Go back to the main Diamond Mountain page

In the Diamond Mountains : Adventures Among the Buddhist Monasteries of Eastern Korea


By the Marquess Curzon of Kedleston


Where every prospect pleases

And only man is vile.—Bishop Heber.

[The journey was made in October 1892 but this account of it was published in the National Geographic Magazine of October 1924, together with some 20 photos, of which only a very few have the Diamond Mountains as their subject, and they seem to be from various decades.]


In the course of my travels I have come across a good many monks and monkish communities and have spent nights of interest, though hardly of luxury and not always of repose, in monastic guest chambers or cells.

I have walked in pilgrimage round the pyramidal spires of Monserrat; have been hauled up in a net to the eyries of Meteora; have dined with the abbot of the great monastery of Troitsa, near Moscow; have fraternized with the dwindling Greek fraternities of Athos; and with the more prosperous Russians on Tabor; have sojourned in the grim monastery of Mar Saba, near the Dead Sea; was once rescued with difficulty, and only by the tact and savoir-faire of my companion, Sir John Jordan, from the menacing approaches of the Lamas in the great Tibetan monastery at Peking; have addressed an audience of 2,000 yellow robed Burmese monks at Mandalay, and have slept at night on the polished temple floors of the monasteries of Korea (Chosen).

I shrink, even after this rather diversified experience, from generalizing about monks, since I have found them divided, like other classes of mankind, between saints and profligates, bons vivants and ascetics, gentlemen and vagabonds, men of education and illiterate boors. But of all my monastic adventures I think that the ones which linger longest in my memory are the days that I spent with my friend, the late Cecil Spring-Rice, afterwards British ambassador at Washington, in wandering among the monasteries of eastern Korea.

And the reasons for my preference are these:

First, the scenery amid which these monastic retreats are hidden is among the most enchanting in the East. Indeed, it may fairly be described as one of the little known beauty spots of the world.

Secondly, there was not the faintest masquerade of piety among the great majority of these rather seedy scamps, some of whom were quondam criminals of the deepest dye; and this invested them with an originality which, if not admirable, was at least piquant.

And, thirdly, I had the supreme satisfaction of arresting an abbot and carrying him off, a captive of my bow and spear.

Doubtless other European travelers after my day have threaded the picturesque gorges of the Diamond Mountains; and, for all I know, since the vacuum-cleaner of Japanese rule has sucked out the dust and dirt from the crannies and corners of the dilapidated old Korean tenement, the monasteries may by now have been expurgated and the monks made respectable, and a road for motor cars driven to the threshold of the Keumkang San. But as I was one of the earliest Europeans to visit those exquisite retreats. now 32 years ago (October, 1892), it may be worth while to set down a few of my memories of the scene as it was in those unregenerate days of mingled rascality and romance.

In my book on Korea I described the incidents and features of travel as I saw them in that singularly backward and unsophisticated country—the little, sturdy, combative ponies; the garrulous, quarrelsome, lazy pony-men, or mapus; the indolent, strong-limbed people; the picturesque variety of scenery, the perfect climate, the abundance of winged game, the torchlit marches at night, the total absence of roads, the incredibly disgusting native inns.

  J. B. Millet

The "Eunjin Mireuk" in Gwanchoksa temple near Nonsan is the largest stone Buddha in Korea. It represents the Buddha of the Future.

Travelling to the Chief Monastery of Korea


 It was amid such surroundings that my acquaintance with the Korean cloister was made. We were marching from Wensan or Gensan, a port on the eastern coast to the capital, Seoul (Keijo), a distance of 170 miles; but we deviated from the familiar track (which a railway now nearly parallels) to visit the monasteries to the east of the road.

It was soon after passing Narnsan, 15 miles from Wensan, that we left the plain and plunged into the interior of a wooded range. the crimson of whose autumnal maples and chestnuts burned like a dying flame against the sky.

Our destination was the monastery of Syekwangsa, the chief or metropolitan monastic establishment in Korea, founded about 500 years ago, which I have not seen mentioned in the itinerary of other travelers.

The bridle-path—for no road in Korea at that time was any more or better—followed the windings of a sylvan glen, down which brawled a mountain stream. On either side were rocks on whose chiseled surface centuries of pilgrims had inscribed their names in bold Chinese characters.

In turn we passed the cemetery of the monks, marked by lanternlike pillars of stone, heavily eaved resthouses built for visitors, and a series of hideous painted wooden posts, each terminating in a grinning head, erected to ward off the assault of evil spirits. [*The theory is that all Nature is pervaded by spirits and genii, who require to be propitiated and, when malevolent, to he kept aloof.]

So we came, as the track broadened, to a hollowed amphitheater, which seemed to have been scooped out for the purpose in the hillside, where, on terrace above terrace, stood the monastic buildings.


Seo-gwang-sa temple near Wonsan. Completely obliterated by a 1951 US bombing

A Night with the Monks


It was near midnight when we arrived and presented our letters of introduction to the abbot. He showed us our quarters, and there we cooked and ate our meal, before the whole company of monks, in an atmosphere which might have been cut with a knife, not getting to bed till two in the morning.


Our sleep was on a floor stretched with oiled paper, as smooth and shining as marble : in the middle stood an altar and a Buddha behind glass.

Daylight had not dawned before we were aroused by the peripatetic tramp of an early monk, tapping a drum and singing a lugubrious chant. Another began to clap-clap upon a brass gong. Presently the big drum on the platform over the entrance was beaten to a noisy tune, and finally all the bells and gongs in the establishment were set going at once.

We rose and dressed before an appreciative crowd, who took an overpowering interest in our equipment, and more particularly in our sponges and binoculars.

Then the worthy abbot. robed in a gray dress, wearing a black circular horsehair hat, and holding a staff in his hand, appeared to conduct us around. His tiny eyes twinkled with good-humored benevolence; a gray stubble sprouted from his unshaved cheeks and chin; his big lips poured forth a voluble flood in an unfamiliar tongue.

One temple at the side contained a hideous painted wooden Buddha. A cluster of buildings to the left of the entrance, terminating in a prayer platform that overhung the torrent, was said to be reserved for the King.

In the side court of the inclosure, looking like a collection of little dolls with hoods were the upper part of the painted stone figures of 500 Lohans or Arhans—i.e., disciples of Buddha who were supposed to have framed the Sacred Canon with him in India. These images had a grotesque leer upon their whitened faces.


Jangan-sa temple in Geumgang-san

The Abbot Asks for a Double Fee


As we left, at 8:30 a.m., the good abbot accompanied us to the gateway, and when I offered him the paltry gratuity of one yen (50 cents) for the night's hospitality, which I thought very shabby, but had been enjoined at Wensan on no account to exceed, he looked at the coin with an air of pained reproach and murmured, "Couldn't you make it two?”

lt was quite impossible to resist this pathetic appeal, my prompt response to which made him quite happy and left me with the agreeable conviction that human nature is much the same all the world over, whether it be manifested in a London cabdriver or a Korean abbot.

Anyhow, this excellent man stands forth in my memory as the pleasantest and most human of all the holy friars whom l was to see during the next few clays of my wandering.

It was on the afternoon of the next day but one that, leaving the main Wensan-Seoul track beyond Hoiyang, we struck off eastward for our goal in the Diamond Mountains.

The night was spent in the native village of Sinhachang, where a rustic bridge of sticks and shrubs, whose unstripped autumnal verdure made a ruddy projecting fringe on either side, spanned a mountain stream.

On the next day we climbed a pass to a small shrine, or josshouse, which contained. amid a lot of fluttering and filthy ragsthe offerings of generations of pilgrims—two pictures, said to be those of the King with two boys, and the Queen with two girls.

A. M. Mirzaoff


The Dlamond Mountains are Sighted


But this was not the real interest. Before us lay a view, not unlike, but more beautiful than, the wild outlook in the Matoppo Hills as you climb to Cecil Rhodes' burial place in South Africa. Four successive ridges, like the palisades of some huge mountain fortress, the walls of each stained crimson with the heart's blood of the dying maple, filled the foreground. Each must be climbed and each descended before the splendid barrier of the Keumkang San, or Diamond Mountains, fifth in the sequence, was reached. [*It is uncertain whether the title is metaphorical, or refers to the serrated outline of the peaks, or is derived from the Diamond Sutra, one of the best known of the Buddhist scriptures. The Japanese form of the name is Kongo San, and they call the monastery of Chongansa (the Korean form) Choanji.]

It could be seen, standing up beyond and higher than its outer barricades, thickly mantled up to its shoulders, above which a battlement of splintered crags cut a fretwork pattern against the sky. Redder and more red glowed the wooded slopes as the sun declined, and an ashen pallor flickered on the granite boulders and needle spires.

The last valley bottom was crossed, the last river rushing down it in a rockstrewn bed was forded; the main range, in its livery of crimson and gold, was now in front of us.

C. K. Edmunds


Many Images and Effigies in the Temple Inclosure


A lovely walk through a piny glade, past monastic resthouses and under the scarlet archway, of the Hong Sal Mun, or Red Arrow Gate, that is the precursor of all buildings in Korea under royal patronage, led to a cleared space, where, above the rushing torrent, a cluster of buildings stood with their backs to a wooded hill.

These were the halls of the Chongansa [*Changansa] Monastery, or the Temple of Eternal Rest, the oldest and most famous of the monasteries of the Diamond Mountains

First is an open-terraced gateway, completely hung with tablets recording the names of subscribers and containing a grotesque wooden monster painted red, green, and white, representing one of the sernideified heroes or warriors, genii or spirits, who have been added in the passage of time to the Buddhist Pantheon, overlaying it with a mass of demonolatry that has well-nigh obliterated the original faith. A big bell hangs in a sort of wooden pen adjoining.

Next we pass through a pillared chamber into the courtyard of the monastery, at the head of which stands the main temple with double-tiered roof of tiles and deep overhanging tip-tilted eaves. The guest-houses are at the side.

In the central hall of the temple a gilded Buddha is seated in the middle on a raised wooden terrace or platform painted red. Above his head is a fantastically carved and painted canopy and in front of his face is suspended a green gauze veil.

Six great wooden pillars, a yard in diameter, formed of single tree trunk and colored red, support the roof, which is painted in faded hues of blue and green.

At the side of the hall is a painted scene containing three Buddhas, in front of whom are colossal images of warriors with diabolical faces.

Below the Buddhas, and indeed in front of every Buddhistic image, is a low stool or altar with a copy of the scriptures and a small brass bell, the indispensable ritual accompaniments of service.

On the right of the courtyard stand smaller detached temples containing other hideous effigies, colored red, green, and blue; their faces are, as a rule, painted white, and distorted with a horrible leer. One holds his beard in his hand; another, a book; a third, a scepter.

Small figures like boys are placed between them, carrying images of animals in their hands. Round are hung paintings on frames.

The second largest of these pavilions contains a fine pagoda canopy over the seated Buddha and a single row of figures seated and standing all round on a raised terrace.

C. K. Edmunds

Yujeom-sa temple, Geumgang-san


A Bed of Korean Oil-Cloth Paper


Evensong began soon after our arrival.

A young monk pulled a gray robe over his white dress and red hood, knelt on a circular mat, intoned the conventional phrases, not one syllable of which did he understand, struck a brass bell with a deer's horn, and touched his forehead on the ground. The act is one not of prayer, in our sense, but merely of adoration.

We were accommodated in a guest hall or temple, the floor of which was covered with the famous Korean paper that glistened like worn oilcloth. We unrolled our bedding at the foot of the altar, whence a miniature Buddha smiled down upon us from a sort of cage.

The monks—who had exhibited the liveliest interest in our articles of toilet. particularly in combs, nail scissors, and sponges, none of which had they ever seen; still more in an inflated India-rubber cushion, and most of all in a mouthplate of false teeth—retired at 7 p. m. and left us to ourselves.

In the morning we saw the pad-marks and droppings of a tiger, which had entered the courtyard during the night and paced around the closed buildings. Why he had been content to do no more, no one could say. The jungles of northern Korea abound in these animals, which levy an ample toll on animal and human life (for many are man-eaters) and are pursued by guilds of hunters with primitive weapons or caught in traps and pits.

Here let me say a few words about the Korean phase of monastic life, the last resorts of which I am now describing.

It was in the early centuries of our Christian Era that Buddhism made its way, it is alleged, from India, but much more probably from China, into the Korean peninsula. There in time it became not merely the official cult of the royal and ruling classes, but also the popular creed of the people.

Royal personages came on tour to the monasteries of the Diamond Mountains, which are said to have numbered 108 and which flourished greatly under this august patronage.

For more than a thousand years pilgrims from China and surrounding countries traveled great distances to its altars, cutting their names with infinite labor on the smoothed surfaces of the rocks and boulders in the valley bottoms, where the only track lay in the beds of the mountain streams.

Some of these inscriptions date back to the 13th century. In brass-bound chests in some of the principal halls of worship are still kept books of great value, printed in Chinese characters from wooden blocks more than 1,000 years old.


The 53 Buddhas in Yucheom-sa


Monks Become Outcasts


Then, more than three centuries ago, came the period in which Buddhism, hitherto venerated and popular, was rejected, disestablished, and despised, being prosecuted by the court, whose official creed was Confucianism, No monk was allowed even to enter the gates of the capital; and the priests were degraded to the lowest class of the people and were abandoned by the population, whose barbarism sought refuge in the rudest and crudest forms of dernonolatry, Shamanism. and superstition.

Some of the monasteries were destroyed by fire: others fell into decay. The survivors. no longer the haunts of piety and devotion, became pleasure resorts, which were visited by the upper classes for purposes of enjoyment, often of the least reputable kind, while the monks themselves became the outcasts of society, addicted to lives of combined mendicancy. depravity. and indolence.

From this cloud the Korean cloister has never recovered. At the time of my visit its recruits were, with few exceptions, drawn from the ne'er-do-wells and wastrels of society, refugees from justice, the victims of official persecution, pleasure-seekers of every description, profligates and paupers, destitutes and orphans—any, in fact, who wanted a safe retreat and a quiet lif e. Here and there an insignificant minority preserved the traditions or kept alive the spirit of the monastic order.


The Koreans Are Confirmed Sightseers


The seclusion and beauty of these mountain fastnesses at once attracted immigrants and afforded them the necessary protection.

No other people on earth, certainly none so backward in the scale of civilization, is so passionately addicted to sight-seeing and pleasure-seeking or so sensitive to the charm of landscape as the Korean. 'They will travel miles on foot to climb a pass or see a view, celebrating their arrival on the crest hy a mild jollification and by the deposit of a stone or the suspension of a rag in the little wayside shrine that crowns the summit, or, if they are sufficiently educated, by the composition of a few lines of doggerel verse.

To a people with such tastes the Diamond Mountains have always appealed with an irresistible fascination. There, in an area only 30 miles long by 20 broad, shut off from the rest of the world and accessible only by a few mountain passes, are still to be found more than 40 monasteries, which at the time of my visit were said still to contain from 300 to 400 monks, as well as a small number of nuns, and lay servitors to the number of a thousand. [In 1914, after the Japanese annexation, the numbers were: monks, 443; nuns, 85.]

They subsisted in the main on mendicancy, wandering about the country, almsbowl in hand, and—such is the simplicity or the superstition of the inhabitants—extracting liberal supplies either for the endowment of their idleness or the rebuilding and redecoration of their dilapidated shrines.

The whole situation was a paradox, whether we contrast the mise-en-scene with the inmates or the professions of monkish life with its practice.

I have described the Keumkang San as I saw them in the changing hues of autumn, and this is generally regarded as the best season; but I believe that the spectacle in spring, when the valleys and the hills are carpeted with the bright hues of violets and anemones. clematis and azaleas, and, above all, with lilies of the valley, and when the hillsides are ablaze with spring foliage and rhododendrons, the wild cherry and flowering shrubs, is not less captivating.

We devoted the day after our arrival at Chongansa to a march on foot—for no other method of progression is possible in those regions except a sort of native chair borne by men—to the neighboring monasteries of Pakhuam, Pyounsa, Potakam, Makayum, Panyang, and Yuchonsa.

The march was along the valley bottom, in or alongside of or across the torrent bed, where a foothold can onlv be secured by wearing the native sandal of twisted string, and these have to be changed every few miles. Pakhuarn was a tiny monastery, with only three inmates. Pyounsa, with ten, was larger, and had an abbot, wearing a huge circular hat.

Here was a newly painted temple with a portentous drum, the size of a small tun, resting on the back of a monster. There were brilliant paintings on the walls and a pink gauze veil hung in front of the figures of Buddha.

As we proceeded upstream the surface of the rocks was scarred with the incised names of generations of pilgrims, which must have taken days, if not weeks, to cut.

E. M. Newman

Seoul (this and the rest of the photos have nothing to do with the Diamond Mountains)


The Grandest View in Korea


Behind Pyounsa, at the top of the hill (2,750 feet), is seen the great view of the "Twelve Thousand Peaks," said to be the grandest in Korea. The title is merely a quantitative symbol; but if each pinnacle and cone and spire in that wonderful outlook were counted, it might be that the total would not be found too high.

Potakam is not a place of residence, but an altar to Kwanyin (the Goddess of Mercy), built high up on a ledge to the right of the valley and supported by iron girders and a cylindrical shaft or pillar of iron. Near Makayum is a colossal image of Buddha, known as the Myokil Sang, 40 to 50 feet high, sculpted in relief on the face of the rock, with a small stone altar in front.

The right hand of the figure is raised and the fingers of thc left are outspread across the breast. The expression of the countenance is placid and serene.

Near Makayurn is some of the loveliest scenery in these mountains. There, in a very beautiful ravine, called Manpoktong, or the Grotto of Myriad Cascades, is the Pearl Pool, Chinjutam; a neighboring peak, with a wonderful outline. is Sajapong, the Lion Peak, and a little farther to the northeast are two Manrnulsangs, New and Old, which means "Aspect of Myriad Things," the idea being that the fantastic rocks in these areas resemble, as they might well be thought to do, all existing shapes in the world.

Were such scenery to be found in Europe, thousands of visitors would pour to it from every part of the Continent.

From here we crossed the watershed by a very steep climb over the Naimuzairyung Pass, 4,300 feet above the sea, which is visible from it in clear weather, and descended upon the small monastery of Panyang, and the much larger and recently restored establishment of Yuchonsa.

A great deal of money had been spent here; and the abbot and his following, of whom 13 monks and 8 lads happened to be home (there are said to be 100 monks in all), were on a different plane, both of cleanliness and manners, from their neighbors.

Yuchonsa is now the largest monastery in the Diamond Mountains and comprises no fewer than 22 buildings. The main temple contained a very elaborate carved and painted erection or iconostasis, with 53 little images of Buddha, each perched on a little stand with a silk cloth below, and framed in a grotesque-colored background, made to represent the roots and branches of a tree twisted in the most fantastic convolutions. On either side of this monstrosity were two great fan-shaped bouquets of scarlet and white flowers.

A nine-storied pillar or stone pagoda stood in the court, on the right hand of which were three temples, with small grotesque seated figures all round, and fresh paintings on the ceiling.

The guest chambers of this monastery were the best that we had seen, and we ate our lunch in a small room with a papered floor, warmed by a flue beneath.

I have said little about the scenery on this day's march, which was a total distance of 90 Ii, or between 25 and 30 miles. But it was as glorious as any that had preceded it, though the march was much more fatiguing, a good deal of it being over slippery and slanting boulders by the torrent side, on which the traveler could not possibly retain his footing in soled boots and where he would be helpless without the native string sandal.

ln parts it is a nasty climb, for the rocks have been worn smooth by the attrition of pilgrims' feet for centuries, and just below glimmers many a deep pool. into which the slightest misstep will send the wayfarer headlong.

The torrent must further be crossed and recrossed many times by slender bridges. composed sometimes of a single pine stem. A further peril arises from the stepping-stones, consisting of rude boulders, uneasily perched in the foaming stream and wobbling under the tread.

The return journey from Yuchonsa to Chongansa was made by a different route, and we did not get back till 7 :30 p.m., after a day of 13 hours.


Watch, Knife, and Cash Disappear


After another night at the foot of the altar whence the smiling Buddha looked down, we packed up before 6 in the morning to resume our journey to Seoul. Then it was that my watch and chain and knife and the whole of my spare cash were found to have disappeared from under my pillow, where they had been hidden throughout the night.

A prolonged altercation ensued, in which everyone, from the abbot downward, took part—indignant charges on the one side, violent protestations of innocence on the other.

Over an hour had been spent on this futile fusillade when it became necessary to act. Accordingly we announced our intention to take the abbot (who, by the way, could hardly have been mistaken for an ecclesiastical dignitary in any country but Korea) with us to Seoul, and we placed him in the custody of the two official yamen runners who had been deputed to accompany our party.

At 7:15 a.m. we were on the road, the arrested abbot walking sulkily between his guards in the rear. I can see the swarthy vagabond as I write.


Valuables Found, Abbot Released


We had not proceeded for more than a quarter of a mile when a shout was heard from behind and a monk came running after us, holding the recovered watch and chain and knife in his hand. The cash had, of course, disappeared.

The abbot was released, and returned to his peccant flock; but there was no need to offer him the customary tip, since his followers had thus effectively anticipated its voluntary presentation. Had we taken him to Seoul, I tremble to think what might have been his fate.

From the valley we presently climbed to the top of the Tanpa Ryong, or Crophair Ridge (so called because on reaching this point the candidate for the cloister in olden days was supposed to divest himself of his locks and to assume the shaven crown). Here is a magnificent double view—on the one side the entire sweep of the Keumkang San range, 20 miles in length, the russet vesture of the foreground leading up to the bewildering panorama of gray steeples, pinnacles, and crags, just tipped with a cloud cap on the topmost spires; on the other side a valley equally as noble as that we had left, and beyond this the mountains, billow rolling upon billow for from 60 to 70 miles, till lost in the blue haze of the horizon.

Next day we rejoined the main road to Seoul at Changdo; and so ended my never-to-be-forgotten visit to the monasteries and mysteries of the Diamond Mountains.

Since the Japanese annexation of Korea the monasteries have been subjected to strict regulations as regards their property, their buildings, the choice of the superior, the tenure of office, ancl the course of life. There is now an examination for the priesthood; and I am afraid that if I went back to my former haunts I should no longer find myself the victim of monkish thieving or be able to arrest an abbot of Chongansa.

The remaining photos are of mostly unidentified places and with unknown dates

  E. M. Newman

Underwood & Underwood

Beating ttok (rice-cake)

  Underwood & Underwood

Graham Romeyn Taylor 

In Daegu

  Graham Romeyn Taylor

J. B. Millet

Police station notice board: Warning, thieves will be beheaded.

J. B. Millet


Another of my pages contains far more pictures of Diamond Mountain temples