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Mountain Worship and Contemporary Transformation in East/Central Asia

Panel Chair: James Grayson | Thursday, August 27, 9-11 a.m.

Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach, our panel examines social transformation in East/Central Asia through the medium of the divine, the legendary and the topographic. By examining the role of mountainous space in the ancestor cults of the Buryat, sacred architecture of Sanshin (Mountain Deities) shrines in Korean Buddhist temple complexes, popular mind-body practices in contemporary South Korea and the historical narratives underpinning North Korean charismatic politics, the papers seek to pinpoint and investigate the images of the mountains persisting within the collective imaginary. Considering the changes and continuities in spiritual and political geography within territories as diverse as Buryatia in Russia, Manchuria and both halves of the Korean peninsula, the panelists assess to what degree alterations in the praxis of such mountain worship represent, or are themselves constructed, by the processes of social or political transformation in the sovereign polities in which they are sited.

Caroline Humphrey

Mountain Cults and the Changing Contours of Kinship in Contemporary Buryatia (Russia)

Recently rural Buryatia has seen economic collapse and increased outmigration to cities. The remaining country dwellers have revived cults of the mountains that surround their villages. The city migrants return in numbers to attend them. According to tradition each mountain manifests the spiritual powers of the ancestors of a clan that should worship there. If we take kinship to be ‘mutuality of being’ the Buryats can be understood to incorporate the power of the mountain into the forces that go towards the reproduction of kinship groups. But today, the city dwellers are proposing new, wider social groups to be the receptors of this power. They are also ‘discovering’ sacred mountains that can focus the sense of mutuality that is developing in these groups. The paper hopes to contribute to understanding of how mountain cults use ancient idioms to preserve earlier social formations and also to imaginatively create new ones.

David Mason

Transformations of Folk-Spirit Shrines in Korean Buddhist Temples: The Significance of Modern Trends

Sansin-gak are small shrines present in Korean Buddhist temple compounds for many centuries, containing icons of the local Sanshin (山神, Mountain-Spirit); in recent years they are being replaced by the larger reconfigured shrine-spaces called Samsŏng-gak (Three Saints Shrines) containing icons of two or more related spirits. The long tradition of iconographic representation of Sanshin and the other folk-Buddhist deities within monasteries is an essential element of local Buddhist functional practice. These deities are introduced in this paper as core symbols anchoring national ethnic-Korean and Korean-Buddhist identity. The paper investigates the background, motivations and ideological / religious implications of this architectural transformation of sacred spaces. The shift from Sansin-gak into Samsŏng-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 Ch’ŏn-Chi-In (Heaven-Earth-Humanity) philosophy at their ancient root.

Victoria Ten

Ki Suryŏn (氣修練) and Mountain Immortals Mythology in Contemporary Korea

Cultural practices commonly referred to as qigong in China and ki suryŏn (氣修練) in Korea are reinvented in modernity based on ancient East Asian traditions. Ki suryŏn draw on time-honoured mythologies of sinsŏn (神仙 mountain immortals), who represent and embody Korean mountainous areas. Sinsŏn dwell in wilderness spaces preserving and transmitting techniques of immortality, associated by the practitioners with ki suryŏn. Utilizing extensive interview material from the adepts and the textual/visual productions of the movement, this paper examines ‘mountainous space and time’ as sacred, that is lying beyond the scope of everyday experience. The current paper analyses the mechanisms of reconstructing, encountering and inhabiting ‘mountainous time and space’ by contemporary ki suryŏn practitioners, outlining and examining these processes within the context of body-mind cultivation and a transformative process from mortal into immortal, steadfast in the lore and mythologies of ki suryŏn.

Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Contemporary Charismatic Topographies and Sacred Terrains

The ideology, the political and governmental institutions of North Korea derive their authority from a topography of charisma formed by Mt Paektu and the mountainous spaces of western Manchuria. These contemporary political forms intriguingly echo traditional Korean manifestations of mountain focused spirituality, such as the Sanshin (Mountain Divinity) worship. Both national mythos and narrative surrounding the revolutionary struggles of the Kim family, current rulers of North Korea, have Mt Paektu as their fulcrum and the mountain itself is co-produced or co-opted into these narratives. Legitimatory elements within these political narratives and mythographies thus help to build and transform institutions, social practices, and topographies. This paper explores the theological mechanics behind the generation of such charismatic forms and their wider impact, investigating the process by which transcendent, spiritual elements are weaved into conventional political narratives and examining their more practical social manifestations.

Participants: Caroline Humphrey, David Mason, Victoria Ten, Robert Winstanley-Chesters


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