- Blue MountainA 20th-century Korean Daoist Master
Exploring Daoism, few people speak of Korea because there are only a few historical records that mention it. According to its two major ancient histories, the Samguk sagi and the Samguk yusa, Daoism was imported into the northern kingdom of Koguryu in 624 (Lee 1997, 75). However, the records of King Kungusu of the southwestern kingdom of Paekche mention it already in 214 (1997, 74). The Samguk sagi is the standard reference for the origin of Daoism in Korea, but some other records cloud the issue.
Several Korean scholars argue that there is a native Korean form of Daoism that existed long before the importation from China (Jung 2000, 792). While there are no written records, Koreans have traditionally believed that "every mountain has a spirit (san-shin), and that those who live on or climb the mountain receive that spirit and experience a deepening of their humanity" (Mason 1999, 16). Paintings about ancient times often show an immortal mountain god or spirit. Sacred mountain spirit paintings often also depict hermit immortals (shin-son) who live on high crags up in the deep mountains (Mason 1999, 25). "The belief in immortality pervades Korean culture, but it is not clear whether this is indigenous to the country or goes back to the introduction of Daoism from China" (Kim 2014 204). Clarifying the history of Daoism in Korea is a difficult task. [End Page 181]
While sacred paintings of immortals provide some evidence of Daoism in ancient Korea, a current Korean Daoist practice with a long oral history gives more legitimacy to the idea that native Korean Daoism existed for many centuries before Chinese Daoism was introduced. This is called Kuk Sundo, literally "Way of the National Immortals" (Jung 2000, 802). A form of native Korean mountain practices, it has an oral history going back to the Stone Age. Although the reliability of oral histories can be questioned, the characteristics of a practice and its teachers can give authenticity to its past.
Throughout its history, Sundo has been a mountain practice. To learn it, one had to stay and live in the mountains and, even more difficult, find a teacher who was willing to teach. Masters were mountain recluses and chose students who could endure and adjust to the challenges of mountain living. "In ancient times people worshiped the heaven and the sun and the mountains were the logical place to go for seclusion and were also ideal for the practitioner to get physically closer to heaven and sun" (Kim 2002, 45). Sundo's oral history goes back to circa 7,700 BCE which places its formation toward the end of the Middle Stone Age. Daoist and shaman practitioners of the Mesolithic era, who initiated the development of ancient Daoist cultivation methods, have been described as living in a state of pristine affluence (Kohn 2017).
This paper looks at the life of a man whose practice of Sundo in the Korean mountains followed a Stone Age lifestyle that exemplified pristine affluence. The lifestyle of current mountain practitioners maintains a similarity to that of prehistoric times. Today's practitioners live in caves or under large rocks and eat only raw food that grows naturally on the mountainside. Aligned and in harmony with nature, their existence is pure and the richness of life is not measured by money.
The core concerns of the founders of Daoist practices were "a close connection to nature and the derivation of self-identity, both personal and communal, from the larger environment and the greater universe rather than from social conventions and political power structures" (Kohn 2017, 65). Sundo philosophy focuses on returning to nature and learning to live in harmony with the cosmos. The essence of the practice is controlled breathing, postures (most stationary, but some moving), [End Page 182] visualization, and meditation. These methods are directed toward dantian cultivation for the purpose of inner transformation (internal alchemy) that leads to oneness with the Dao.
There have been a few times in Korean history when Sundo was practiced in cities and towns. However, until the 1960's, it had not been practiced in Korean mainstream...