Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Once you’ve seen one Joseon dynasty tomb, you’ve seen them all. That’s something I’ve never said, at least not without being sarcastic. For those who have been in Korea for an extended period I could understand that some historical monuments start to look very similar to each other. If you are in this phase of diminishing returns when it comes to visiting ‘old stuff’, then I sincerely recommend a visit to the royal tombs of Taereung Gangneung over on the north east side of Seoul.

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The two locations are a tomb complex in Nowon-gu. Taereung Royal Tomb (태릉) houses the burial mound of Queen Munjeong who was the second queen of King Jungjong, the 11th King of the Joseon Dynasty. Nearby Gangneung (강릉) is the final resting place of  Munjeoang’s son King Myeongjong, the 13th King of Joseon Dynasty, and his wife Queen Insunwanghu.  As mentioned earlier, once you are familiar with the burial sites of the Joseon Dynasty history can start slipping into carefully cultivated UNESCO heritage sites. The orderly layouts and well designed information placard can detract from the interesting and often extremely turbulent history which lies beneath.

Taereung Shrine Entrance

Beneath the grassy knoll of Taereung lies one of the more interesting figures of Korean dynastic history and a great candidate to be patron saint of pushy mums – Queen Munjeong. Her son Myeongjong was too young to rule by himself until 1565 so Queen Munjeong ated as a regent. Despite her many depictions as a power crazy Lady Macbeth type figure, there are also accounts of her being a more than competent administrator. She even gave out land to common people that had been formerly owned by the nobility. Although this practice is rarely for altruistic reasons; it is usually more related to stripping the yangban (upper classes) of land for political reasons. An ominous sign which appears in most dynasties the world over, was the fact that she continued to rule even after her son reached the age of majority. It was only after her death that her son took over power, which seems to me a black and white indication of their relationship.If, like me, you would like to know more about this narrative then you could watch the historical drama  Mandate of Heaven 2013. It’s on a list which I am working my way through – I’m about 1400 years behind at the moment! Another interesting fact about Munjeong was that she was one of the most influential supporters of Buddhism. During the early years of Joseon Neo Confucism replaced Buddhism as the de facto state ideology. The Queen lifted the official ban on Buddhist worship and instigated a resurgence of Buddhism.The next chapter of Korean history starts after Munjeong’s death. However, I have not visited the other tomb complex yet so I will reserve the research for my next visit.

The location of the tomb is in a wonderful location, owing to the practice of geomancy. Like most tombs and royal palaces in Korea the location is chosen with freshwater flowing near the front area and mountains to the rear. In the case of Taereung you can actually follow a small tributary from the Jungang Stream (itself a tributary of the Han). There is a great cycle path all the way up the Jungang Cheon and heading north you can take a right before Taerung Subway station and wind your way up the stream which follows the Bukbu Expressway. It’s a great bike ride in summer because it’s mostly in the shade. The advantage of going by bike is the fact that you miss nearly all the main traffic. I came off the stream when it splits and found myself next to the huge Military academy – the museum is opposite.

The museum is actually the main reason why I would recommend this place. It gives a very detailed description of how tombs are used and made. That sounds extraordinarily dull, but believe me, the graphics and displays kept me in the museum for much longer than I expected. I wish I had seen the museum a few years ago because it would have helped me understand exactly why the paths are laid out as they are and also the construction of the burial mound.

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The museum costs 1000 won for adults and is open Summer season 09:00-18:30 / Winter season 09:00-17:30

[Subway + Bus]
Seokgye station (Seoul Subway Line 1 and 6), Exit 6.
– Take bus 1155 , 1156 or 73
– Get off at Taereung Gangneung (10 min interval / 15 min ride).

Hwarangdae station (Seoul Subway Line 6), Exit 1.
–  Take bus 202 , 1155, 1156, 73 or 82.
–  Get aff at Taereung Gangneung (5 min interval / 5 min ride).

Taereung station (Seoul Subway Line 6 and 7), Exit 7.
– Take bus 202, 1155 , 1156, 73 or 82.
– Get off at Taereung Gangneung (10 min interval / 10 min ride).

I have researched more information about the Sosu Seowon than any other post I have written (or not written). My reasons are not really from any deep desire to uncover the mysteries of Confucianism, nor are they based on extra enthusiasm for this subject. The reason I have read so much is partly because I don’t understand it, but mostly because of a constantly nagging suspicion about Korea, if I was in any way scientific I would even call it a theory. I don’t want to use inverted commas for theory, so I will call it my idea.

Entrance to the Shrine

My idea is that despite Korea’s futuristic aesthetics, fast internet connections, huge shiny skyscrapers and an entire generation plugged into their smart phones, I believe that you can find something timeless underneath. The neon flashing modernity that lights up the huge construction projects of modern Korea easily distracts you from several truths. These truths, rules of behaviour, and manifestations of culture reach back deep into history, a history which goes back way beyond most nation states of the early 21st Century. It’s true, many civilizations stretch back even further than Korea, many have never been conquered, colonized or generally abused by the other cultures jostling around it. However, I believe that Korea has managed to preserve many of its “intangible cultural assets” through persistence, resistance and centuries of isolation. The longer I stay in Korea the more echoes of neolithic life I find, perhaps neolithic is an exaggeration but there are many historical precedents to be found which account for the modern behaviour we see today. One aspect in which I have found a constant thread is the dedication to study.

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One of the most notable features of Korea is the dedication to studying and the breadth of the various spheres of education. Korea has the highest tertiary gross enrollment ratio of any country in the world (UNESCO 2010). There is a strong deference to teachers or leader figures whether it be the hastily prepared power point presentation for the boss, or the middle school students hunched over their books in after school academies. The word Seonsaengnim is used for people of higher status but roughly translates as Master. You might argue that the deference is not being subject to the person of higher status but rather the undeniable truth that education is the most powerful tool to get ahead in this most competitive of countries. This deeply entrenched philosophy of working hard and studying harder is not some modern concept, it’s not playing catch up with the West because of the hard times in the first half of the last Century. The philosophy, or even religion, of hard work and diligent studying is something you can see throughout the history of Korea, especially during the last dynasty – the Joseon Dynasty.

New Cherry Blossom

Buddhism found a natural home in Korea, especially during the Shilla Dynasty. The various tribes and clans of the peninsula always found a neat way to co-opt their local shamanistic beliefs into their branch of Buddhism. I have even seen discrete shrines to mountain gods tucked behind some temples. Despite the Buddhist influence, by the time the Joseon dynasty kicked off they were getting tired of the old ways. Buddhism was associated with the debauchery and excess of the elite, the elite who were often propped up by the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in China. In many cases the Kings had Mongol wives and many of the rulers were part Mongol or at least put in place by the Mongols. The Joseon Dynasty started to shed the centuries of superstition and metaphysics of Buddhism and to a lesser extent Taoism. What came in its place was a Korean version of Neo-Confucianism. One of the great advantages of the previous Goryeo Dynasty was the access officials had to Chinese culture and in particular literature. These ideas filtered into Korea through the various scholars (still venerated to this day) and became the corner-stone of the new Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism and the temples of Buddhism were increasingly marginalised – which is why if you visit Korea you will find many temples way out of the cities and perched halfway up high mountains. Many of the original temples were converted into use as private educational institutions – seowons.

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When I first read about seowons (서원) they reminded me of the endless Hagwons you see in modern Korea. These days most of the school students study maths, science, and of course English in these private academies. In the past they would have studied the Chinese classics which were essential to pass the state exams to enter government service. The modern equivalent is perhaps the dreaded entrance exam which permits entry into the exclusive Universities – once you have a degree from the better Universities you are more or less guaranteed a position in one of Korea’s top firms. The name of a top University is seen as being more important than experience, potential or personality. There are many more parallels between modern Korea and the original use of seowons, but the underlying theme is that to get on in a Neo-Confucian society you need to study. Social mobility came and went with various monarchs but rich or poor you would have to study to get anywhere near the top. The seowons served this purpose, and the Sosu Seowon was the first.

The Scholars

This private Neo-Confucian academy was founded by the magistrate of Punggi County Ju Sebung (주세붕/周世鵬 1495–1554), during the reignof King Jungjong. It’s located near Suksusa Temple, in Sunheung-myeon, about 30 minutes from Yeongju. Aside from being the first of its kind, it is also unique for many other reasons. It was the only seowon that survived from the Seowon Abolishment  Act in 1871. Ju Se-bung was criticized for founding a school because of other more pressing matters of the time – especially famine and drought.  Being a scholar himself he was able to use reason and wisdom to defend his actions

“Education is the cardinal virtue of man, and ought to be promoted above all else.”

Other seowons enjoyed a fruitful period but Sosu Seowon was the first thus it became one of the richest. Sosu Seowon also enjoyed more attention because it enshrined An Hyang (1243 -1306). An Hyang is a name you see many times in the history books; he was a Confucian scholar who brought Neo-Confucianism to Korea from China in the 13th century.The academy gained even more prestige when Toegye  (another big name in the list or Confucian greats) became magistrate of the county. He asked King Myeongjong to grant the academy a royal charter and the King responded with a hand signed “Sosu Seowon”, and a supply of books. Many seowons and temples before them had a mixed relationship with the Monarchy, similar to some of the more powerful monastic orders in Europe. In this case the annals of the king specify that the local magistrate cannot interfere in the affairs of the academy, nor disturb the Confucian scholars. Sosu Seowon as an institution and as a physical place, was free from interference from the monarchy. Its location, even in our times, underlines this fact.

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The institute is spread over the hills and the various complexes would have accommodated about 4,000 scholars. There is also a shrine for  An Hyang, An Bo, An Chuk and Ju Se-bung, where a memorial services take place on the first day of the third and ninth months of the lunar calendar every year. The study facilities have been placed in the east and the shrine placed in the west. Outside the entrance to  Sosu Seowon is the Okgyesu stream of the Nakdong River. This stream comes down from the impressive Mt. Sobaek. Although I made my quest to reach this place I would definitely recommend stopping by on the end of a Sobaek hike.

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I took a very local bus from Yeongju but the easiest and quickest way to get there is by taking a train to Punggi and then taking the bus I mentioned up the valley. At the time of writing the road was being widened so I expect it will be a much easier journey in the future. The train i from Cheongyangni  (Seoul’s eastern terminus) is exceptional. You can pass through some mountain scenery and the pleasant town of Danyang on the way. If you plan on sticking around there is an Azalea festival and some other Temples scattered around Mt. Sobaek.

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Korail Timetable

Punggi Korail Timetable

You can take bus number 27 from Punggi Station – check it’s not going to Yeongju. For the bus times coming back check in the tourist office at the Sosu Carpark (their timetable is different from the one at the bus stop.

Extra links:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=264147

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SH/SH_EN_7_2.jsp?cid=1820847

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Inari Entrance

If you are in Kyoto for more than a couple of days, you should find some time to get to Fushimi Inari-taisha. There is a temple complex near the station, but as you wind your way up one of the mountain park paths you can see an amazing Shinto Shrine – the head shrine of Inari. The shrine, or shrines, which span about 4 kilometers, are an eye catching introduction to Shintoism. I found the whole area quite confusing and I have been trying to make sense of it ever since. What struck me the most was how current and relevant to contemporary life the whole place seems to be. This is possibly due to the importance of the Inari.

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The Kami

Inari is the Japanese kami (spirit) of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and business in general. This spirit seems to relate to a general sense of prosperity in various fields. In the past I imagine the rice harvest was the most important reason to visit the shrine, but these days many modern businesses also place great importance on this magical fox spirit. Inari may have been worshipped since the founding of this shrine at the mountain of the same name. Some scholars believe that worship started in the late 5th century, but most agree that it began in the early eighth century. It’s such an important kami that more than one-third of the Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari.

Inari Main Temple

I was confused because I am used to the single shrine structures of Catholicism. In some cases I have also found the Stations of the Cross ascending sanctuary hills or several different chapels devoted to different saints in a cathedral. The Inari area contains numerous structures from the main shrine structure, main gate, tower gate –  located at the foot of the mountain, through to the more spiritual altars towards the top. I use the word spiritual because there are fewer people at the top and there is a peaceful lake. As people often remind me ‘life is a journey; not a destination’. This statement is never truer than at Inari shrine. The most impressive aspect of the visit is the fact that the top of the mountain is only reachable by a path lined with thousands of torii. The torii are the brightly painted arches which are planted next to each other like a bamboo forest. The reason there are so many here relates to the function of the kami – business. This means that those who have been successful in the business world often attribute their success to the shrine, they subsequently donate the torii archways to the shrine.

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The walk to the top is a beautiful experience once the crowds thin out. The sunlight often glimmers through the numerous gaps of the arches and illumintes the shady pathway. The forested mountain on either side of the pathway provides peaceful noises to contemplate the new harvest or business venture. The more I read about it the more it seemed like some kind of inpenetrable animistic place, almost like the native American totems you might find on the pacific coast. However, as is always the case, the longer you contemplate something the more familiar it becomes. If a Catholic wanted to pray for a successful harvest or business venture, or in fact any number of different concerns, thay could turn to the wide array of saints on offer.

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After living in Korea for a few years I have never seen anything quite like the Inari shrine, although beneath the Buddhism of Koran mountain temples there always seems to be some kind of mountain god. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the religious or animistic rituals of the Far East but it will be great fun trying.

Inari Lake

Shrine Shops

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To get to this shrine I recommend taking the train from Kyoto station. There are two stations at Fushimi: JR Inari Station on the JR Nara Line (5 minutes, 140 yen one way from Kyoto Station) and there is also Fushimi Inari Station on  the Keihan main line.

As you can see from the map, Inari station is very close to the entrance of the main temple.

Inari Map

 

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