There is a Zen saying: “Don’t mistake a jar for a bell.” A jar full of something, when you tapit, goes “click.” Although they may resemble each other, a bell when tapped has a resonant voice. Dogen’s teacher Rujing offered a well known poem about the wind bell. Something like, ”Hanging in emptiness, its whole body is its mouth. Whichever direction the wind blows, it doesn’t mind. All day long it rings the song of prajna; ting liang ting, ding ling ding.”
Although we use bell sounds to keep the time in our service for chanting and bowing, their primary purpose is, when properly played, to create a devotional atmosphere and a feeling of reverence and profound stillness.
Playing the bells is an art. As in any instrument, to find the true voice of the bells is to find the true voice within our self. Each time we sound the bell we search for that true voice, the one that resonates deeply within our solar plexus where I, the hand, the beater and the bell disappear, and the clear round sound, free from all restraints, fills the space.
I think we have all heard of the horse whisperer and the dog whisperer. They accomplish their ends through love, understanding and co-operation. We can produce an enormous amount of sound from the bell with least amount of effort. The bell koan is: How do you produce a sound without hitting the bell? The bell is a wonderful teacher for us and needs to be treated with reverence and respect. Suzuki Roshi once said of the mokugyo, “If you keep hitting it like that, the poor thing is likely to have a heart attack.”
There is a true story of the boy whose father sent him to the monastery because he was unable to support him. The young acolytes were trained to sound the big Bonsho outside. One day the abbot was having tea with the officers of the temple when the big Bonsho was sounded. It was a wonderful sound, and the abbot asked that whoever it was, to please bring him over. To everyone’s surprise, in walks this little boy. The abbot asked him what he was thinking when he sounded the bell. The boy said that when his father sent him to the monastery he would be asked to ring the Bonsho, and that every time he sounded the bell a Buddha would come forth.
The little boy grew up to be a famous Zen master.