Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Finding nirvana in the bosom of the mountain spirit

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.

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  • 8 Responses to “Finding nirvana in the bosom of the mountain spirit”

    1. Richard #

      I have often wondered why it is that one can so much more easily embrace Nature (I think it deserves a capital “N”) when it is cultivated and has its threats removed. Thinking back on trips to various African locations, it is much more difficult to see “spirituality” in these rough and primitive landscapes. Freud (I think I am correct in this) maintained that civilisation exists to protect us from Nature, which otherwise threatens at all times to overwhelm us. In other words, cultivated Nature is like a snake with its venom removed. European cathedrals are in their way artistic interpretations of nature, with their vaulted ceilings nothing so much as trees leaning towards one another in a forest. The common theme in our experience of spirituality is therefore our interaction with nature, rather than simply being passive observers of untouched reality. In this way, do we not simply interact with ourselves, and again attempt to peer into our own souls. Leaves become green paint, and tree-trunks become pillars. Objectivity would seem to be unattainable.

      June 11, 2014 at 11:10 pm
    2. Maria #

      Of all Eastern cultures I have always found Korea the most interesting. The people are friendly and their cultural history is, as pointed out, impressive, to say the least. The gigantic bell at the cultural museum in Gyeongju amazed me with its sheer size and weight – imagine what techniques they already knew when that was cast centuries ago! And then, of course, anyone with a modicum ofreceptivity for mystical presences only has to ascend Mt Namsan to experience nirvana firts-hand.

      June 12, 2014 at 5:15 am
    3. Baz #

      Spend a few days in the bush , naked. You will soon find the nirvana within yourself.
      An experience no education or money can buy.

      June 14, 2014 at 11:16 am
    4. P.Ndzeleni AT223 S210076887 #

      Part 1

      French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, in their book “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia”, distinguish between two different spaces…a smooth and striated space. A smooth space is one which is constantly changing therefore uncontrolled, nomadic, and has no fixed point of reference. A striated space, in contrast, is still and controlled in its nature. It has an element(s) that remain(s) the same…a point of reference. Another distinction between these two spaces is directionality. Striated space often leads or directs one or has defined paths which lead to the main element…it has hierarchy. Smooth space, however, suggests destination but leave you with room to decide on your journey there. Twists and turns in smooth spaces make one experience the space as a whole as there’s no hierarchy. These two spaces are never in their purest form and one may be the result of the progress of the other.
      I will discuss the two spaces by using examples in hope to further show my understanding. It is, however, unfortunate that I cannot upload sketches to reinforce my discussion.
      The Boardwalk, in Port Elizabeth, is an example of a smooth space where as Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) South Campus plaza (in front of the main library) is an example of striated space.

      October 20, 2014 at 11:54 am
    5. P.Ndzeleni AT223 S210076887 #

      Part 2

      The Boardwalk has multiple entrances which offer one different experiences on the way to a destination. No matter which way one takes, all are next to candy stores, boutiques, restaurants… and people enjoying themselves in the vibrant atmosphere. The series of buildings are built around a pond which is often used for spectacular water shows. The pond also brings a sense of nature into the spaces connected to it by a board walk. The main entrance branches off Marine Drive. One is welcomed by palms trees lined on either side of a paved path leading to the main gate house. The gate house is designed, along with the rest of the complex, in a theme fashion of “building as a sign” discussed in detail in the book “Learning from Las Vegas” by Venture, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Once in inside, one experiences a sense of enclosure which is sensitive to human scale and adds to ease and comfort. The complex has an enclave nature to it. The activities are not zoned therefore wherever you are, there is at least one food store, boutique or restaurant nearby.

      October 20, 2014 at 11:55 am
    6. P.Ndzeleni AT223 S210076887 #

      Part 3

      The NMMU South Campus plaza, edged by the main library on the west, is more of a striated space. There is a prominent sense of directionality as students mostly use this space as an “inbetween” space while moving from one building to another. There is also a pond, now waterless unless raining, which offers seating (built up edges) during lunch time, the time when there is a substantial number of students seating around this area provided the weather is favourable. The placement of the pond dictates the movement of the user of the space. Most people tend to walk between the pond and the library building as the space in between is slightly narrow than that on the other side of the pond (which is vast). The large upside-down-stepped-pyramid-like library building makes one feel out of place…vulnerable…lost…even more so the further one moves away from it. Its Brutalist nature further evokes these feelings. A number of planters are placed in the space, in an effort to bring some sense of nature, but these do nothing to evoke that sense and the plaza remains a vast space with no sense of human scale nor that vibrant atmosphere felt at the boardwalk.
      I can, therefore, conclude that from the discussion above, the Boardwalk has a space that evokes similar senses to that of the author’s visit to Korea, smooth space in this case but on a micro scale.

      October 20, 2014 at 11:55 am
    7. Willem Steytler AT223 (213260018) #

      In the world we live in no space would be fully smooth or striated. It is always a mixture of the two with either prevailing.

      As was discussed in class, Mount Namsan is the perfect combination of striated- and smooth space. The smoothness of the space, I would imagine, is induced by the forests and vegetation on the mountain being so homogenous in nature. As an idiosyncracy of any smooth space, the mountain will have a sense of disorder and chaos, with all spaces being qualitatively equal. On the other hand, however, the Buddhist shrines and statues present on the mountain, merging culture (religion) and nature, transforms the general mountain space into place. This form of hierarchy inevitably creates striated space. It can almost be compered to a dark space with moments of light coming through, where one tends to gravitate towards.

      The Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth is an example of a building where smooth space has the upperhand over striated space. The exhibition spaces, as a series of boxes, are designed to make one feel alienated and it makes the individual wonder around and feel lost in the space. There is no hierarchy or difference between the spaces. It is only upon entering one of the boxes that things start to become more tractable and one gets a sense of ergonomics and anthropometrics. An opposite to this type ofd museum would be the Louvre. The entrance lobby is the point of hierarchy and all the corridors end back up in the lobby.

      October 24, 2014 at 12:27 pm
    8. Willem Steytler AT223 (213260018) #

      In ancient times the Japanese made a ceremany out of the drinking of tea. They had these pavilions called tea houses where the ceremony took place. The small structures were constructed to incorporate qualities fo harmony, reverence, purity, and silence that are the essence of this ritual. Attempts were made to fuse the rich natural materials with the spiritual. Views are calculated and one sits bare- foot on the floor; resulting in an almost transcendental experience of solace in this Zen environment. This extremely smooth space is then counteracted with the tradition of the ceremony where the tea master serves the guests, resulting in striation.
      An opposing environment to this would be Villa Rotonda by Palladio wich has a lot of thresholds an hierarchies set up by courtyards, verandas and double volumes. Its splendour, rational structural layout and it being on a point of hierarchy in the landscape implies striation.
      The NMMU South Campus is very striated with the main building, with its different levels of”class”, and the Library building staring at each other the kraal, an obviously rationalised gathering space. The way we face the front in class and the lecturers being the important elite in the university creates striated space.

      In conclusion I would say striation is necessary to keep order in society, but smooth space is something that shoud be strived for in religious architecture and spaces like art galleries.

      October 24, 2014 at 1:01 pm

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