108 bows

In the period leading up to Tuesday’s Bek Jung remembrance ceremony, many people in the Bangkok Seonwon took part in a special 15-day bowing practice. Of course, for some, performing 108 bows each day is part of their normal spiritual routine, but during those two weeks many more also joined in and also meet together to practice each day at the Seon Centre.

At Seon Club last weekend Hyaedan Sunim spoke a little about the benefits of a bowing practice, both spiritual and physical. There have been a great many scientific studies attesting to the health benefits of a daily routine of prostrations she said, but Hyedaen Sunim also told us of more personal stories too.

She told us about people who had overcome physical challenges through bowing, of children who had dealt with attention deficit problems through the practice, even of a construction site where the numbers of accidents dropped dramatically after a programme of morning bowing was implemented.

It reminded me of an article I’d read about doctor Kim Jaeseong, one of Korea’s leading exponents for making 108 bows a popular form of exercise. Although a Catholic by religion, Doctor Kim has benefited greatly himself from the exercise and recommends it to all his patients. He’s also the author of the Korean book “108 Bows a Day”

I remember the first time I ever performed 108 bows, at Bongeunsa, the temple featured in the last ‘Sunday Photo’ here. It was agony! After just a few minutes I was seriously worried I’d be sick and at the end I could hardly walk down the temple steps. The trick, of course, is to build up to it slowly. Start with just ten bows a day perhaps and increase gradually.

I did eventually get much better at it and would often perform 108 bows while in Korea (but even at my best, 108 bows would take me at least twenty minutes to complete rather than the ten Doctor Kim seems to be aiming for in the advice in his book), and I can honestly say that I felt a good deal fitter during that period!

In fact, the benefits are obvious to see. Korean temples are full of old ladies who can bow with a strength, and gracefulness that put my efforts to shame. And friends from the seonwon, people like Linda who start each morning with 108 bows, have an energy and vitality I admit to envying. And studies from Gangnam’s Oriental Hospital, affiliated with Dongguk University, among others, back up these observations.

“But” I asked Sunim, “what about the spiritual aspect to the practice? Surely that must also have some bearing on the physical benefits?” Sunim, as she often does, smiled and nodded and allowed me to see, once again, that I’d just stated the obvious! Of course, bowing is a physical giving up of the small self that allows the true self, the fundamental part of us, to shine through.

We all have Buddha-nature, Buddhists, Christians, everyone. And Doctor Kim, a Catholic, in his advice to make a start, uses words that seem almost to echo the language of Kun Sunim and that shows the direct link between this exercise and our fundamental selves: “It’s better if you bow with a smile on your face. You will feel happiness and peace well up in your heart, like fresh and clear spring water.”

Oh, and to make a bow, you start from a standing position and, with your palms together in front of you and your back upright, kneel on the floor. Then place your hands on the floor and bend until your forehead rests between them. Next turn your palms upwards and lift them from your elbows to the level of your ears. Put your hands back down and lift your body back into a kneel. Then stand and repeat…

108 times!

There’s a link below that shows each step clearly in photographs and I’m sure it’s possible to find videos of Korean bows on the internet too. Many people also chant as they bow, you can repeat the name of the Bodhisattva, Kwan Seum Bosal, or another Buddha, or chant a Sutra. I know that at the seonwon there is a sheet of 108 short teachings that many use, and which I’d love to see a translation of one day!

But the most important thing is not this, or the number of bows, the most important thing is the attitude in which you bow. Daehaeng Kun Sunim says in No River to Cross: “If you bow once in front of Buddha, while returning everything to your foundation, your present mind, past mind, and future mind all function together as one mind, so one bow can surpass ten thousand bows.”

Links:
How to do a prostration: photo essay
108 Bows for Exercise: Doctor Kim Jaeseong
Sumi Loundon: vow to bow

13 thoughts on “108 bows”

    1. The middle photo (Joseph took it) is my favorite. The little girl is trying to follow along with the bows, but it seems like both the coordination and the concept are a bit off!

  1. {an energy and vitality I admit to envying}

    Indeed! While I admire the practice, my back aches just watching the videos.

    1. Hi Doug,
      If you do them slowly, without doing too many, they’re supposed to be quite good for the back. Just be careful that you don’t sway too far back, too quickly, as you come up from the floor.

  2. One of my deepest regrets about my failing leg is that I can no longer do 108 prostrations. Still, I do 9 of them every morning, slowly and unsteadily.

    I remember watching Zen Master Seung Sahn in the last years of his life doing 3 prostrations in the Zen hall every morning. He was so unsteady that sometimes a monk had to help him down and up – but he never stopped bowing.

  3. Funny story about prostrations. A lay-teacher at our sangha does very well-balanced prostrations ~ his feet will always stay steady right at the same spot on the floor. Very well done and obviously due to long periods of practices (pretty much like yoga).

    At my first session with that group, Isaw his technique and quickly decided to try to imitate as best as possible (probably some ego there, in order to ‘prove’ that I could prostrate as well as the next guy”

    My kneel and bow was fine but I didn’ have the balance to get back up in the same manner as the lay-teacher. I hovered there like a bear about to take a crap trying to keep my balance until I tipped back and fell flat on my ass.

    I was very glad that silence was not kept. One other practitioner smiled and winked at me like it was no big deal.

    The following years I have seen the same thing happen to a few different first time practitioners.

    Bowing and prostrations teach us humility from the very beginning.

    Cheers,

    John

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for the story!
      I occasionally have a similar experience with my first bows during the morning ceremony. Sometimes the flexibility just isn’t there at 4am!

  4. Thanks everyone, and thank you so much Chong Go Sunim and Joseph for helping out with such great photos (and videos!). Thank you and happy bowing! M _/\_

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