choi also visited Goun-sa Temple south of Andong, which later took his pen name for its own. He is credited with designing the unique Ga-un-ru ["Floating Over Clouds"] bridge-hall pavilion, which was rebuilt in 1835 after a disastrous fire. The Gaun-ru stands seemingly precariously on thin poles straddling a small stream that runs through the temple grounds near its front, as if it were defying gravity, said to look like a man standing on long legs [sic].

Choi steadily devoted himself to learning, practicing and teaching "Seondo" Daoist techniques of longevity/immortality, including yogic meditations, herbal medicines and natural wisdom. The contemporary Jirisan Cheonghak-dong Samseong-gung claims that he learned and refined the Seondo-Daoist philosophy and practices on the site that is now their spectacular compound.

He enjoyed periods of residence at some of Korea's greatest Buddhist temples, "paying for his stay" by researching and composing their historical records. He is known to have studied, wrote about and practiced both the Seon [Chan, Zen] and Hwaeom [Huayan, Avatamsaka or Flower-Garland] Schools, and wrote biographies of both Chinese Hwaeom Master Fazang and his friend Korean Hwaeom Founder Uisang. In at least five cases he carved the resulting historical essays and hagiographies of famous Korean Buddhist masters of the 9th century (that have proved primary sources of accurate information on Silla Buddhism) as inscriptions on biseok [stone steles with turtle base and dragon cap], considered some of the greatest ancient Korean literary works (along with his piety) [sic]. Three of them are now designated as National Treasures. Choi's surviving biseok inscriptions, the so-called Sasan Bi-Myeong ["Four Mountain Steles"] are as follows (all in present-day South Korea):
  1. Ssanggye-sa Jingam-guksa Bi-myeong [Memorial Stele to National Master Jin-gam Hyeso of Ssanggye Temple, 887, in Hwangye Valley of Mt. Jirisan, Hadong-gun County, South Gyeongsang Province. National Treasure #47.
  2. Daesungbok-sa Bi-myeong [Stele of Daesungbok Temple, 885, Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province (incomplete, in museum).
  3. Nanghye-hwasang Bi-myeong [Memorial Stele to Outstanding Master Nanghye of Seongju Temple, 890, at Seongju-saji Temple-site, Boryeong-gun County, South Chungcheong Province. National Treasure #8.
  4. Bongam-sa Jijeung-daesa Bi-myeong [Memorial Stele to Great Master Jejeung of Bongam Temple, 924, Mungyeong City, North Gyeongsang Province. National Treasure #315.
The Choi Chi-won biseok monument at Mungyeong City's Bongam-sa Temple
read here for more information on the biseok
(picture source)
In his last years "Goun" Choi Chi-won lived near or in Mt. Gaya-san Haeinsa Temple, forming close ties with two eminent monks, Master Hyeongjun and his elder brother and fellow Master Jeonghyeon, both serving under the famous Hwaeom Sect Master and Abbot Huirang (Heuirang-daesa) and writing its history (It was closely associated with the victory of Taejo Wang Geon and establishment of the Goryeo Dynasty). Cheongyang-sa, a smaller temple on the steep slope facing Gaya-san on its south, claims that it was his residence.

The date of Choi Chi-won's death is unknown, although he was certainly still living as late as 924, the date of one of his surviving stele engravings; and he is thought to have still been alive when the Goryeo Dynasty formally succeeded Silla in 935 (he would have been 78 years old by then). Many people believe that he never actually died, but rather achieved sinseon ["spiritual immortality"] status at Hapcheon Gaya-san's summit in the 930s-940s; intuiting and saddened that Silla was at its end, he bid the others at the temple farewell and went of hiking. Days later monks went up to search for him, but they only found his straw sandals, hat and walking staff on the peak; they assumed that the had become a Daoist Immortal (sinseon) and either remained in spiritual existence on those crags or had ascended to Daoist Heaven.

Choi may have been traditionally enshrined in a seonang-dang guiding-spirit shrine, before Haeinsa's front gateway (This remains controversial there). Until just a few years ago it featured an unusual pairing of an mature black-haired man clad in traditional Confucian official clothing, but notably informal with untied and uncapped hair (sign of a scholar-official who has retired from office). No information or indication was given of his identity. There was a wall-painting to the right of this main icon depicting an elderly white-haired gentleman-sage hiking his way through the forest towards the high summit of a mountain. From these clues I believe these artworks to be depicting Choi Chi-won entering his achievement of sinseon status there, serving as a guardian-spirit for the temple.

It is important to note that the "attainment of sinseon status" can possibly mean many different things, according to different spiritual and folklore traditions. In the kind of popular usage common in the tales of Choi Chi-won, it is taken to mean that his physical body disappeared, and rather than dying he became some purely spiritual sort of being -- either ascending to the heavens or continuing to live in spiritual form in the alpine areas among the twisted pine trees and broken crags, and only other relatively enlightened persons can see or communicate with him.

In the two subsequent dynasties, Choi Chi-won was honored as highly as a non-royal Korean citizen could be. Around him a rich body of folklore, often attributing to him fantastic deeds accomplished with supernatural powers, was also created.

The eighth Goryeo monarch Hyeonjong (reigning 1009-1031) granted him the posthumous high noble title Munchang-hu [Cultural-Beauty Lord, Marquis of Bright Culture, or Lord of Beautiful Writing], and turned his birthplace and home on the northeastern corner of Gyeongju Namsan into a Confucian shrine named Sangseo-jang [House where a Writing was Presented, referring to the verses Choi was said to have sent to Wang Geon], featuring a royal stele named "Munchang-hu Choi Chiwon Sangseo-jang Yuho-bi", in 1023.

On the lower eastern slope of Gyeongju's western sacred mountain, Seondo-san, a noted Neo-Confucian scholar named Yi Jeong (1578-1607) established the Seo-ak Seowon ["West Peak Private Confuciain Academy] in 1651, which enshrines the three most accomplished personages of the Silla Kingdom who were not kings or monks - army general Kim Yu-shin, scholar Seol Cheong and Choi Chi-won.

This research has explored the historically-formed identity of the popular Korean Daoist master "Go-un" Choi Chi-won, one of the most interesting evocative 'heroes' of this nation's cultural history. He is a key figure in exploring Korea's national cultural identity, and continues to symbolically personify the noblest levels of Korean spirit, in a striking combination of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and nationalist patriotism. He remains as one of Korea's primary heroes of its traditional culture. The "Lone Cloud" may once have been an unfortunate lonely-feeling man, but today he enjoys so many friends and supporters -- all of those who benefit from his legacy and treasure its ancient Korean sinseon-sasang principles of health, patriotism to the nation and loyalty to its society, longevity, harmoniously living according to the principles of nature, and authentic spiritual wisdom [sic]. Many sacred sties associated with him are now utilizesd as attractive cultural tourists sites, but mainly for Koreans; however, the sites could be promoted for attraction of international visitors.

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