Korean Shamanism, adoption, identity… and me | By Eric Yung Despic, Photography by Stephen Wunrow (Fall 2019 issue)
How do you tell an ongoing story?
How do you write about something you hardly understand?
How do you capture a moment which pretty much sums up 45 years of life?
A naerim gut in Korean shamanism is, like most profound initiations in any tradition, or like any major life-changing event, essentially a spiritual birth. It is a transition from an old world to a new world.
This is what happened to me on March 8, 2019 in Seoul, Korea through the hands of Junghee Kim, who thus became my Spirit Mother. Not that I was lacking mothers, or fathers for that matter.
My birth mother, Bong Won Chung, gave birth to me September 13, 1973 at 10 p.m. in Seoul, in the presence (or absence, which it is I could not tell you) of my birth father Hak San Whang. As it is customary (as well as very practical) they named me, and so my first moniker became Kyu Yeong Whang with the ideograms meaning king’s prosperity.
But like more than 200.000 children from Korea who became Korean adoptees, I did not spend my childhood with my birth parents or in my motherland. It always feels strange to me adding “birth” in front of the word “mother” or “father” and adding the word “adoptive” also feels odd although in a slightly different way.
For reasons which are not absolutely clear to me, but probably have to do with my birth parents not being married and their families not getting along, they have gave me up to be adopted. After a short stay with a foster family, I arrived in Belgium to be welcomed by my new family on the August 26, 1975. Fast-forward 30 years… I went back to Korea for the first time, and the following year, I met with my birth mother, birth father and some members of their respective families.
Apart from giving some context about my complex history with my Korean roots, this brief description is also to demonstrate that this incredible event —- reconnecting with my motherland and with my birth parents —- however important, powerful, life-changing, mind-blowing and deeply unsettling it was, in retrospect, and at some level, it was actually preparation for my naerim gut.
I often feel bad about not painting a pretty picture of my reconnection with my birth family, knowing that everybody loves a nice happy ending. I even feel embarrassed about my ambivalence, knowing that there are so many Korean adoptees who are desperately looking for any kind of information about their biological roots.
In that way, and in many others ways in the course of my life, I have had what I call “rich guy’s problems,” which are issues about abundance, not scarcity. And that was also probably preparation for my naerim gut.
I have been walking the shaman’s path for many years now. The start of my actual practice of shamanism began with core shamanism workshops I started taking in around 2005. Since then, I have been in contact with traditions from Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Australia. I have also had extensive training in psychotherapy, body work, philosophy and management. Throw into that mix coursework in religious studies, martial arts, meditation, theatre and dance. I mention these other disciplines and teachings because I feel more and more that, although they may not seem directly connected to shamanism, they are all, at their root, shamanistic and have plenty to contribute to shamanism today.
All of that was also preparation for my naerim gut.
Even now, I cannot describe how or when I came to the decision to receive the initiation. What is very clear is that, once I made the decision, the plans fell into place pretty quickly, if not smoothly.
One day, on my way to a funeral ceremony for a great African shaman, I met a fellow Korean adoptee I had only met briefly years ago, who, in the two minutes we had together: a) remembered me; b) remembered my connection to shamanism, and; c) gave me the name of someone who had received the naerim gut. That chance meeting was how I first made the connection to Jung Hee Kim. My path to her would be paved with obstacles as well as blessings.
First of all, I heard a firsthand testimony of someone who had received the naerim gut, and felt it was a traumatic experience, and was still trying to recover from it several months later. Then, a spirit daughter of Kim, for whom I had tremendous confidence and respect (and still do), decided to cut ties with Kim. I also heard a few veiled pieces of advice from established shamans to not receive the naerim gut from Kim.
But there were many blessings along the way as well. The main blessings were the chances I had to meet other Europeans who had received the naerim gut, people I had heard of, and one who was practically delivered to my doorstep without me doing anything.
Call it fate, luck, the work of my unconscious, of the collective unconscious, the Gods —- all these explanations make sense. I am personally less fond of the terms “law of attraction,” or “the Universe” but that’s just my resistance to mainstream spiritual lingo. These terms would also fit pretty well to explain the opportunities for advice, education and connection that were inexplicably put before me.
And then there was the money thing.
When I first heard about the cost of a naerim gut, I was frankly taken aback even though I could totally afford it. It costs a lot, and at first the price seemed unreasonable. However, that was before I learned more about it, and began to understand what justifies that amount. In the end, I spent 8,000 euros for my naerim gut and I believe it was worth every won.
Firstly, there was the time and labor it required. My naerim gut, which lasted about 10 hours, required the presence of three mudangs (female Korean shamans). In addition to Kim, there were two other experienced mudangs actively taking part in the ceremony as well as a musician, three assistants (two of whom were already initiated), one translator and Kim’s husband. Then the temple for the ceremony had to be rented, with the necessary personnel as well. In Korea, shamans frequently need to rent larger rooms in temples to accommodate rituals that require more space than their personal home temple, which is usually just a small room. Also, there is the cost of all the offerings —- mountains of food (mainly fruits, cakes and meat), alcohol and other beverages, candles, and incense.
So, apart from the immense benefit (more about that later) I gained from my initiation, which in itself would arguably justify the cost, there was also a considerable overhead expense of the ceremony itself.
Until now, I have hardly ever discussed the cost of this initiation, but having committed to writing this piece as openly as I can, it seems natural to be open about the costs, even though some readers might react negatively to it. Speaking my truth, and accepting that such a commitment also means to be misunderstood, is something I am endeavoring to do now.
And then it was time…
It was time to meet Jung Hee Kim in person, time to meet the Korean gods, time to become part of a Spirit Family.
During the couple of days before the ceremony we spent time doing shamanic shopping, saying prayers, eating, sitting around waiting, eating, chatting, and being part of a mudang’s household, Oh, and did I mention eating?
The ceremony itself was such an exceptional day, and yet it felt so familiar at the same time.
I cannot stress enough how it felt like all my life experiences and all the teachings I had received were leading me, preparing me, and opening me to this moment.
Like a newborn who feels his mother and the world from the outside for the first time, I was in a new and at the same time, a familiar place. I was at the right place.
In my eyes, this is the core of the life-changing experience that the naerim gut was for me. Having my tumultuous life and everything I have learned suddenly fall into place and feel meaningful was a deeply powerful experience. I was connected through my roots to my true power as a human being, to my deep calling in this world. It is something I will treasure all my life.
Yes, I will sometimes doubt myself, I will sometimes feel lost, but now the roadmap is so powerfully tattooed in my soul that the way back to the right track feels that much easier.
The ceremony itself is a union with the gods; the feeling is something akin to a wedding. Through offerings, music and dance, the mudangs were inhabited by the gods and more precisely by a specific god. Sometimes I was also inhabited by the gods. That is why we change clothes or use specific tools (like a fan, jingle, or swords) to express and honor the god present in us at the time.
Several times I was tested by Kim to see if I had an active connection to the gods. She asked me specific questions, and judging from her reaction, she seemed satisfied that the connection with the gods was active. I had heard that, on rare occasions, the ritual fails, but I believe that experienced mudangs recognize the suitable candidates, at least most of the time, before they allow the candidate to proceed.
During the ceremony, I was also requested to do divination for some of the people present, and I can say that when I was asked to be very specific, as a test by my Spirit Mother, it did seem that what was revealed seemed very precise.
From what I understand, the naerim gut is probably designed to heal, to open up and to empower. Looking back on it, I did not feel that everything was accomplished after the ceremony was over. It was more that I had powerfully celebrated my union with my soul, with myself through my lineage, and with the tradition I was born into. The ceremony marks an important milepost in my life’s journey.
Comparing it to a wedding, although the wedding ceremony is significant, what happens before the ceremony is no less important. What happens after the ceremony is also no less important. But the ceremony marks a way of honoring, celebrating and sanctifying a bond. The ceremony gives the marriage commitment more substance and depth, and makes it that much more conscious and public at the same time.
The comparison with a wedding is also parallel, since one of Kim’s main recommendations following the ceremony, apart from praying regularly, was to not engage in a sexual act for 100 days. I interpreted this recommendation to be like living in a honeymoon with the gods. She told me that tradition had imposed that rule because often (as was the case for me), the sexual energy of male shamans skyrockets before and after the naerim gut, which, she said, could be a source of “troubles.”
So I was a newborn and as such I still had to learn to stand on my own two feet. I returned from Korea with 40 kg of excess luggage, because I was carrying some of the elements of my Korean shindang (the “altar” but more accurately, the “temple”), including some incredible and exceptional gifts from my Spirit Mother, and precise recommendations on how to set it up and how to pray. It took me months to finally set it up.
And then one day it was time, because I received a request from a fellow Korean adoptee who wanted a ritual to reconnect with her ancestors. My shindang was structured from the Korean tradition, but includes many elements symbolizing my own spiritual path.
And then came the first steps.
September 13, 2019 was my birthday and Chuseok in the Korean lunar calendar, a celebratory day for harvest, the ancestors, the family, and it was my first public monthly ritual. I called it the “Ritual in Humanity” because at the end of the day, that is what matters to me.
Very recently my Spirit Mother has tragically lost her husband and two of her spirit daughters, one of whom I knew and was very dear to my heart. However you pray, please keep them in your hearts, your thoughts and your prayers.
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Stephen Wunrow is an adoptive parent, co-founder and publisher of Korean Quarterly. He works as a freelance photojournalist and plays jango in a local Minnesota poongmulpae, Shinparam.