Korea's System of Geomancy or Feng Shui
The main themes and concepts of Korean Geomancy, which is called Pungsu-jiri-seol [Wind-Water
Earth-Principles-theory, or "Study of the Patterns of Wind and Water"], were developed by the great
meditation master Doseon-guksa in the late 900s; or at least records about him doing so are the
earliest we have -- some Koreans studied Chinese Daoism during the Three Kingdoms and Unified
Shilla eras, and Feng-shui was strongly believed-in and widely-practiced then, but we have no
evidence that any Koreans developed their own geomantic theories before Doseon. Pungsu-jiri-seol
can be defined as the Korean style of divination performed according to topography, or as a Korean
theoretical system that evaluates various features of land, mountain and water, and then connects
them to human fortune / misfortune, peace / calamity and advancement / decline.
The original Chinese Daoist Geomancy is now well-known in Western nations as "Feng-shui". This
contains some semi-scientific ideas of geography, geology and energies (mixed with numerology and
other blatant superstitions) which intersect with the older shamanic concepts of San-shin [mountain-
spirits] in several interesting ways -- sometimes conflicting/ competing, and sometimes complementary.
Due to the scarcity of formal Daoism in Korea, Feng-shui became established in close association with
Seon [Meditational, Zen] Buddhism instead (the rise of popularity of both resulted from the decline of Shilla royal
power in the 800s and increasing self-interests of provincial clans, who used them to rationalize their independence).
Doseon-guksa studied the various Chinese Daoist schools of Feng-shui and adapted their ideas and
practices to the Korean landscape situation and cultural traditions (a legend says that he was taught his new
theories by a Spirit of Mt. Jiri-san -- see this page). The system that he developed, often called "Bibo-
pungsu-jiri", focused on "harmony with nature" [Bi-bo is usually the Chinese characters meaning factors
leading to National Prosperity, but sometimes those for "Hidden Treasure" are used]. Compared with Feng-shui,
it places greater emphasis on the spiritual and material energies of mountains and their ranges, and
their effect on the destinies of families, communities and the nation as a whole, than on personal
fortunes and interior furniture-placement. National Master Doseon taught that building temples and
stone pagodas on particular sites (strategically-located hyeol -- see below) could amplify their positive-
fortune-energies or reduce/neutralize their negative energies, and benefit the kingdom (improving both
security and prosperity) -- those erected according to his directions are still called Bibo-sacheol and
Bibo-satap. His teachings are sometimes also called "Inyang pungsu-jiri" [yin-yang geomancy theory].
None of Doseon's original writings survive, but several later documents quoted from them, and the
succeeding generations of Koreans have studied and followed his ideas for 1100 years. Taejo Wang
Geon founded the Goryeo Dynasty in the early 900s with heavy use of Doseon's recommendations
and theories, and they remained politically and socially powerful for centuries. The significant
rebellion of the monk Myocheong around 1130 was mostly based on his advocacy of moving the
capital north to Pyeongyang to achieve a superior position according to his Pungsu-jiri readings.
Four Goryeo-Dynasty Confucian scholars of the 12th Century (an era when concern over and speculation
about the national identity was very popular), led by Kim In-jon and Bak Seung-jung, wrote a book entitled
"Haedong-Pirok" [Secret History of Korea] that repeated and extended Doseon's theories, and that
remains the oldest Pungsu-jiri text we now have. In the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, scholar Yi
Jung-hwan (1690-1752) surveyed the entire peninsula in both geographic and geomantic terms, and
then wrote Taengni-chi, a book giving advice on the best places to live -- both social morality and the
Pungsu-jiri ideas were clearly central to his Neo-Confucianist judgements.
The most important vocabulary element in understanding Pungsu-jiri is Gi (기) which means life-
energy or material-force, not just "matter" but also the vitality and variety of the material world [Chinese:
Ch'i / Qi and Japanese: Ki ], an essential concept of all Oriental philosophy. Gi is complementary to Li
(이) [Principle, Pattern, Reason, Coherence], and the nature of the relationship between them has
been the subject of great philosophical controversy throughout the Orient for 1800 years or so; it is the
topic of Korea's greatest theoretical discussion, the 4-7 Debate. But since Li is more identified with
"Heaven" and Gi with "Earth", the character, flow and transformations of the latter is of primary
importance for the theories and usages of Pungsu-jiri. Gi manifests in a wide spectrum of refinement
and density -- with mineral things as stone, metal and human bone being the densest, most enduring
and least subject to the changes of Li, while what we call Shin (신) or Guishin (귀신) [Spirit; Chinese:
shen] is the most refined, subtle and volatile form of Gi, the most subject to the changes of Li.
One of the key ideas of Doseon's Pungsu-jiri-seol is the Baekdu-daegan, the mountain-range-spine
of the Korean Peninsula, believed by traditionalists of all sorts to continuously feed essential Gi
throughout the nation, from its mountains into all its agricultural products, spring-waters and air, and
thus into its people. It's unimpeded clear flow is considered necessary for the birth and raising of
heroic and virtuous citizens, and thus for the health, strength and prosperity of the Korean Nation.
San-shin worship at the great mountains along its path is believed to assist and increase this Gi-flow.
Diagrams of Auspicious
Sites from a Pungsu text,
copied from The Encyclo-
pedia of Korean Culture.
My dictionary does note that in pungsu-jiri "hyeol" can mean "a spot where influences to one's fortune
converge" -- so tie that together, it's like an acupuncture-spot or sensory-organ on the mountain, a
place of energy-convergence. For one notable example, I have been told by several sources that
Hyeolgu-san is named because it has nine prominent hyeol on it, just like the human body does, and
therefore is a holy mountain representing Humanity (with Mani-san to its south as Heaven and Goryeo-
san to its north as Earth, to make the Sacred Triad).
Hyeol are also called by the older shamanistic term myeong-dang 명당 明堂 [literally "bright shrine" or
"light-space", derivation: (the space in front of the king's throne --> the space to perform a shamanic ritual in].
This does not literally mean that the place has more light, but means that it is spiritually auspicious --
the Korean's Bronze-Age ancestors were Sun-worshipers for whom "bright" was always of the highest
value, with whatever is lighter in color being superior over the darker, with special preference for
white and gold. This has lead to the dominance of white (baek 백) and gold (geum 금) in place-
names (for towns & counties, mountains, temples, shrines & etc) all over Korea (and the popularity
of the family-name Kim, now 21% of Koreans, which uses the same Chinese character). Probably,
as the proto-Koreans started to use Chinese characters, myeong became another of their favorite
ways to designate something as sacred.
Hyeol or myeong-dang is a topographically-flexible concept; they can be as large as an entire valley
holding a city, or as small as the site of a humble hermitage. A common usage-pattern is myeong-
dang for a larger area like a town and hyeol for smaller patches like a tomb; hyeol can be said to be
within myeong-dang, as the most auspicious spot within an auspicious area. Sometimes the term
hyeolcheo 혈처 is used to designate a place within a myeong-dang where hyeol-gi concentrates or
gathers -- for example, Gyeongbok-gung Palace was the hyeolcheo of the Hanyang myeongdang.
Classically, the Pungsu-jaengi 풍수쟁이 [Geomancer], also called a Pungsu-ga 풍수가 風水家, a Pungsu-
seonsaeng 풍수선생, a Gam-yeo-ga 감여가 堪輿家, a Jiri-ga 지리가 地理家, or an Eomyang-ga 음양가 陰陽家, finds
them by using a "Feng-Shui Compass" which employs the "Twelve Animals of the Oriental Zodiac"
[Shipi-ji 십이지 in Korean], the symbol-system of the I Ching [Juyeok-gyeong 주역경 in Korean], and
the Five Phases (Elements) 오행 = Metal (金属), Wood (木), Water (水), Fire (火) and Earth (土); all of these include
directional and seasonal meanings. Various calculations based on Ying-Yang [eum-yang 음양 in
Korean] Theory and spiritual numerology are made after survey of the site and surroundings.
However, the typical way that Korean Geomancers express their judgement of local landscapes is
anthropomorphic, looking over the shapes of landforms and using metaphors of animals, humans or
plants (usually animals) to express the perceived character. For example, a shape might be said to be
"a crane sitting on its eggs", "a white tiger crouching, ready to spring on its prey", "a black ox content to
lie and sleep", "a rabbit about to run away", "a stately king on his throne" or "an ancient pine bending in
the wind". This is called hyeong-guk-ron 형국론, and is sometimes a popularization technique (as the
more "scientific" calculations may seem obscure to the client) and other times an authentic Shamanic type of
divination in itself, allowing the Geomancers to access and express their intuition about a place.
This is a Pungsu-jiri-dosa painting used as a
religious icon by a famous Korean shaman.
It depicts in Daoist motifs an idealized Master of
Korean Geomancy [Pungsu-jaengi], with echoes
of both Doseon-daesa and a Sanshin-dosa. He
is holding a mountain-zen-master's staff in one
hand and a Feng-Shui Compass in the other.
His unusual hat is that of a Joseon-Dynasty
fortune-teller, derived from Chinese Daoism.
His robes-with-chest-belt are like those of a
government official, but gray like a Buddhist
monk; over them is a red sash with circular gold
embroideries indicating royalty -- like the outer-
robe a San-shin is usually seen in. He may be
regarded as the spirit epitomizing Korea's
Pungsu-jiri skills and traditions.
Senior Buddhist Master Pyeong-jeon emphasized to me that hyeol or myeong-dang are not really
discovered through calculations or measurements, but seen or sensed through the intuition of a
trained Master of Pungsu-jiri. They do not depend upon compass directions, slope-steepness or
other objective factors. Large hyeol or myeong-dang found on the southern slopes of mountains
frequently become the sites of Buddhist Temples and Shamanic or Confucian shrines, with smaller
ones being used for traditional tombs. Somewhat less frequently, those found on eastern or western
slopes are also thusly used, but rarely those on northern slopes, for the simple reason of sunlight
warming the area (Korea being a northern country).
He explained to me that the greatest sacred mountains have three hyeol -- upper, central and lower --
on a Gi-line running down their southern slopes (not necessarily in straight lines or evenly spaced
apart). He said that these are the best places to build Buddhist temples, with major monasteries on
the lower hyeol and hermitages on the central and upper. These temples will have unusually high
levels of spiritual energies, allowing those who live, meditate and worship there closer access to the
San-shin, to the Mountain's Gi and to Heavenly Gi -- more refined at the upper, more balanced at the
central and more powerful at the lower. His example was the southern slope of Nogo-dan, with the
sites of Sangseon-am Hermitage on the upper hyeol, Sudo-am Hermitage on the central hyeol and the
great Hwaeom-sa Monastery on the lower hyeol.
One important type of hyeol is a Baesan-imsu 배산임수 site, meaning a lower-altitude location backed
by an auspicious mountain to the north and facing a river running laterally across its southern border
(preferably from west to east, although this is rare in Korea). This is an ideal environment for human
habitation, where life will be prosperous and heroes (great scholars / religious / political leaders, and
defenders of the nation) can easily be raised or educated. One good example of such a place is the
southern slopes of Jiri-san, which end at the eastern-flowing Seomjin River. The Hwagye-dong Valley
there, famous for growing Korea's best green tea, is touted by the Hadong County government as
being an ideal Baesan-imsu. Other excellent examples are the sites of the main royal palaces in
Seoul and formerly elsewhere, and Sogni-san's Beobju-sa Temple.
The energy-character of any particular patch of ground can be adjusted, with good- or bad-fortune-
causing Gi either amplified or diminished, by construction of special structures there -- this is what the
Geomancers often recommend. For the best-known example, Doseon-guksa prescribed a whole
series of temples and stone pagodas to be built by the Founding-King of Goryeo in order to adjust the
Gi of nationally-crucial hyeol, to protect the kingdom and cause it to flourish. These alterations are
viewed as the way for humanity to harmonize itself with the energies of Earth (and thus Heaven too).
However, the auspicious gi of sites can fade away by the ravages of time or human abuse, beyond
repair by any construction, causing a family to lose its fortune, a king to lose his mandate or a nation
to be ruined by war or famine. The ability of great geomancers to recognize this condition in advance
and discern alternative sites where the gi is improving is part of their intuitive fortune-telling abilities.
Jigi-soewang-seol [Theory of Waxing and Waning of Geomantic Energies] was derived from Doseon's
teachings and greatly expanded upon in subsequent centuries, becoming a main theme of Korean
Pungsu-jiri and the many socio-political controversies arising from it.
Throughout the millennium-plus-a-century since Doseon-guksa passed on, the establishment of nearly
all Korean settlements and monuments (especially tombs) have influenced by Pungsu-jiri ideas.
Koreans have paid fortunes, committed crimes and even risked their lives in endeavors to secure
auspicious sites for their families; the famous Neo-Confucian "Practical Learning" scholar "Dasan"
Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836) once commented that around half of the litigations brought to the courts
in those days were due to assaults and disputes over geomantically-auspicious sites.
These conflicts may have ancient roots -- the Samguk-yusa contains a story about King Seok Tal-hae,
saying that the way he attained the throne was by discovering a man named Hyeon Wol-hyeong
building his house on an ideal hyeol site when he was climbing the mountain, then deceiving him out
of the property; he built his own house there and the good-fortune of it allowed him to become king.
Pungsu-jiri ideas were instrumental in the founding of and citing the capital cities of both of Korea's
subsequent dynasties, Goryeo and Joseon (see Doseon bio-page), and were constant issues of debates
by kings with government ministers (and even led to the failed revolt of the mystical-monk Myochong in 1135,
when his the insistence to move the capital northwards was refused). Sejong-daewang, generally thought of as
Korea's best and wisest king (r.1418-50), was deeply concerned with them (as they remained major
political issues of constant debate), and personally investigated the geomantic layout of Seoul City.
Pungsu-jiri has been preserved, exemplified and expanded upon in such well-known Joseon-dynasty
books as the Taengniji [Guide for Choosing Desirable Settlement-sites] by Yi Chung-hwan and the
Cheon-gi-daeyo [Great Digest of Heavenly Indications] (both mid-18th Century works and still famous).
Up through today, Pungsu-jiri continues to have a pervasive influence on the practices and ideas of
some Manshin [Korean shamans], some Buddhist monks and many professional geomancers, who
are still called upon to assist in siting buildings, shrines and tombs. It is the object of increasing
interest by Korea's modern academic geographers and those who study traditional culture and even
Tourism. As part of the pervasive neo-traditionalism (see Chapter IV of my book) it is being re-imagined
as "ecological thinking", as a resource of ancient wisdom and organic-wholistic perception that can
usefully supplement scientific precision and verifiability, potentially assisting humanity in lessening
the damage and destruction we are inflicting on our life-sustaining environment.
One good article on how the more selfish-oriented Pungsu-jiri customs persist in contemporary South
Korea in the International Herald Tribune, July 2006, is preserved on Tom Coyner's website here. Another
more recent one from Reuters is preserved here.
Another of his key concepts is the hyeol, an auspicious site on the slope of a mountain where the
energies of Heaven and Earth [Cheon-gi & Ji-gi] are very well-balanced and can best be accessed by
beings who live there, to promote their physical and mental health and the development of their
wisdom. There usually should be a high prominent "Black Tortoise" (with the turtle depicted having snake or
dragon parts) 현무 玄武:北 peak to the rear (north), a rocky "White Tiger" 백호 白虎:西 ridge on the right
(west), a winding "Blue Dragon" 청룡 靑龍:東 ridge on the left (east), and a good open view beyond a
protective hill to the "Red Phoenix" 주작 朱雀:南 direction in front (the south); water from a spring,
stream or river up in front is excellent. The Gi of a hyeol is said to swirl to the right (in the 'clockwise'
direction) which gives positive effects (left or counterclockwise motion is then negative-effecting energy, while
straight-moving is just 'neutral'); it is said to calm the wind in that area and attract water to it. Among the
best-known of the many examples of these spots are Jiri-san's Cheonghak-dong Valley south of
Samshin-bong Peak, Sobaek-san's Buseok-sa Temple or Toham-san's Bulguk-sa & Seokkuam.
Hyeol is defined in standard dictionaries as basically "a hole", but it is used by Koreans to refer to the
openings of the human body through which energies can pass in and out -- there are 9, always a holy
number (2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils, the mouth, anus & urethra). In Oriental medicine it means the spots
on the body for use in acupuncture. Therefore, this corresponds to the geomantic concept of a hyeol
as a kind of sensory opening in a mountain, where the Earth-gi can interact with the Heaven-gi and
thus benefit Human-gi. It's worth noting that the Suowen (the earliest-known Chinese dictionary, written
around 100 CE) defines the character shan 山 [mountain, san 산] as xuan -- "diffuser of vital-breath which
disperses and engenders the myriad things" -- since the early development of these ideas, mountains
were thought to "breathe" Earth-Gi in and out, and these hyeol are the main passageways.
Sources for most of the above:
Sources of Korean Tradition Volumes I and II, Edited by Lee and de Bary,
1997, Columbia University Press, New York.
The Culture of Fengshui in Korea: an Exploration of East Asia Geomancy,
by professor Hong-Key Yoon, 2006, Lexington books, Plymouth, UK.
Korea -- A Religious History by professor James Huntley Grayson,
2002 revised edition, RoutledgeCurzon publishers, London
Korea -- A Historical and Cultural Dictionary by Pratt and Rutt, 1999,
Curzon Press and University of Durham.
New Millennium Dictionary of Korean Language and Culture, 2003
Hansebon publishers, Seoul
Websites on feng-shui and Korean culture, including Wikipedia.
Things learned during my own 20+ years of travels around Korea,
resulting in many conversations with shamans, geomancers and monks.
<-- in the Korea Herald, in an article
celebrating the "Ox Year" of 2009
|a pungsu-jiri compass-chart emphasising I Ching trigrams and hexagrams,
by the contemporary artist Park Su-hak, 2003
|Pungsu-jiri map of Punggi District, demonstrating its geomantically-superior topography