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2010 Travel Diary #28: Daewonsa – the 108 Bows

Thursday 6 May. The time has arrived for the 108 bows. Strangely, we are told to meet in the car park. But that’s where a large side chapel has recently been built, mainly to minister to visitors on the temple stay programme. The chapel at the moment has none of the internal decoration of the main shrines, and is left plainly simple. Neunghae Sunim is there to welcome us.

The candles on the floor are lit, and we are invited to light some incense sticks and place them on the altar. In front of the candles, cushions are placed on the floor. We are told that there are many woes in the world – as many as 1,080, and we need to repent for each one of them. But beginners are permitted an abbreviated version, only 108.

Neunghae demonstrates the exercise.

Preparing for the 108 Bows
Preparing for the 108 Bows

“Put your hands together like a lotus bud. Kneel down, sitting on your heels. Then place your arms on the floor, your elbows beside your knees, first the right, then the left. Then place your forehead on the ground. Turn your hands over and raise your palms from the ground. Now there are five points of your body touching the ground: two knees, two elbows, and forehead. Then place your palms flat on the ground again, raise your body, stand up again and return your hands to the lotus-bud position, first the left, then the right.” It was all a bit much to take in.

“Now you try”

“Put your hands together like a lotus bud.” No problem with that. Although I’ve never knowingly seen a lotus bud, I can see what she means.
“Kneel down, sitting on your heels.” Six cracks, as three pairs of knees protest in unison at the unwonted exercise.
“Place your arms on the floor, your elbows beside your knees, first the right, then the left.” Relatively straightforward.
“Place your forehead on …”
Morgan had forgotten the acupuncture needle that was still in her forehead. It rather shattered the mood of the moment, and she retired hurt.

To help us through the 108 bows, Neunghae announced that she was going to put on a CD. The instructions: “Whenever you hear a moktak, bow. And then get up quickly, or you won’t be ready for the next one.”

A quiet, enveloping music started emanating from the speakers. A kind of generic, soothing, anonymous music that you might be played while receiving holistic therapy. I’m not a big fan of whale-song music, and I hoped I wasn’t going to be too distracted.

Even worse was the accent of the voiceover artist who was going to be leading the prayers for the next twenty minutes. “We pray to Boo Dar…” It took me a moment to figure out who he was talking about. Why did I find the accent distracting? I wondered if an American would feel similarly distracted by a voiceover artist speaking the Queen’s English. But what does the accent matter? It’s supposed to be the content that I’m listening to. I resolved to try to filter out these distractions: I had to enter into the spirit of things, and experience it to the full. But my battle against distractions was itself a distraction, and I wondered if I was ever going to settle down.


It’s time for the first prostration. The knees crack again. I bow and stagger back up.


These prostrations are coming thick and fast. Neunghae wasn’t kidding when she told us to get up quickly.


I soon find I’m getting into the rhythm. I might not be doing them perfectly, but it’s good enough for me. Even better, my knees are no longer cracking. But now there’s another distraction: with each prostration my cushion is inching closer and closer to the candle on the floor in front of it, threatening a conflagration. So each time I struggle back up to my feet I try to pull the cushion back towards me.


I gradually settle down into the gentle exercise and start letting the repetitive prayers enter me. We were repenting for our individual and collective sins, against each other, against nature, against the environment, and for all our petty ways. We were vowing to make amends, and seeking healing. For anyone used to the confession and intercessions at Christian church services these prayers were second nature, but somehow the physical rigours of prostrating yourself at every confession reinforced the meaning.

I had no idea how many bows I had done, but they seemed to be passing very quickly. The prayers seemed to be winding up, and then suddenly it was all over. I felt I could have carried on for another 108, and the exercise of confessing seemed remarkably healing. But having stopped, I now felt hot, giddy and slightly nauseous from the exertion. It was good to get out into the dark night air waiting for me outside the chapel.

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