CHAPTER XIV. Religion - Buddhism - Bonzes - Their power - Shamanism - Spirits - Spirits of the mountain - Stone heaps - Sacred trees - Seized by the spirits - Safe-guard against them - The wind - Sorcerers and sorceresses - Exorcisms - Monasteries.

The question of religion is always a difficult one to settle, for - no matter where one goes - there are people who are religious and people who are not.

The generality of people in Corea are not religious, though in former days, especially in the Korai-an era, between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, they seem to have been ardent Buddhists. Indeed, Buddhism as a religion seems to have got a strong hold in Cho-sen during the many Chinese invasions; it only passed over Cho-sen, however, like a huge cloud, to vanish again, though leaving here and there traces of the power it once exercised.

The bonzes (priests) had at one time so much authority all over the country as to actually rule the King himself; and, as the reverend gentlemen were ready with the sword as well as with their bead prayer-rosaries, they became an unparalleled nuisance and dangerous to the constitution. After having, by their great power and capacity for agitation, roused the country to revolution and internal disputes, it was found necessary to put them down, and from that time forward, they became mere nonentities. The chief instrument which brought this about was a law, still in existence, by which no religion is, under any circumstances, tolerated or allowed within the walls of Corean cities, and all bonzes are forbidden to enter the gates of any city under pain of losing their heads.

The influence which the priests had gained over the Court having been thus suddenly destroyed, and the offenders against the law in question having been most severely dealt with, Buddhism, so far as Corea was concerned, received its death blow. This was so: first, because, although it had prevailed without restraint for nearly five centuries, many of the primitive old superstitions were still deeply rooted in the minds of the Coreans, and because, with the fall of the priests, these sprang up again bolder than ever; then, too, because the law above-mentioned was so strictly enforced that many temples and monasteries had to be closed owing to lack of sufficient funds, the number of their supporters having become infinitesimal in a comparatively short time.

Shamanism is at the present time the popular religion, if indeed there is any that can be so designated. The primitive worship of nature appears to be quite sufficient for the religious aspirations of the Corean native, and with his imaginative brain he has peopled the earth with evil and good spirits, as well as giving them to the elements, the sky, and the morning star. To these spirits he offers sacrifices, when somebody in his family dies, or when any great event takes place; and to be on good terms with these invisible rulers of his fate is deemed necessary, even by well-educated people who should know better.

There are spirits for everything in Cho-sen. The air is alive with them, and there are people who will actually swear that they have come in contact with them. Diseases of all sorts, particularly paralysis, are invariably ascribed to the possession of the human frame by one of these unwholesome visitors, and when a death occurs, to what else can it be due than to their evil and invisible operation? To old age, to diseases natural and zymotic, the expiration of life is never ascribed; these everlasting evil spirits have to answer for it all.

The most prominent spirits are probably those of the mountain. According to Corean accounts, the mountains and hills seem to be full of these heroes of witchcraft: this being probably due to the fact that the dead are buried on hilly ground and that their souls, therefore, are most likely to make their nocturnal hoverings in such neighbourhoods, until a fresh career is found for them in the body of some animal. They are not gods of the mountains, as some writers have been pleased to call them, for, so far as I could judge, the natives are more terror-stricken when thinking about them than inclined to worship them. No Corean, of sound mind and body, however brave and fearless of death in battle, can ever be induced to walk out at night on the mountain-slopes; and even in the day-time a great deal of uneasiness is manifested by the natives should they have to climb a hill. On such occasions they provide themselves with armfuls of stones, which, as they go up, they throw violently one by one at these imaginary beings, thus showing them that their company is neither required nor wished for, and that they had better keep aloof. If this simple precaution is used, the obliging and scorned spirits seldom interfere with the traveller's welfare. The hills close to the towns are simply covered with heaps of stones, so thrown at these mythical dwellers of the mountains. Such is the effect produced by terror on the people's imagination, that frequently in their imagination they feel the actual touch of the spirits. Probably, if there is any physical touch in those cases, it is only a leaf or a twig falling from a tree. Still, when that occurs a regular fight ensues, the men continuing to fire stones at their imaginary foes, until in their mental vision they see them disappear and fade away in the air. Others not so brave prefer an accelerated retreat, only stopping now and again to throw a stone at the pursuers.

From their very childhood the Coreans are imbued with horrid and fantastic accounts of the doings of these spirits, and so vividly are the usual habits of these ghostly creatures depicted to them, that they cannot but remain for ever indelibly impressed on their minds.

Another very common sight, besides the stone-heaps, are the sacred trees. These are to be found everywhere, but especially on hilly ground. Their branches are literally covered with rags, bits of glass, and other offerings given by the superstitious and frightened passers-by, lest these spirits might take offence at not being noticed. Women and men when compelled to travel on the hills go well provided with these rags, and when - for the sacred trees are very numerous - supplies run short, many a woman has been known to tear off a bit of her silk gown, and attach it to a branch of the tree among the other donations.

A coolie, who was carrying my paint-box one evening, when I was returning home from the hills, was simply terrified at the prospect of being seized by the spirits. He kept his mouth tightly closed, and stoutly declined to open it, for fear the spirits should get into him by that passage; and when, with the cold end of my stick, I purposely touched the back of his neck - unperceived by him, of course - he fled frightened out of his life, supposing it to have been a ghost. He met me again on the high road in the plain, about half a mile farther on, and explained his conduct with the very truthful excuse, that "a spirit had seized him by the throat and shaken him violently, meaning at all costs to enter his mouth, and that it was to escape serious injury that he had fled!" When I told him that it was I who had touched him with the end of my stick, he sarcastically smiled, as if he knew better.

"No, sir," said he; "honestly, I saw with my own eyes the spirit that assaulted me!"

The forms given to these spirits vary much, according to the amount of imagination and descriptive power of the persons who describe them. Generally, however, they assume the forms either of repulsively hideous human beings, or else of snakes. The best safeguard against them, according to Corean notions, is music, or rather, I should say, noise. When possessed with a spirit, a diabolical row of drums, voices, bells and rattles combined is set agoing to make him depart without delay; while, on the other hand, little bits of dangling glass, tied to strings, small sweet-toned bells and cymbals, hanging in a bunch from the corners of the roof or in front of the windows and door, often by means of their tinkling - a sound not dissimilar to that of an AEolian harp - attract to the house the friendly spirits of good fortune and prosperity. The latter are always heartily welcomed.

The very wind itself is supposed to be the breathing of a god-spirit with extra powerful lungs; and rain, lightning, war, thirst, food and so on, each possesses a special deity, who, if not invoked at the right moment, and in the right manner, may, when least expected, have his revenge against you.

The spirits of Cho-sen are very sensitive, and insist on being taken into notice. Through astrologers, sorcerers and sorceresses they convey messages and threats to this person and to that - generally the richer people - whose errors may always be rectified or atoned for by paying a round sum down to these go-betweens, who are quite ready to assume the responsibility of guaranteeing a peaceful settlement of matters. There are regular establishments kept by these sorcerers and sorceresses - as a rule, outside the city walls - where witchcraft is practised with impunity in all its forms. These establishments are much patronised both by the poor and by the man of noble rank; and amidst the most excruciating howling, clapping of hands, violent beating of drums and other exorcisms, illnesses are got rid of, pains and troubles softened, calamities prevented and children procured for sterile people. The Government itself does not consider these houses as forming part of the religious gang, and one or two of them may be found even in Seoul within the wall. One, an extremely noisy house and mostly patronised by women, is situated not far from the West Gate along the wall. There are also one or two on the slope of Mount Nanzam.

The exorcisms, with the exception of a few particular ones, are, for the most part, performed in the open air, on a level space in front of the house. A circle is formed by the various claimants, in the centre of which a woman, apparently in a trance, squats on her heels. The more money that is paid in, the greater the noise that takes place, and the longer does the performance last. Every now and then the woman in the centre will get up, and, rushing to some other female in the circle, will tap her furiously on her back and shake her, saying that she has an evil spirit in her which refuses to come out. She will also hint that possibly by paying an extra sum, and by means of special exorcisms, it may be induced to leave. What with the shaking, the tapping, the clapping, the drums and the howls, the wretched "spotted" woman really begins to feel that she has something in her, and, possessed - not by the spirits - but by the most awful fright, she disburses the extra money required, after which the spirit ultimately departs.

These witches and sorceresses are even more numerous than their male equivalents. They are recruited from the riff-raff of the towns, and are generally people well-informed on the state, condition, and doings of everybody. Acting on this previous knowledge, they can often tell your past to perfection, and in many cases they predict future events - which their judgment informs them are not unlikely to occur. When ignorant, they work pretty much on the same lines as the Oracle of Delphi; they give an answer that may be taken as you please. Then, if things do not occur in the way they predicted, they simply make it an excuse for extorting more money out of their victim under the plea that he has incurred the displeasure of the spirits, and that serious evil will come upon him if he does not comply with their request. The money obtained is generally spent in orgies during the night. These sorceresses and male magicians are usually unscrupulous and immoral, and are often implicated, not only in the intrigues of the noblest families, but also in murders and other hideous crimes.

Outside the towns, again, there are, only a grade higher than these, the Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. Within a few miles of Seoul, several of these are to be found. One thing that may be said for these institutions is that they are invariably built on lovely spots. Generally on the top, or high on the slopes of a mountain, they form not only homes for the religious, but fortified and impregnable castles. The monasteries are seldom very large, and, as a general rule, hold respectively only about two dozen monks.

There is a small temple on a platform, with a figure of Pul or Buddha in the centre, two brass candlesticks by his side, and a small incense burner at his feet. "Joss sticks" are constantly burned before him and fill the temple with scent and haze. Buddha, as found in Corea, has generally a sitting and cross-legged posture; the feet are twisted with the soles upwards, and, while the right arm hangs down, the left is folded, the forearm projecting, and the hand holding a bronze ball. By his side, generally on the left, is a small tablet in a frame of elaborate wood-carving. At the foot of the statue is a large collection box for the donations of the worshippers. The background is usually plain, or painted with innumerable figures of the minor gods, some with young white faces and good-natured expressions, probably the gods of confidence; others with rugged old faces and shaggy white eyebrows, moustache and hair, undoubtedly the various forms of the deity of wisdom. Then there is one with squinting ferocious eyes, black eyebrows and beard, dressed in a helmet and fighting robe, who, needless to remark, is the god of war. Others are the gods of justice, deference, and affection; the last being impersonated by two female figures who usually stand on each side of the Buddha. One curious thing about the Buddha is that the head is generally very large in proportion to the body, and that the ears are enormous for the size of the head. In the East it is considered lucky to possess large ears, but these Buddhas are often represented with their organs of hearing as long as the whole height of the head. In Europe such a thing would hardly be considered a compliment! The hair of the Buddha is carefully plastered down on his forehead, and is adorned with a jewel in the centre. The eyes are almost straight, like the eyes of Europeans, instead of being slanting, like those of the Mongolians, while the eyebrows, finely painted with a small brush, describe a beautiful semi-circular arch. The expression of the face, as one looks at it, is in most cases that of nobility and sleepiness.

Out of the West Gate, and a good way past the Pekin Pass, a very interesting day can be spent in visiting a monastery which is to be found there among the hills. Previous to reaching it, a small tomb, that, namely, of the King's mother, is passed. On each flank is a stone figure, while on three sides a wall shuts in the mound of earth under which the body lies. On the right is a tablet to the memory of the deceased, and in front of the mound is placed a well-polished stone, also a small urn.

High up, after following a zig-zag mountain path, we come to the monastery.

Monasteries as a rule consist of the temple and the mud huts and houses of the monks and novices. The temple always stands apart. Of the temples which I saw, none were very rich in interesting works of art or in excellent decoration, like the temples of Japan. The only parts decorated outside in the Corean houses of worship are immediately under the roof and above the doors, where elaborate, though roughly executed wood-carvings are painted over in red, white, green and yellow, in their crudest tones. Over each of the columns supporting the temple, projects a board with two enormous curved teeth, like the tusks of an elephant, and over the principal door of the temple is a black tablet, on which the name of the temple is written in gold Chinese characters. At each of the columns, both of the temple and of the common part of the dwellings, hang long wooden panels on which are written the names of supporters and donors with accompanying words of high praise.

The doors of the temples are of lattice-work and are made up of four different parts, folding and opening on hinges. On some occasions, when the concours of the public is too great to be accommodated within the building itself, the whole of the front and sides of the temple are thrown open. Inside the lattice-work above mentioned tissue-paper is placed, to protect the religious winter visitors from the cold.

Inside, the temples are extremely simple. With the exception of the statue of Buddha and the various representations of minor deities that we have already mentioned, there is little else to be seen. The prayer-books, certainly, are interesting; their leaves are joined together so as to form a long strip of paper folded into pages, but not sewn, nor fastened anywhere except at the two ends, to which two wooden panels are attached, and, by one side of the book being kept higher than the other, the leaves unfold, so to speak, automatically.

In one temple of very small dimensions, perched up among the rocks near the South Gate of Seoul, are to be seen hundreds of little images in costumes of warriors, mandarins and princes, all crammed together in the most unmerciful manner. This temple goes by the name of the "The Five-hundred Images." Adjoining it is a quaint little monastery and a weird cavern (see chap, xx., "A Trip to Poo Kan").

As to the monasteries themselves, these, though adjoining the temples, are built apart from them. Their lower portions are, like all Corean houses, of stone and mud, while the upper parts are entirely of mud. The roof is tiled on the main portion of the building, while over the kitchen and quarters for the novices it is generally only thatched.

More interesting to me than the temples and buildings were the bonzes, who are, I may as well say at once, a very depraved lot. It is a strange fact in nature that the vicious are often more interesting than the virtuous. So it is with the Corean bonzes. Here you have a body of men, shrewd, it is true, yet wicked (not to say more) and entirely without conscience, whose only aim is to make money at the expense of weak-minded believers. Morals they have none; if it were possible, one might say even less than none. They lead a lazy and vicious life in these monasteries, gambling among themselves and spending much time in orgies. They feed themselves well at the expense of the charitable, and a great deal of their energy is expended in blackmailing rich persons, not of course openly, but through agents as disreputable as themselves. Whenever there are riots or revolutions in progress, their origin can invariably be traced to the monasteries. In other respects, excepting these few little faults, they seemed charming people. Their dress consists of a long white padded gown with baggy sleeves; the usual huge trousers and short coat underneath; and a rosary of largeish beads round their necks. When praying, the rosary is held in the hands, and each bead counts for one prayer. A larger bead in the rosary is the starting-point. When petitions are being offered to Buddha on behalf of third parties - for rarely do they, if ever, pray on behalf of themselves - there is a scale of prices varying according to the wealth of the petitioners; so many prayers are worth so much cash; in other words, one buys them as one would rice or fruit. The bonzes shave their heads as clean as billiard balls; while the novices content themselves with cutting their hair extremely short, leaving it, probably, not longer than one-eighth of an inch. There are many different degrees of bonzes. We have, for example, the begging bonzes, who wear large conical hats of plaited split bamboos, or else hats smaller still and also cone-shaped but made of thick dried grass. They travel all over the district, and sometimes even to distant provinces, collecting funds and information from the people. Sometimes they impose their company on some well-to-do person, who, owing to the Corean etiquette in the matter of hospitality, has to provide them with food, money and promises of constant contributions before he can get rid of them. Then there are the stay-at-home bonzes, well-fattened and easy-going, who cover their heads with round, horse-hair, stiffened black caps of the exact shape of those familiar articles in French and Italian pastry-cook shops, used over the different plates to prevent flies from eating the sweets. Lastly, we have the military priests, who follow the army to offer up prayers when at war and during battles, and who don hats of the ordinary shape worn by every one else except that they have round crowns instead of almost cylindrical ones. These alone are occasionally allowed to enter the towns. Paper sandals are the foot-gear chiefly in use among them.

Whenever I visited a monastery, I found the monks most civil and hospitable, although naturally they expect something back for their hospitality. I hardly had time to pay my chin-chins to all of them, folding my hands and shaking them in front of my forehead, bent forward, before a tray of eatables, such as beans, radishes and rice in pretty brass bowls would be produced, and a large cup of wine offered, out of which latter the whole company drank in turn. They took much interest in my sketching, and all insisted on being portrayed. Many of them possessed a good deal of artistic talent, and it is generally by their handiwork and patience that the images and statues in the temples are produced. Among them were some very intelligent faces, somewhat abruties, to use a French word, owing to the life they lead, but exceedingly bright and cheery withal, and often very witty, when one came to talk with them. As for shrewdness and quickness of perception I know no person who has these better at his command than the Corean Buddhist priest.

There are also in Corea nunneries for women who desire to follow a religious life. Curiously enough, contrary to the rule with us, the Corean nuns are more emancipated than the rest of the native women. To begin with, they dress just in the same way as do the monks, shave their heads like them; and being, moreover, of a cast of countenance exceedingly ugly and not at all feminine, they might quite well, from the appearance of their faces, be taken to belong to the stronger sex. A good many of them, contrary to the case of the monks, impressed me as being afflicted with mental and bodily sufferings, and in several cases they even appeared to me to be bordering on idiocy. They always, however, received me kindly, and showed me their convents, with cells in which two or three nuns sleep together. They were not quite so careless as the monks about the duties of religion, and at the little temple close by there was a continual rattling of the gong, a buzzing, monotonous sound, enough to drive anybody out of his mind, if especially it was accompanied by the beating of drums. The temples attached to these nunneries seemed to be more elaborate inside than those of the monasteries, and when a religious ceremony has to be performed, two nuns, one in white, the other draped in a long, black-greenish gown, and both wearing a red garment thrown over the left shoulder, passed under the right arm, and tied in front with a ribbon, walk up and down inside the temple, muttering prayers, while a third female goes on rattling on the drums with all her might. Offerings of rice, beans, etc., are placed in front of the gods, a candle or two is lighted - and the nun in dark clothing holds a small gong, fastened to the end of a bent stick, and taps on it with a long-handled hammer, first gently and slowly, then quicker and quicker, in a crescendo, till she manages to produce a long shrill sound. The person, for whom these prayers are offered, kneels in front of the particular deity whom she wants to invoke, though generally at the foot of the Great Buddha, and with hands joined in front of her nose, prays with the nuns, getting up during certain prayers, kneeling down again for others. For head-gear, the nuns wear the same grass conical hats which the travelling monks do. If a large oblation is offered, the service is still more noisy, and not only are the big drums played in the most violent manner, but the nuns squat in a body along the walls inside the temple, and keep hammering away on little gongs similar to that just described. Recall to your memory the sound of a blacksmith's forge with two men hammering a red-hot iron, magnify that sound a hundred times, and add to it the buzzing of the prayers, and you will then get a pretty fair idea of what one of these religious ceremonies sounds like to European ears.

One of the best features of Confucianism is the inculcation of respect towards parents and old people, in which respect both monks and nuns do a deal of good; though, otherwise, I think the country might advantageously be without these institutions.

Beliefs are comical when one does not believe in them.

On the mountain slopes, just outside the city wall, and at no great distance from the West Gate, is a peculiar rock, which the action of the weather has worn out into the shape of a gigantic tooth. Whence comes its name of Tooth-stone. There would be nothing wonderful about this, if it were not for the fact that a visit to this freak of nature, has, according to Corean accounts, the property of curing the worst of tooth-aches. Though I was not myself afflicted with the complaint in question, I went one afternoon to witness the pilgrimage that takes place every day to this miraculous spot. A little altar stands at the foot of the huge tooth, and numberless tablets, certifying to cures, erected by thankful noble visitors and others, are fixed against the rock, with the name, date and year when the cures were effected.

As I stood there, I could not help laughing at the sight of the crowds of men and women with swollen cheeks, bandaged up in cotton wool and kerchiefs, apparently undergoing excruciating agonies through coming out on so cold a day. One after the other they came up, first paying their chin-chins in front of the altar, and then depositing on it what cash they could afford; after which they proceeded to rub one cheek after the other on the Tooth-stone, just as "puss" rubs herself against your legs when you stroke her head. The bandages had, of course, to be removed before the balloon-like cheek could be rubbed on the frozen stone, and to watch the different expressions of relief or increased pain upon their ill-balanced, inflamed faces, gave me as much amusement as any show that I have ever witnessed. Should the pain have temporarily disappeared, the man in charge of the miracle would make it his duty to try and extract more money from the person cured; if, instead of that, the pain had increased, which was generally the case, then, again, he would impress on the agonised sufferer that had he paid a larger sum in the beginning the gods would not have been vexed at his meanness and the pain would have disappeared. Let him, therefore, now pay more cash by way of making up for it, and try again! It is wonderful, too, how shallow people are when they have a pain anywhere!