I'll get into serious trouble for saying this truism: Koreans bow a lot. Why this seems to be so has been my academic quest this summer. There are apparently unique "bowing" rituals here beyond the still-omnipresent social bows and kowtows that are primarily Confucian in origin. Confucian-inspired bowing on this social level establishes everyone's social rank ... acknowledement that there are elders and juniors, those with rank and those without.
The Greeting Man, by YOO, Young-Ho.
This is also the home (for Christians around the world) of the very famous early morning prayer meetings. See this short clip:
Early morning prayers and prostrations for the Christians began over a century ago in some historic evangelistic revivals in what is now North Korea. To this day, many will say that the numerical success of Christianity here, and the success of the nation, lies explicitly in this practice of debasing, self-effacing, face-to-the-ground bowing and prostration. The spiritual logic: when one is in full spiritual compliance, as in prostration-prayer, then one's divinity is able to bless one more. Become spiritually empty of Self and Ego, to be spiritually filled.
This idea of spiritual "merit" or "advantage" occuring while only in the prostation position/attitude has Buddhist expression as well. Korean Buddhism is quite vibrant and diverse. However, one explicit contribution and consistent practice of Korean Buddhism (especially its Seon or Zen expression) is the "108 Prostrations of Great Repentance." I urge the reader to click the video below and engage in the full 25-minute experience.
Here is a short video on how to bow in Korean Buddhism. For those wondering about whether this constitutes "worship" the usual response is "no," but it is honoring.
The "108 Bows" is now an integral part of the TempleStay experience that draws many Korean nationals and foreign travelers to the Temples. It seems to be a uniquely Korean Buddhist ritual, although it has traveled.
What Buddhists do here is 108 bows at a time. There can be music, or accompanyimg words like the video above, but the number 108 is important.
Why 108? Many explanations exist. One is that there are 108 different kinds of delusions and illusions that plague the habits of the brain. Another explanation comes from Hinduism, which predates Buddhism: The "1" stands for one truth. The "0" represents emptiness, and the 8, when turned on its side, recalls infinity. One monk told me that we have 6 senses (including the mind), times 3 deluded minds (ignorance, lust and anger), times 2 states (craving & non-craving), times 3 periods (past, present, future) = 108.
Prostration is a spiritual practice. They are the "horizontalizing of the mast of the ego". They are tough; not easy on the knees. One should want to perform them until one actually wants to perform them ... when Extrinsic becomes Intrinsic. Sometimes I see monks in the middle of their 1000+ prostrations, and sometimes even 10,000 plus (in one day!).
A brief analysis of the words: There are several spoken versions, and these spoken words are a very recent addition to Korean Buddhism, and unique to world Buddhism. First one bows in repentance for small mindedness, immodest living, not realizing the miraculous nature of each encounter. A second set of bows emphasizes one coming into more awareness and realization, such as "I prostrate for coming to realize that my deeds are the same as those of Buddha." Another set of bows are in gratitude, such as for realizing one's anger as a bad response to others' actions, so one bows in gratitude to one's "enemies." Finally, one bows as promises, as vows not to lead unthankful, small, truthless lives.
The wonder of this ritual is that it has ties with many-a-religion. There are shamanistic recognitions that there are larger forces in your life. Confucian thankfulness for family, ancestors and trusted friends are part of these 108 bows. Christian gratitude for Creation, and Christian repentance both filter into these 108 bows as well.
One of the advantages of this 108 Prostrations is its portability. One does not have to be in a Temple or sacred space to perform them. This is Buddhism off the temple mat, but practiced on the mat of common places and common times. Buddhism is the ever-humbling of the ego, lowering oneself until you know your oneness with everything. This is not a temple-only, worship-only spiritual technology.
So, with all the Korean ways of bows and prostrations to you, I hope to see you on, and off, the mat.