In South Korea, the pursuit of mindfulness and compassion through daily Zen meditation is advocated by the practice of Korean Buddhism, which has been a part of the country’s way of life since the fourth century. About one quarter of Koreans identify as Buddhist, and there are approximately 20,000 temples spread throughout the country, with only 900 considered “traditional”. These temples must satisfy religious integrity, architectural and historical value, and ownership criteria to be registered as “traditional”.
Korea has a truly breathtaking environment with beautiful mountain ranges, tranquil lakes, lush green forests, and gentle mornings, earning its nickname as “The land of the morning calm”. The temples in Korea are found all over the country, many in mountain valleys, perfect spots to focus and pray without distraction. The Templestay in South Korea offers visitors an excellent opportunity to experience this calmness and spirituality.
The Jeondeungsa Temple in Incheon is one of Korea’s oldest temples, built approximately 1700 years ago by the three sons of the founder of the first Korean kingdom of Gojoseon in tribute to their ancestors. The temple resides on the top of Mount Jeongjoksan, with 10 wooden buildings of different architectural styles ranging from the first dynasty to the mid-Joseon dynasty. The temple showcases delicate carvings and 800-year-old paintings of Korean landscapes and the Buddha in each building, making the place feel like a museum. But it is, in fact, home to a thriving, working Buddhist community.
A 4 am prayer service is held at the temple, and the highlight is the 108 deep-bow ceremony performed by three lay workers. These bows are strenuous physical work, requiring you to touch five points of your body – knees, elbows, and forehead – to the floor. They are designed to purify your mind and atone for the excesses of your ego, such as selfishness, anger, or envy. These bows are not easy, and it takes years of practice to perform them correctly. However, according to the local man who the author spoke to, the goal of the bow was not to be perfect, but to focus on intention instead.
It is essential to note that spiritual practice is not a competition, and every attempt made is meaningful. The objective is to keep going and growing in a better direction. The deep bow is usually conducted at the beginning and the end of a service. It begins with a standing bow, followed by a kneeling position, with hands separated and palms facing up, either side of the forehead. Continue bowing until your hands and forehead touch the ground. Then raise your hands above your ears before returning them to the floor. This bow is an act of humility in front of the Buddha.
In summary, Korean Buddhism emphasizes intention over perfection in spiritual practices, such as the deep bow. Korea is known for its captivating scenery and over 20,000 temples, with only around 900 classified as “traditional”. The Jeondeungsa Temple in Incheon is an example, where visitors can attend a 4 am prayer service and witness the 108 deep-bow ceremony. Regardless of skill level, every attempt made in spiritual practice is valuable, and the goal is to keep growing.