It is our second visit to Korea, less than two years after the first, and my initial (favourable) impressions of the country have been confirmed on more than one occasion already. I have been invited here by a colleague to present a paper at a conference on science fiction, but because we wanted to investigate the area of the country where some of the oldest Korean cultural artefacts are to be found, our first destination here was the famed city of Gyeongju, two hours by rapid train from Seoul.
I used the word “famed” deliberately, given the city’s reputation as an “open-air museum” — walking through the city one comes upon many huge mounds of earth that just happen to be the ancient burial sites, or underground burial chambers, of Korean royalty dating back more than 10 centuries. One gets a first taste of Eastern, specifically Korean, “spirituality” when wandering through the grounds of Anapji (Wild Goose/Duck) Pond, where the royal residence known as Eastern Palace, was built during the reign of King Munmu in 647 BCE as a “pleasure garden”. The way that the buildings, the vegetation and the “pond” nestle in one another’s embrace adumbrated the more all-embracing sense of spiritual oneness that awaited us.
Our visit to the Gyeongju Cultural Museum reinforced this feeling as we walked from one hall to another, overawed by the rich cultural history of the Korean people. One often reads about the Roman Empire that lasted for centuries, but I’ll bet few westerners know about the “golden” Silla kingdom on Korean soil that lasted almost a 1000 years (from 57 BCE to well into the 10th century CE), with Gyeongju being its capital city continuously for most of that time. The gold artefacts discovered in the royal burial chamber in Gyeongju match the splendour of those found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen.
If exploring Gyeongju on foot allows one to imbibe the distinctive spirit of this corner of Oriental culture to a certain degree, it proved to be but a pale version of what awaited us when we ascended Mount Namsan, a few kilometres outside the city, yesterday. To be frank, because I have never been a conventionally religious person — by which I mean that “organised” religion, with its multiple ways of manipulating gullible people’s sense of guilt, and so on, has always put me off — I used to be sceptical of claims regarding a tangible sense of “spirituality” (unless the feeling of “oneness with nature” that I always experience when climbing up the rocks of my favourite mountain counts as such).
I was sceptical until I visited the great churches of Europe, that is; and now, a mountainous region on the Korean peninsula that is truly suffused with what one can only describe as a pervasive sense of spirituality. But there is a difference between these two experiences, phenomenologically speaking. Upon entering a Gothic church like St Vitus cathedral in Prague, one’s “spirit” is directed upwards, towards what medieval Christianity believed to be the direction of heaven, simultaneously uplifting one’s being. This is significant, because for Christianity what matters is the immortal soul, which is here virtually synonymous with spirit, and whose “home” is located in an otherworldly realm.
This axiological (value-) prioritisation of the soul above the body in the spatial design of the cathedral — its characteristic “distribution of the sensible” — explains the fact that, from the moment of entering such a Gothic cathedral, your gaze is directed upwards along the verticals to the vault, high overhead. One’s spirit soars, metaphorically speaking, and one experiences it almost tangibly in those hallowed spaces. Interestingly, the flipside of this is the countervailing awareness of what one might call “demonic” forces surrounding these churches, attributable, perhaps, to the ever-present array of gargoyles hovering above one on the building’s exterior.
The experience of spirituality is very different in the Eastern spaces we have been exploring these last few days, however. Mount Namsan, with its beautiful rocks and forests, breathes spirituality, not least because of the many Buddhist shrines, statues and rock engravings dotted all over it. One moment you would be climbing up a steep slope to where the trail vanishes on a ridge, and the next you would gasp with astonished surprise when you cross the ridge and come face to face with a seated Buddha smiling benevolently at you despite its stony, centuries-old features (in most cases about 1400 years old), with one hand in a giving gesture and the other lifted reassuringly.
But primarily it is the mountain spaces that embrace you with a welcoming Gaian gesture, drawing you close to them without any feeling of being suffocated. It is not difficult to understand why this particular mountain attracted Buddhist adherents, inviting them to adorn nature with images of the Buddha, which they believed was ubiquitous throughout nature, anyway. While the Christian cathedrals elevate the spirit, infusing it with a feeling of being ethereal, these spaces do not propel the spirit “heavenwards”, as it were; instead, it is as if “spirituality” — not spirit — is diffused throughout the mountain landscape: the streams, rocks, trees and even the human visitors to this place of refuge are imbued with it. It is this-worldly, not otherworldly like the spirituality of Christian spaces.
On our way down from the peak we came upon something that draws the awareness of pervasive spirituality together like a beautiful, intricate knot in a tapestry. At first hidden by a thick curtain of leaves, it suddenly emerges into one’s field of vision like an unexpected, unwelcome visitor who has unwittingly spoilt one’s daytime reverie — a feeling that is soon dissipated, however. It is a modest little structure — two houses at right angles to each other, overlooking the undulating, cascading waves of leaves and trees below them. A hermitage, where a wrinkled old lady offered us green tea and gestured into one of the two houses that turned out to be a Buddhist temple, resplendent with a golden Buddha figure and oriental paintings adorning its walls.
Drinking our tea and looking out towards the sea of green below us, my partner remarked that she could happily spend the rest of her life there, in the bosom of the mountain spirit, with ne’er a thought of the everyday worries, chores and irritations that punctuate an ordinary working day back home. I could not agree more.