Meeting With Sanshin: An Interview with Hiah Park, Lover of the Mountain God

Lauren W. Deutsch

[H]i-ah Park, Manshin*, Korean shaman, specializes in ritual dance. Original artist, healer and teacher, she works at the level of the primordial state through ecstatic trance. Skilled in the healing arts, she communicates the needs of humans to the spirits and oracles of the spirits to humans.

I met Hi-ah Park during the 1990 Los Angeles Festival during which she participated in a multi-cultural program about spirit and art, along with several Native Americans and a bevy of Buddhists. I had heard a report that the Native Americans earlier had tried to cancel their plan to do several sacred ceremonial rituals at this program if TV cameras or newspaper photographers were present. What is ritual for, she remarked, but to engage the spirits on behalf of people. “Sharing the experience of rapture I have nothing to hide.” She seemed a wise, old person, though she looked only 40. She told me she had “died many times.”

Hiah Park 1

The night of the presentation, she “performed” several dances of a traditionally longer kut, ritual, going into a trance and deftly wielding a sword and a rainbow of flags before an altar resplendent with dogk, the many-layered Korean rice cake, fruit, sticks of incense and other offerings placed on the altar in front of a gilded statue of Buddha.

Out of whirlwind of colorful costumes, loud drums (native American and Korean), cymbals and gongs, and some 200 people dancing ecstatically, the “performance” stopped into complete stillness. It was the trailhead, the ken, keeping still, of the I Ching, that great mountaineer’s bible. The buzz of mountain-top seeking mind dissolved into silence, then plunged through formless ecstatic trance, leaving no footprints, taking the memories, too! It was as if a weather front moved in and blew the clouds away.

At that point all I knew about Hi-ah Park was that she was born in Seoul and is considered the finest Korean traditional classical dancer of her generation. The first woman to be admitted to the National Classical Music Institute and into the esteemed ranks of Court Musician, she gave by any standards an exquisite “performance”, but this was not just a dance recital on the second floor of a downtown Buddhist temple. She literally went a giant step further.

I have since come to realize that her life mirrored that of an intimate of Sanshin. As Canda explains in Korea Journal, Sanshin is a “tangible, specific and personal entity,” evident to human senses through vitality, power and mystery of the physical landmass as well as in dreams and visions. This, I was to learn, was Hi-ah Park’s history. His observation of Sanshinʼs “having awesome natural power in service of sacredness and wisdom,” became her destiny.

Manshin is a title of respect identifying a mudang, a female Korean shaman. For centuries manshin had been openly persecuted, their practices disrupted and shrines destroyed, their artistry desecrated to entertainment. The prevailing religious and social order forced the practice of shamanism “underground”. It is still considered a curse to suggest that someone would grow up to be or to marry a mudang. That one of Korea’s most acclaimed artists, an American citizen and university lecturer became a mudang has had impact in Korea as well as globally.

After a number of years of quiet reflection, Hi-ah Park decided to fulfill her destiny as Manshin, to put her art in service of the spirit and the people who seek her out. She currently works in Europe and the USA, teaching through performances, workshops and lectures, including many prestigious universities and mental health centers.

Whether clad in a manshinʼs colorful robes performing a formal kut to the accompaniment of changʼgo, hourglass drum, and cymbals and gongs, or in a simple flowing white tunic dancing to the sounds of steel cello, bow chime, Chapman Stick, Mongolian drum or a wall of gongs, HI-ah Park shows us how the shaman warrior climbs the mountain, and dances atop the peak in mu-a, ecstasy.

What was your earliest memory of Sanshin?

From very early childhood, I loved mountains. My memory of childhood is playing in the tiger cave near my neighborhood. Often there, I lost time and space while my family was looking for me. One day I climbed into the mountain deeper than usual, as if somebody invisible being was guiding me into the unknown world, and I found the big tree surrounded by piled with lots of stones. There unknowingly I bowed to the ground after respectfully gathered stones top of the piles. Definitely that was my first encounter with Sanshin.

Of all the Sanshin in Korea, why do you think you are relating particularly to Tangun?

During my illness before my initiation, I had several visions. In one, I saw Tangun, the Korean heroic founder of the nation who later became Mountain Spirit, sitting in a meditation posture within a yurt and wearing a red hat and robe. As I gazed at intensely at that figure, we became one; then I saw myself sitting as Tangun. This clear vision of Tangun convinced me to visit my homeland after an absence of 15 years. I didn’t have any specific plan for my visit. However, from its start, everyone I met and everywhere I visited turned out to be connected somehow with shamanistic practices. I was introduced to Kim Keum-Hwa, a well known Hwang-haedo manshin (a western province of Korea) viewing a video of one of her shamanic rituals. I couldn’t believe my eyes: I saw Kim Keum-Hwa wearing the same red robe and hat I had seen in my Tangun vision of a week prior.

A week later I was introduced to her. When Kim came into the room in her house where I was waiting, we both shuddered. She told me she had the sensation that her spirits wanted to talk to me. She brought a divination table and started to pronounce oracles: “Rainbows are surrounding in all directions. The fruit is fully ripe and can’t wait anymore!” She told me I was lucky to have surrendered to the spirits’ orders and to have come to her. Otherwise, she said, I would have died, like an overripe fruit that falls onto the ground and rots. Kim continued to explain that I had disobeyed two times previously and, consequently, had to go through unbearable pain and loneliness and near-death experiences. She warned that I should not resist anymore–the third time, there is no forgiveness. It was absolutely essential that I undergo the naerim kut without delay. On a more positive note, Kim told me she saw double rainbows stretched around my head, celestial gods surrounding on me. She said that warrior in me was so strong that I would want to stand on the chaktu, sharp blades. She predicted that, in the near future, I would be a famous shaman, and I’d travel all around the world. Then she set a date for the initiation–June 23, 1981. In less than two weeks, I was transformed into a new shaman.

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Did you have personal desire to be a shaman?

When I began studying shamanism in 1975, I had neither wish nor the intention to become a shaman. I initially considered the whole process solely as an artistic endeavor, yet everything I encountered along the shamanic path seemed to create a thirst in me for spiritual fulfillment. I became a manshin after I was called to the profession through sinbyong, or initiatory illness.

What is the symptom of shamanic illness?

I began to suffer from tedium and loneliness, without knowing any meaning to my life. My interest in mundane affairs and domestic chores waned completely. I suffered unbearable loneliness and longed for the mountains.

I spent many nights weeping endlessly or dreaming of impending death. In my dreams, I was imprisoned in the underworld and chased by wild animals. For about nine months, I endured sleepless and restless nights, until I had an incredible, lengthy dream of an ancient royal funeral procession. My insomnia stopped right after this mysterious dream. I was happy without any specific reason. I felt elevated into the air, as if somebody was lifting me. After this funeral dream, my dream scenes started to change into lighter, celestial ones.

In one of unforgettable dream journey, a white unicorn with wings took me through the Milky Way to an incredible, infinite space of deep, jet-dark indigo. In that place, I heard a deep and resonant voice ask me, “How are the people down there?

” I still remember clearly the conversation with that invisible voice and the ecstatic feeling I had. Then the voice told me I had to go back to teach the people love. I felt boundless joy and, at the same time, sadness that I had to go back. Without any sense of waking up from a dream, I found myself in my room. For a while, I was obsessed by this visionary dream and felt very connected with that other reality. Although I couldn’t understand it, the other space was so clear that I now felt as if my waking state was the dream.

Why do shamans have to go through shamanic illness?

I believe that it happens because a person’s spiritual body is starving from a lack of inspirational creativity. The initiatory sickness allows her to escape from the world and withdraw into the darkness, in order to experience her own rites of passage. In order to become a shaman, the person must go through years of introspection, personal torment, and progressive spiritual development. Without understanding the stillness, one will never understand the spirit world.

How do you come out from sinbyong?

By reaching the point of mu a, ecstasy, the death of ego. Ecstasy is a sensation which is encountered in our hearts. It is seeing and hearing with the heart, rather than just with eyes and ears. It is also a flame which springs up in the heart out of longing, to see and to become one with its truth (God). Atop this mountain there is such clarity that there is no duality.

What place did Sanshin have in your initiation ritual?

In the preparation for initiation ceremony, I had to climb up to the mountain to receive the Mountain Spirit early in the morning by a purifying bath in a cold mountain stream. My Godmother and I had ascended the mountain north of Seoul. She asked me to climb up a steep, rocky cliff to get a branch from a pine tree. This task was the first test of the day. I did as she requested, performing the task necessary to receive Sanshin. We spoke as little as possible. At the mountain altar I offered rice, rice cake, three different kinds of cooked vegetables, fruits, lighted candles and incense and makghuli, home made rice wine.

As my Godmother chanted and beat a small gong, I held up the Sanshin dari, a long piece of cloth called minyong, white cotton bridge, through which the shaman receives the Mountain Spirit. My body started to quiver uncontrollably, a sign that the Spirit was entering me. I completely surrendered to the Spirit, turning off my internal dialogue, and entered into inner silence. I sensed light coming from every direction, and I started to feel drunk with the Spirit in me. It was dramatic close encounter with the separated “Lover” at long last. I felt the ultimate completion of my primordial self before separation. I knew that the spirit loved me and forgave my long resistance to accepting it. Bathed by the light of Spirit, I felt clean and reborn. I practically flew down the mountain to the town in the valley below. I returned with my Godmother to her house which would become the site of the all-day ritual that was to come.

Hiah Park 2

Could you describe some more details about the initiation?

The Korean term for initiation is “naerim kut.” This aspect of the ritual is concerned with the descending spirits and identification and presentation of the deities that have already made their presence known through possession of my body.

At the initiation ceremony, the minyong was placed leading onto the upstage portion of the house as a bridge between the heaven and the earth. To test my psychic ability and to determine if I could identify the deities who had descended on me, my Godmother and her assistant shaman, who serves as a messenger, sat at the end of the minyong, in a sense ending in heaven. A straw mat was placed downstage. Each question asked by the head shaman was repeated by her assistant. Instead of answering the questions directly, I began dancing. Then, kneeling down on the straw mat, I answered the questions orally. The dance seemed to heighten the trance state so that my answer came without thinking as if I know everything already.

The first question was, “If you become a shaman, through which gate will you enter?”

I started singing in an occult nature, previously unknown to me. Again I danced until possessed and knelt down to wait for the next question.

“Which spirit is entering you?” she asked.
I answered, “Elwol Sung Shin and Okhwang Sangchae, spirits of the Sun, Moon and Stars and the Jade Emperor, are entering.”

“Then reveal your true nature and find the symbolic paraphernalia of these deities,” she ordered.

I stood, and walking upstage, grasped the Il wrol dae, sun and moon stick, a pine branch which I took from the cliff at the mountain, bundled together with a bronze mirror and covered with a white long sleeved gown, the costume of the deities.

After I danced, she asked me another question, “Which spirit did you receive this time?”

My reply was, “I received Sanshin, the spirits from the High Mountain and Sa Hae Yong Wang Nim, from the Four Direction Deep Ocean.”

“Why did you receive it?” she asked.

“I obeyed the order from Tangun, the founder of Korea. He has told me to help infertile couples, to counsel parents and their children to love each other. Through him I am guided to heal sickness and help those in poverty to find prosperity. Lastly, he advises me to engender love and respect among all people.” Acknowledging my remarks, the head shaman invited any other spirits that might be present to enter me, and the Deity of the Seven Stars, Chil Sung, Big Dipper; Taegam Nim, the Spirit of High Nobility; Chosang Nim, Spirit of Ancestors; and Obang Shinchang Nim, Warrior of the Five Directions, came through.

Hiah Park 3

What other occasions have you encountered Sanshin?

After I teaching summer school of 1977 at UCLA, I retired to an avocado ranch located deep in the mountains. I left all worldly affairs behind, obsessed like a lover longing for the mountains. In the mountains I could feel the presence of something indescribably different, an exotic apparition, the spirit of which one cannot find in a human, a beautiful, bewitching spirit which I embraced with boundless joy. I journeyed to Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, Death Valley, and other places like the Grand Canyon. In Canyon de Chelly I was led by endless double rainbows to the White House cliff dwelling with its ancient kiva, subterranean ritual chambers. As I emerged from a ruined kiva a sudden thunder and lightening storm attacked me mercilessly. I fainted onto the sand, and in total surrender I offered myself to the spirits present. I awoke with the most incredible orgasm I have ever known, basking in the most luxurious ecstasy. The sky was replete with rainbows and the reflections of rainbows reaching every horizon. The mountain breeze passing through the canyon seemed to be coming and going in the rhythm on an inaudible chant. As I flowed into that chant my soul ascended as flying unicorn, higher and higher into the sky. At last I was free and flying with such a feeling of exhilaration and joy that I wanted to cry, for I was experiencing the ecstasy, for which I had been yearning so long.

How has the initiation influenced your dance?

Since my initiation, my understanding of dance changed completely. The inseparability of art and spirit became essential for healing myself and eventually it has helped others. My teaching and performing is at the level of the primordial state, mainly achieved through ecstatic trance. By integrating breath, sound, movement and theatre, I set the stage for the transformation of the audience and society.

How has Sanshin influenced your decision to work globally?

Transformation is a fundamental concern of the shaman’s ritual. One important function of ritual is that it makes you a member of the tribe, of society, and hopefully a member of the global community. Today it is especially important to return to tribal integration in a global sense. I’ve been traveling a great deal since 1988 sharing Tangunʼs doctrine of “Hong Ik In Kan”, to be of benefit to all sentient beings, to engender love and respect among all people. Sanshin cannot afford any longer to wait on a lonely mountain top.

What is Sanshinʼs message?

The nature and message of spirit is beyond mental condition; it is bliss of pure energy, pervading everything, mu-a / ecstasy. The Spirit, which is formless, speaks through me in ecstatic dance. Spirit is shy, but sword is sharp. It teaches us a powerful but direct process of purification. Through ecstatic dance, sound and breath meditation, it cuts through fear, conflict and confusion. Fear is transformed into plentiful, universal love, and suddenly, we understand that our lives are about much more than suffering; it is also about experiencing rapture. This only works for those who are willing to confront their dark side and surrender to the primal spirit.

First published Kyoto Journal 1993 (KJ 25)
(Subsequently published as The Sacred Mountains of Asia John Einarsen, ed., Boston MA, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1995)



Over 70% of Korea is mountainous and many of the “most famous” sacred peaks are in the northern part of the peninsula. Perhaps most notable is Mt. Daebaek (Myohyang-san in Yongbyon, north Pyongan Province), the spot chosen by heavenly god Hawan-in for his sons, Hwan-woong, earthly abode.

Tangun, founder of the Ancient Chosun Empire and considered the first Korean, was born near a sandalwood tree to a patient, obedient bear-woman and Hwan-woong in 2333 BCE. He established his capital in Asadal (old name of Pyongyang) in Baegak-san where he eventually died, aged 1908 years, and became Sanshin of Mt. Kuwol. Other peaks sacred to Tangun are Mani-san (on an Island in the mouth of the Han River) where it is said he established a rock altar, and Baked-san (Mt. Whitehead).

Centuries ago you could find a cozy wooden hut, with thatched straw or tiled roof situated deep in the mountain. Today, anthropomorphic images of Sanshin appear everywhere fine arts and tourist memento are found. Scrolls and screens depict Sanshin as a stately old man with a long beard leaning on a tiger, his messenger. The tiger, even the one playfully rendered as the mascot of the Seoul Olympiad, is also said to be Sanshin and Tangun. Sanshin icons were once prepared only for religious worship exclusively. To this end they were found only in the mountain spirit shrines in the samsinggak, three spirit hall, behind the golden hall in the Buddhist temple compounds, shamansʼ houses or at the ceremonial grounds of shamanic ritual.

CAVEAT: If you’re really looking for Sanshin in Korea, particularly Tangun, choose carefully whom you tell. The three “Cs” which have been dominating the political and social order north and south — Confucianism, Christianity and Communism — don’t want anyone to find him, his being the national ancestor with all implications that this powerful identity implies. And given the state of the world, you shouldn’t be to surprised to know that Tangun has been spotted outside Korea.

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Lauren W. Deutsch

Author's Bio

Lauren W. Deutsch is a contributing editor and head of strategic partnerships at KJ.


Photos originally published (print) with this article were used by permission of Hi-ah Park.