Korean Templestay – 108 Prostrations

In the past I have been invited to teach for yoga mala’s which are events where participants do 108 Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar.) Teachers guide students through traditional Sun A and/or B, or through variations of both. It is both challenging and rewarding to push yourself to perform all of the sequences and as a teacher it has been fun to be creative and come up with variations. Although I have taught and participated in a few yoga malas, I never really knew what that number 108 was all about.

Recently, I took the opportunity to participate in a Korean Templestay. Templestays are little nightly or weekend getaways to a Korean temple. They are geared towards foreigners visiting or living in the country. During the stay, participants experience a brief monastic 24 hours (give or take.) At my templestay I wore simple cotton pants and a vest (worn over a T-shirt as showing shoulders is a big no-no at Korean temples,) ate and experienced the process of eating a monastic meal, attended two Buddhist ceremonies, made a strand of mala beads, and did 108 prostrations.

The Beads

Making the mala strand of beads felt a little bit like a summer camp activity. The other 20 or so participants and myself gathered in a beautifully painted room, sat upon meditation cushions, and were given little kits which included rough wooden beads, thick string, and a small metal tool that was to be used to push a better hole into the bead if it hadn’t been properly punched out.

While we made the malas our guide asked questions of us about Buddhism, such as what are the six offerings people bring to temple (I remember four of the six – rice, incense, flowers, fruit.) The guide/translator also explained that the beads were made of cedar which gave them a strong scent. According to her the scent is offensive to mosquitos and helps ward them off – bonus!

The number 108 was also explained, but in a mathematical-windy way reminiscent of conspiracy theories that add, subtract, and multiply to find their way to a meaningful number that supports their case. I’m not good with numbers in any sense, so unfortunately those numbers went in one ear and out the other. The following morning after stringing the beads we performed the 108 prostrations in the main hall and that’s where the magic happened.

108 Prostrations

After an opening ceremony of tycho drum, chant, and a few introductory bows, we began the 108. As I mentioned, the event was for foreigners; none of us were Korean speakers and the monks didn’t speak English, so during the bows they played a youtube video that gave a meaning to each bow. At first the video was offputting because the anouncer had a very cultish, deep, monotone voice, but what was being said by him was actually quite moving.

Reasons for bows came in groups. For example, for six or so bows there would be reasons about repenting. This is a rough memory, but a few  that I remember went something like this: “I prostrate in repentance for ever having taken my family for granted.” Then it continued with the same, “I prostrate in repentance for ever having taken my friends/nature/teachers for granted.” Another theme I remember was gratitude for similar topics: “I prostrate in gratitude for all the teachers that have touched my life,” for example. Having the sound of the video going, which visually displayed monks in monk like settings, helped the bows go by more quickly and gave them meaning.

Physically I didn’t find the bowing to be taxing, minus the speed. We bowed to the count of the youtube video which runs around 25 minutes, about 20 of those minutes being the actual bows. Doing 108 bows in 20 minutes is quick. The bows were similar to Sun Salutations and were performed by bending at the knees, hands at prayer at the chest (Namaskar,) lowering the knees down onto a meditation cushion, placing the forehead on the cushion, and then going to standing again. I overheard other participants complaining of the difficulty of it; it might be that my consistent yoga practice made the act easier for me.

Full bow.

Full bow.

Here is the link to the video to listen to while performing 108 bows, or while you do your dishes, give it a listen.  The intro of the video is a child giving a little background to the number 108 and then it gets right into the creepy voice reading of the 108 prostrations. As much as that description is not enticing, I encourage you to listen, it honestly moved me into conscious reflection.

If you ever get the opportunity to attend a Yoga Mala or a Korean Templestay, take the opportunity. Through both you can learn a lot about yourself while participating in events that lie outside of your comfort zone. Coming soon will be a write-up of the monastic meal that was the highlight of the first evening at the temple.

The templestay that I participated in was at a temple named Hongbeopsa. It is north west of Busan and can be reached by shuttle bus or taxi from Nopodong Bus Termanl. Hongbeopsa generally hosts monthly cultural events for foreigners such as lantern making, tea ceremonies, and kimichi making. To find out more about their events follow them on facebook here.