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.