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The Korean way of seeking happiness through humility

In the Korean Buddhist tradition, intention is valued over perfection in spiritual practices such as the deep bow

The Jeondeungsa Temple in Incheon, South Korea
The Jeondeungsa Temple in Incheon, South Korea (

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Korea was once known as the kingdom of Chosun, which loosely translates as “The land of the morning calm”. (American businessman Percival Lowell travelled through Korea in the 1880s and wrote the book, Choson, The Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea, popularising the phrase outside of the country.)

With its beautiful mountain ranges, tranquil lakes, lush green forests and gentle mornings, there really is no better description. I think the phrase also speaks to the practice of Korean Buddhism, which advocates the pursuit of mindfulness and compassion through daily Zen meditation.

Buddhism has been a part of Korean life since the fourth century, when it arrived via China. Today, about one quarter of Koreans identify as Buddhist, and there are a total of around 20,000 temples in the country. Of these, only about 900 are considered “traditional”. (To register as “traditional”, a Buddhist temple must satisfy a set of criteria: religious integrity, architectural and historical value, and ownership. Temples not registered as “traditional” are those managed by individual monks following different, newer doctrines, or even private properties run by individuals.)

While they can be found all over the country, many are in mountain valleys, perfect spots to focus and pray without distraction… I discovered Templestay in South Korea quite by accident. On my first night in Seoul, jet-lagged and unable to sleep, I found myself watching television at 3am. I was mesmerised by an “infomercial” for Templestay, featuring a Western couple wandering around ancient temples in the Korean mountains.


It was mid-January and I was the only guest at the 1700-year-old Jeondeungsa Temple in Incheon, one of the oldest in Korea. Legend says it was built by the three sons of the founder of the first Korean kingdom of Gojoseon as a shrine to their ancestors.

Located on the top of Mount Jeongjoksan, the temple is made up of 10 wooden buildings of different architectural styles ranging from the first dynasty to the mid-Joseon dynasty. Delicate carvings and 800-year-old paintings of Korean landscapes and the Buddha decorate each building. The temple might feel like a museum, but it is home to a thriving, working Buddhist community.

I was determined to join the 4am prayer service. I sat in the small, quiet temple and observed two monks bowing and chanting, and three lay workers performing the 108 deep-bow ceremony after the service. These bows are strenuous physical work. You must touch five points of your body – knees, elbows, 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.

I watched an older woman bowing like an acrobat. My own attempts were less than successful.

Later on, I got talking to a man about the 108 bows and how hard I had found it to perform even one correctly. “It is very difficult to do the deep bows; one must practise for many years,” he assured me, adding that the goal was intention, not perfection.

And that was my lesson. Spiritual practice is not a competition. Every attempt you make is meaningful. The objective is to keep going and with that, growing.

The deep bow mantra

The deep bow is usually done at the beginning and end of a service. Start with a standing bow, and then continue into a kneeling position. Separate your hands and place them palms up, either side of your forehead. Continue bowing, until your hands and forehead touch the floor. 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.

Typically, as you bow you demand of yourself, among other things, the following:

To be humble

To be thankful at all times

To eliminate selfishness

To appreciate parents and family

To appreciate body and soul

To give thanks for being alive

To respect your teachers

To be more forgiving

To be slow to anger

To be kind to all

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Korean Book Of Happiness’'by Barbara J. Zitwer, published by Hachette India. 

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