(First published 2003)
Ground Zero and Niagara Falls were a hop, skip and jump away from each other when Kim Keumhwa Korea's National Shaman, came New York to present Daedong Gutt, a grand community ritual to promote harmony and reconciliation, during the Lincoln Center Festival.
Like typical tourists, the site of the World Trade Center was the first stop for her troupe of 18 master ritual artists, most of whom were making their first trip to the USA. Standing along the perimeter, a cyclone fence protecting one world from the other, Ms. Kim's attention was at once fixed across the broad plateau and drawn inevitably upward along the phantom limbs. A tall, elegant woman, she stood extremely still and seemed preoccupied with this experience even during the festival's fanfare.
Two days later, and two hours into the 3.5 hour ritual before an SRO crowd at John Jay College Theatre, the cacophony of hand drums, gongs and screeching woodwinds made mince-meat out of linear thought. Ms. Kim, whose vitality defied her 72 years of age, lost not one beat as she hop, skipped and jumped barefooted up a 10 foot ladder, landing upon the twin rails of the razor sharp chakdu (Korean rice straw cleavers).
Demonstrated earlier to easily slice fabric but make no impression when pressed to her arms, legs or tongue, the chakdu were braced tightly, edges up, atop a "tower" composed of two oil drums seated end-on-end, upon which a large water-filled crock and wood box filled with 30 pounds of uncooked rice were stacked.
A slight breeze came across the stage, rustling USA and Korean flags fixed -- like a skyscraper topping off ceremony -- atop twin 25 foot bamboo poles flanking the chakdu "tower". Five, colored streamers attached below the flags picked up on the breeze as the music reached a frenzy. Ms. Kim took hold of the vertical poles to steady herself and began to slowly turn around atop the cutting edges.
The other shamans rubbed their palms together in traditional circular motion, their attention completely supporting their senior colleague who, now facing the audience, indicated to the musicians to stop playing. From here, she began to speak the oracle of the spirit of the "Knife Riding General" whose brilliantly colored striped costume she wore:
"So many souls remain wandering among the remnants of Ground Zero who are still suffering … Pray with your heart to whatever god you will … Get on with your lives with renewed integrity and compassion … Be happy and respect each other."
It is from this vantage, for over half a century, that Kim Mansin has been called upon to reconcile relationships and promote harmony among ancestors, spirits and those of us still kicking and screaming and trying to make sense of life. She gets the Big Picture. She said she felt a lot of compassion for those souls at Ground Zero and would be happy to do a ritual to release them. It's her job.
Receiving life-saving spiritual initiation at the age of 19 from her grandmother, also a renown shaman, the charismatic woman has been an acclaimed master ritualist of the northern provinces style for over half her life. Her title, Mansin, reflects her command of 10,000 spirits, and they, her. Designated by the Korean government as primary presenter of Important Intangible Cultural Property #82, Seohean Pongeoje, West Sea Rite for a Bountiful Fishing Catch, she also convenes public rituals, including one to promote reunification of the peninsula. She has many private clients, including women and men who, due to their own possession by malevolent spirits and unsettled ancestors, require initiation and would then follow in her footsteps, literally.
"I get on the chakdu to assume the bad fortune, the pain, of others, she explained. "I poke myself here and there, arms and legs, to assume and block the pain on behalf others. The chakdu blocks petty spirits and misfortune. Therefore they must be kept exceptionally sharp."
She acknowledges that she has been hurt by the chakdu, "The spirit sometimes leaves a mark to show the presence of insincere people."
A visit to Niagara Falls seemed an excellent way to "come down" from the rigors of the "performance", and the troupe did just that. Standing safely behind the guard rail on the Canadian side, Kim Mansin took it all in, as if viewing it from some distant place. The seamless, mighty flow of water was relentless in its pull on the imagination: horizontal then downward. Attraction to the edge was palpable. Perhaps acting for personal fame rather than the redemption of others is a recipe for disaster. Those who dared the devil and took the plunge would know, too. Shamanism isn't for everyone.
"You have to work at it and give it your all to be of help to people," she reflected. Think of it like this: A candle gives light, but it burns itself away in doing so. You aren't helping others if it isn't difficult."