Sanbang-sa Temple, Cheju-Do Island

 Cheju Do Buddha Statues
Buddha statues at Sanbang-sa Temple
Cheju Do Island, Korea

Sixty miles off the southwestern corner of the Korean peninsula stands the island of Cheju Do. Only 700 square miles in area, the island is completely dominated by the extinct volcano cone of Halla San. At 5850 feet (1950 meters), Halla San is the highest peak in all of South Korea. Its last recorded eruption was in AD 1007. Neither legend nor anthropological evidence gives any certain indication of the ancestral stock of Cheju Do; its people are probably a mix of the indigenous Koreans, Chinese from the north, Malayans from the south, and perhaps Japanese from the east. During Neolithic times a unique culture developed on the island, and legends speak of the great mountain being the dwelling place of a race of giants and various mountain spirits.

By the end of the first millennium BC, Cheju Do had entered the realm of Chinese mythology as one of the islands of Samshinsan, or Islands of the Blest, also called the Three Holy Mountains. These legendary isles were said to have the sacred fungus of immortality growing in great abundance. This sacred fungus was probably the Amanita muscaria mushroom, also called Fly Agaric, which figures prominently in the shamanic and religious mythologies of lands from far eastern China, India, and Siberia all the way to the Celts of Europe and the Laplanders of Scandinavia. Known as Soma in ancient India, this brilliant red mushroom with white spots is familiar to people of European descent because of its association with children's fairy tales, magical dwarfs, and the cape of Santa Claus.

Anthropological studies of the mythology and sacramental use of this potent psychotropic (vision-inducing) mushroom have shown its extensive associations with the emergence of proto-religious traditions throughout the world. (Readers interested in this fascinating subject should consult the writings of ethnobotanist Terence McKenna.) These hallucinogenic mushrooms were once found growing in the forests of Halla San, in the Yeong-shil or "Spirit Place" wilderness that is the ritual gateway to the sacred peak. One of the three Samshinsan holy islands was known as Yongju, which is the first of several historical names of Cheju Do Island. Yongju San, meaning "Mountain of the Blessed Isle," was believed by the ancient Chinese to form a sort of bridge between heaven and earth. At a later date, when the Milky Way galaxy was believed by Neo-Confucian societies to form the connecting link between the heavens and the earth, Yongju San became Halla San, "The Peak That Pulls Down the Milky Way." This image of heavenly energy flowing down upon Cheju Do offers one explanation for the supernatural phenomena mentioned in the ancient myths of the island.

In the middle of the volcanic crater atop Halla San lies a small lake called Baengnok-dam, or White Deer Lake. Legends mention this lake as the abode of angelic presences. In November 1985, I climbed Halla San during a blizzard, but I was not able to reach the lake. Descending from the mountain, I had a most incredible experience. Walking through the pine forests of the mountain's lower slopes, I began to feel a definite presence around me. Many times I stopped and looked around, expecting to see someone peering at me from behind a tree. While I did not see anything, the feeling of a presence increased until I felt I was completely surrounded by - I have no more appropriate words for this unique sensation - a bunch of hidden dwarfs or spirits. The feeling was angelic and extraordinarily peaceful. There does indeed seem to be a power or energy field surrounding Halla San that may have given rise to the legend of angelic presences.

Farther down the mountain, near the southwest coast, is the cave temple of Sanbangsa, once a pagan shrine, now a Buddhist sanctuary. Inside the cave is a pool of water formed by drops falling from the ceiling. Various legends are told about this place. The water is believed to have a healing and prayer-granting power. Near the cave is a temple that has a large number of old Buddha statues, these statues having been brought to Cheju Do by pilgrims from many parts of Southeast Asia during the past one thousand years.

The story of how the photograph was made is quite remarkable. The day before I arrived (when I had climbed Halla San in a violent snow storm) a lightening bolt had broken through the roof of the room containing the Buddha statues. The next morning, craftsmen were repairing the damaged roof when I visited the shrine. A radiant beam of dazzling white sunlight was shinning through the hole and directly illuminating one of the Buddha statues. The moment was an epiphany for I recognized the picture being presented to me was an absolutely unique event. The light beam had never before shown into the room and, within only a few more minutes of roof repair, would never shine again. With no time to set up a tripod, I used my trusty Nikon F3 with a 300 mm lens and took a light reading. Even at the widest lens aperture (f4.5), an exposure of one full second was needed. Professional photographers will know that it is virtually impossible to hand-hold a heavy 300 mm lens for a one second exposure and not have extreme blur in the image. But you can see that somehow, magically, it worked. It is one of my very favorite photographs from all my travels and I like to think of it as a gift from the angelic spirits of sacred Mt. Halla San.

Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study of pilgrimage traditions and sacred sites around the world. During a 40 year period he has visited more than 2000 pilgrimage places in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide at is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.
For additional information by Professor David Mason, visit

For information about traveling to Korean sacred sites, contact Roger Shepherd