|Jiri-san Nogo-dan Sudo-am
지리산 노고단 수도암
[Wisdom-Discernment Mountain Crone-Altar Peak
(formerly) Korea's largest Sanshin-gak Shrine and Sanshin-do Painting
|Sudo-am in context, shot from up the highway to the west. This newly-rebuilt Buddhist
hermitage sits on a geomantically powerful site, the central hyeol, at about 600 meters altitude
on the southern slope of 1507-meter Nogo-dan [Old-Woman Altar] Peak of Jiri-san National Park.
Left: Stone name-tower at the entrance by the highway, designed to echo the
famous Shilla-Dynasty "Four-Lion Pagoda" at Hwaeom-sa (one of Korea's
greatest temples, located at the foot of the slope south from here).
Above: the temple's promotional sign depicting the main Buddha-Hall.
The main gate was closed but I had a strong desire to get in there, so I had to scramble up around a steep
hillside to where I could slip in through a gap in the wall by their bathroom. Not the sort of thing that I usually
do during this research, but this felt like a special case, not sure why. I was attracted by the sight of their
magnificent Main Buddha Hall, and a small unique San-shin shrine seen up behind it (below).
Above: the Main Buddha Hall, with a small
older San-shin-gak seen behind-right.
Right: the small older San-shin-gak up behind the Halls
has an open front (no door), quite unusual. A standard
painting of San-shin with two attendants is on the back
wall, with his tiger shown separately on the right wall.
The bi-seok stone pillar enshrined here reads simply
"Steele of Mountain King". Using only a stone carved
with Chinese characters to represent the San-shin is a
very old tradition in Korea, now rarely found; it seems
to be a continuing tradition particularly with Cheoneun
Temple and the hermitages above it....
The Mountain-King Great-Hall, with stairway and gate front-right and small older San-shin-gak still behind-right.
I made it up on the porch of that Mountain-King Hall,
expecting it to be locked up & vacant, but suddenly a
side-door swang open. An elderly monk walked out,
must be 75 or so, head naturally bald not shaved, long
wispy white beard, wiry body in great shape, steady
piercing eyes. The very model of the perfect zen / kung
fu master from central casting of a Hollywood studio.
I greeted him, nervous of being criticized for my
"breaking in" and disturbing his solitude. He didn't
seem to be the least bit surprised/shocked/shaken to
see me (a foreigner!) standing there, acted quite
natural as if he'd been expecting me. He said in
Korean "So, you have come here".
Although "busted" I kept my cool, asked him in my poor
Korean if this was a shrine for the San-shin.
"San-WANG!" he corrected me, "shin" is not respectful
enough for the King of this very sacred Mountain.
I could not disagree with him...
He motioned me to stand still in place, moved about six
feet away, and started to sing. It had a tune not far from
South Korea's National Anthem, really, but I could hear
many religious words in it, referring to Buddhist deities
and the San-shin of various major mountains. He kept
staring far off into the distance while he sang, and started
doing a kind of martial-arts dance, Taekwondo or Akido
-type moves mixed with Tai-chi Chuan moves, very
graceful (and amazing for a guy his age!).
5 minutes of this, then he abruptly walked over to me &
started touching me around my body. Placed his palm
over my heart for 10 seconds or so, then on my forehead,
etc; picked up that antique Chinese I-Ching Eight-Trigrams
medallion that i always wear instead of a necktie, studied
it only briefly but then held it in his hand for a bit. Checking
my ki [spiritual energy] out, obviously. I just stood there
calm and patient, understanding what he was doing -- but
wondering what would come next (were he angry, or
decided that I was an evil person, I'm sure he could have
killed me with a single strike). He finished checking my ki
out, then without a word went back to his former position
and repeated the song and the martial/tai-chi dance for a
few more minutes.
L to R: my friend Jeon Je-min, Master Pyeong-jeon seunim
(owner and designer of this temple), myself and my my wife
Lourdes, on a return visit to Sudo-am in October 2004.
The old monk sat down facing me, his knees touching mine, his back to the awesome painting. I asked the identity of the
slightly Bodhisattva-style figures on the sides, he said that they represent the Kings (Spirits) of Nogo-dan Peak (1507m,
west) and Heavenly-King Peak (1915m, east), while the central main figure (holding a meditation master's fly-wisk)
represents Banya Peak (1751m, central). The twin tigers represent the yin-yang (east-west) duality of the Korean
peninsula, while the one pine tree stands for the unity of the nation. Other symbols of longevity and spirituality abound, as
usual in Sanshin-do. I thought it was a great iconic schemata.
He introduced himself as the venerable monk Pyeong-jeon, saying that he was a younger brother-monk (studied under
the same master) of the great National Seon Patriarch Seongcheol (d.1993) of Haein-sa. He said that he had
meditated in the small Myohyang-am Hermitage close to Banya-bong Peak for 10 years, gaining deep personal
intuitive-knowledge of and respect for the royal Spirit(s) of Jiri-san, the most important in the nation.
He wanted to tell me something more, but I just couldn't understand -- again as always, cursing my lack of Korean
language ability. By sudden inspiration, I pulled out my cell-phone and dialed up the free volunteer tourist interpretation
service. Told the guy who answered that I was at a temple & the abbot wanted to tell me something; passed the phone to
Pyeong-jeon. That service gets hundreds of calls a week, most all giving directions to famous places, helping people
lost on the subway, people who've lost their luggage or are having trouble with a taxi driver, or such like this. I'd be willing
to bet this was the down-right WEIRDest call they EVER got! :-)
Pyeong-jeon took me over to the residential building and offered me a can of fruit-juice instead, and made me promise to
return. He walked me all the long way back down to my car (a high honor), and then I got a copy of the Korean translation
of my Sanshin Book out of the trunk, signed it and gave it to him -- he was very pleased to leaf through it, but again didn't
seem surprised at all.
I go back there whenever I can. My first return-visit was in October, and Pyeon-jeon indicated that he had read the book
and generally approved of it. He praised the efforts I'm making to globalize knowledge of Korea's traditional culture, and
explained some details of the Pungsu-jiri at Jiri-san, why he had rebuilt Sudo-am. However, over a long dinner together
he explained that his knowledge of the San-shin is spiritual and intuitive, based on direct experience through meditation
on the peaks, while my knowledge is rational and scientific in the Western style, and so he really can't help me understand
things any better. He introduced me to a disciple of his who has a modern university degree, and said that that monk
could have fruitful dialogue with me, as our thinking operates in more similar ways. We shall see what comes of that...
It's really for this kind of "find", this kind of experience, that I stay here in Korea all these years... :-)
Pyeong-jeon hands the phone back to me, and the guy tells me "I'm sorry sir, but this just doesn't make any sense" and I
say "no, it's all right, just tell me what he said". "Well, I think he said that you are related somehow to the 'god' or 'ghost'
of this mountain, that you have some 'engagement' with her, and that's why you overcame great difficulties to get here,
and he's very glad that you did. I know this must sound ridiculous to you, as a foreigner, but it's related to our old folk
customs..." I told him "Actually, I understand perfectly well, don't worry." :-)
I told the monk that I understood him & was pleased with his kind words, and thanked him. He said more to the guy on the
phone, who struggled to translate, gave up, and asked me "Do you know the Korean term 'in-yeon'?" I said yes, it means
destiny / fate / karma. He said "The monk said you have a very particular in-yeon with this mountain-spirit, and to come to
meet him here today, and he is glad that the in-yeon has been fulfilled. He said that you have been to this place before,
as a foreign man not a Korean, something more than 1000 years ago; he says that you toured the Baekdu-daegan at that
time to understand the truth of Korea's national spirit. Now you have returned here to Korea and especially to Jiri-san to
continue and finish your studies." I thanked him and we hung up; the guy must've been grateful to get off the hook...
Thinking about what he said, it seemed impossible that I had been in Korea more than 1000 years ago in a previous
incarnation as a foreigner -- no westerners had ever made it to Korea before the 1600s. But then I realized that he
probably meant I was from China at that time -- many Chinese officials traveled to Korea during the Tang and Sung
Dynasties, after all. This might explain why I had a strong unexplained tendency towards Chinese religion and culture ever
since I was 16 years old in high school, and then obsession with traditional Korean culture but yet an inability to learn the
Korean language... But I'm not really big fan of the theories of reincarnation, and so won't take this too seriously, just
leaving it all as a fascinating coincidental encounter with unexplained possibilities.
The story of my discovery of Sudo-am and meeting Master Pyeong-jeon in April 2004 is long, but I think it will be worthwhile for
me to tell and you to read. I would say it was one of my profoundest experiences ever in Korea, and a key point of the particular
path I've been on, that this web site reflects. Makes a pretty good story anyway. This happened just before sunset on the day
before the 2004 Namak-je Ceremony -- at the end of the first day of that research-trip to Jiri-san.
I was driving up Gurye County's Local Highway 861 from Cheoneun-sa Temple to Nogo-dan [Crone-Altar Peak], checking out
the several small temples along the way. I came across a stone tower and sign (see photos below) marking the entrance to
"Practicing the Dao Hermitage". That's a frequently-used highly venerable name in Korean Buddhism; there are at least a dozen
"Sudo-sa or Sudo-am" nationwide (this is one of the three 'original' ones, along with those on Goheung Peninsula and at Gimcheon's
Sudo-san). I remembered that a few years ago construction on this place was just underway, and I had never visited...
The front area of this massive fortress-like temple (below) was still under construction, and big rocks blocked the
beginning of the long driveway, so I parked my car there and walked on up, maybe about 1000 yards.
Going to the left of the Main Hall, I suddenly saw another big new Hall of equal size in a separate compound up
behind it (photo below). I could read the Chinese characters of its signboard (they are among the few that i know),
and it said: "San Wang Dae Jeon" [Mountain King Great Hall]. Now, this was stunning in itself.
You see, buildings enshining the San-shin always are entitled with the suffix -gak [shrine] which is lower class,
designating a folk-shamanic place or sometimes a wooden pavilion with a scenic view. The suffix -jeon [Hall] is
used for the major buildings in Buddhist temples that enshrine Buddhas or principal Bodhisattvas, or for the Main
Halls of the most important kind of Confucian shrines, or for Royal Palace buildings in which the King or Queen
had formal duties or residence. Putting "great" in frontof "Hall" just further amplifies its status, up to the highest
possible level. Therefore, This title "San-wang Dae-jeon" [Mountain-King Great-Hall] is quite radical, entirely
inappropriate by the traditional standards. And on such a brand-new luxury-scale building! I've never seen this
before in all the 1200 Korean and Chinese temples I've toured since 1982. This can only be regarded as strong
further evidence of the modern 'promotion' of San-shin to "Buddha Status" that i keep talking and writing about...
Exciting! Nobody seemed to be around, but I just HAD to get to that building. However, at the top of the
double-wide granite stairway, there was a high fence of iron bars, the gate firmly latched from the inside. I found a
stick and spent a few minutes jimmy-ing the latch open... I suppose it's the first time that I'd truly "broken into" a
temple to get a San-shin photo, and I would almost be ashamed of it if it had not turned to be "fate" and excused...
Set in the wall above the rock was the biggest, most magnificent San-shin painting
ever made in Korea -- maybe 12 feet high and 18 feet across!!! Stunning, complex,
amazing. I fell to my knees in the center of the floor, performed three bows in the
traditional way, then sat cross-legged staring at this painting:
Then he walked back over, told me that he was very glad to meet me here, took me by the hand and
led me inside the Hall. Apparently he had determined that I was a good man and appropriately
there; I felt relieved. The Hall contained only bare wooden floors & walls, high ceiling. Just a kind
of a wooden stage making up the one big altar, with a natural rock exposed in the center of it:
Sad Update, Fall 2013:
My fellow Korean-temple-enthusiast Dale Quarrington just visited here, and reported to me
that Master Pyeongjeon died a few years ago, and his portrait and sarira (crystal cremains)
are now enshrined on the Amita-bul altar:
...and that, most disturbingly, whomever is now Abbot of this holy site has destroyed
his grand accomplishment, the nation's largest-ever Sanshin-gak -- the "Mountain-King
Great-Hall" signboard and the gigantic painting within have been removed (whereabouts
now unknown), and the building converted into a monastic study-hall. Even the old small
Sanshin-gak up behind it is now gone -- apparently the new authorities here are foolish
and arrogant anti-Sanshin fanatics! This is deeply tragic, and I can only imagine that
wise master Pyeongjeon is restless and angry in the afterlife... I am saddened.