Published on September 25th, 2013 | by Simon Bond
Interview translated by Shin Jun-hyun, Choi Jun-young, Cho Haeri, Park Kyungjin, and Cheon Soyeon
1) Loyalty to one’s lord.
2) Love and respect your parents and teachers.
3) Trust among friends.
4) Never retreat in battle.
5) Never take a life without a just cause.
Hidden high in the Korean mountains, away from the hustle and bustle of Korean culture, is a place many Koreans aspire to be. It is not without reason that hiking is so popular in Korea. It was on one of these hikes that I discovered a hidden Korean secret, and a portal to another time in this country. The place is Geumsungsangsung Fort, and I met Cheong San, a monk, at the entrance to the fort.
Cheong San greeted me and we headed for the temple on the hills where he lives. He is a peaceful man and very engaged in what he does. I later learned that his family is more or less self-sufficient on the mountain as I was treated to a hearty meal straight from the land. All that healthy food makes for a strong healthy man as well, which is just as well because Cheong San is no ordinary monk. He comes from a line of warrior monks who once fought the Japanese during the Imjin Wars of 1592.
It is this heritage that has drawn me back to see Cheong San again. I am looking to discover some of Korea’s hidden history and to hear tales of honor and valor. While I am with Cheong San, he told me:
“I started martial arts [when] I was 10 years old. I have been trained in martial arts for almost 40 years. My martial arts is not kendo. It is the oldest Buddhist Army Martial Arts. The Buddhist Army is the starting period of Korea.”
A little research shows that indeed when Buddhism came to Korea in 347 CE and when it became established in the Goguryo Kingdom, it brought with it a form of martial arts practiced by Buddhists. This was known as Boolkyo Musool. It is an ancient martial art, and though what Cheong San uses has no doubt evolved considerably since those times, the original practice started centuries ago. This history also goes on to explain why Cheong San wears a phoenix symbol on his clothes, because this is a symbol represents the Goryeo Kingdom. He also told me:
“When I became a Buddhist priest, I knew the ‘Seosan’ Buddhist master really liked [the] phoenix and he loved Korea. I respect the ‘Seosan’ Buddhist master.”
Seosan Daesa is an extremely important and influential figure when one is considering martial arts in Buddhist Korea. When Korea was in its hour of need and fighting the Japanese during the Imjin Wars, he organized a Buddhist army of around 5,000 into a guerilla fighting force that could undermine the weak spots in the Japanese army. Though basing his army in the mountains of Heungsuksa, Seosan’s monks were involved in conflicts that took place around the Geumsungsangsung Fort, fighting alongside the righteous Korean army.
Cheong San then is an important figure when thinking of conserving Korea’s cultural heritage and his studies of this Buddhist martial arts are as important as preserving this country’s many other cultural relics. Indeed this is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Gabo Reform Act of 1894, which disbanded the Korean monk army that had served its country during the Imjin Wars of 1592.
How to get there:
Take the bus from Gwangju Bus Terminal to Damyang Bus Terminal. From there take a taxi to the path that leads to the fort. It will take about 40 minutes to hike to Geumsungsangsung Fort.