Supplementary Entries and Texts for the
ENCYCLOPEDIA  OF  KOREAN  BUDDHISM
by the Venerable Hyewon and Professor David A. Mason
Text that was cut from an Entry:
Sanshin  or Sansin   산신  山神                         pages 465-66
    Mountain-spirit

Since ancient times Korean kings have funded great ceremonies for Sansin at grand
altars as symbols of their legitimacy, while the common folk performed
gido (祈禱, ritual
supplication prayer) for good weather, bountiful crops, healthy children and protection
from ill-fortune at their small village or temple shrines.

Sansin are symbols of the relationship between human beings and the ecology of the
mountain that they live at. Each mountain has its own particular “character” due to its
topography, weather, water sources, fauna and flora, and the people that live at its feet
or on its slopes over the centuries develop a complex interaction with all that. They
recognize, venerate and manipulate that relationship through the religious symbol of
Sansin. The best-educated might realize that it is just a symbol, while others really
believe that there was a deity in human form inhabiting the mountain, and the local
tigers were either his or her manifestation or servant.

Sansin paintings are enshrined in most Korean Buddhist temples, but it is clearly not a
Buddhist icon, but rather Shamanic and Daoist in origin and with strong Confucian
motifs, and also a few recognizable Buddhist symbols mixed-in.  Remarkably, all of
these differing religious traditions utilize the Sansin image and venerate this earthly
deity. They regard him as a sort of king of the local mountain, vaguely as a primal
ancestor, and as the landlord who really owns the mountain territory, who was there
before humans and their religions arrived.  Temples and villages perform regular
ceremonies called Sansin-je (山神祭), giving offerings and recognition as a kind of rent
payment. Some monks believe that veneration of this figure gives them stronger health
and vitality to utilize on their path towards seongbul (成佛, enlightenment).

Sansin is almost always depicted in paintings and statues as a seated man (although a
few are female) with white hair and beard; elderly but still healthy, authoritative and
strong; kindly benevolent but still dignified, like an ideal family-patriarch.  His clothing
suggests royal rank.  There may be a halo around his head indicating holiness and
unusual energy.  He is almost always holding objects in one or both hands which
symbolize healthy longevity, scholastic or spiritual attainment and his earthly or spiritual
powers.  He is sitting on a flat rocky cliff-top in the high mountains with a grand view,
and these sites are called Sinseon-dae (Daoist Immortal’s Platform), the sort of place
upon which meditations and yogas are best performed, and where enlightenments can
easily take place.

Sansin icons are one of the primary symbols of Korean culture in general, an important
facet of the national spirit and its cultural treasury.


For much more information, and many photos,  see all of this website.