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Dharma Instrument

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I am Big Bell forever hanging high in the temple. I send forth my robust voice to awaken those indulgent ones. Let everyone for themselves and others establish the banner of Buddhism. May it flourish and fly freely in the sky.

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In temples and monasteries, the big bell is struck to announce the time and gather the assembly. Except for the ceramic bells of earliest times, temple bells are cast from copper or iron and are shaped like an over-turned cup. The surface of the bell is decorated simply, and the lip is even and round. The bell has a loop at the top so that it can be suspended from a bell tower.

Bells in China have long been used in ceremonies and musical performances, before being incorporated into Buddhism. Major Dharma services and offerings all use the bell to accompany chanting. The bell is rung to show the solemnity of the occasion to all attending, but is also used to show a warm welcome for visiting senior monastics or dignitaries.

The ringing of the bell is a reminder to practitio-ners that they must strike with diligent effort to beat away the afflictions that have accumulated since be-ginningless time. Those who strike the bell should also make a compassionate vow that the sound of the bell resonate all the way to heaven and can penetrate all the way to hell, so that all those beings who hear the bell can awaken to the wisdom of intrinsic nature and attain peace.

I am called Big Bell. From olden times until the present, I have b een hanging high up in a corner of the Great Hall of this temple. Not long ago, there was a monastic standing beside me holding a copy of an American magazine with a picture of another bell on it. I was filled with joy to see this great, big bell, as there is only one of us in each temple, and sometimes I get quite lonely. When I saw the picture of that friend, I could hardly contain my happiness. I gave that bell such a warm smile. Oh, then I recog-nized it! It was the Liberty Bell of America!

The Liberty Bell, as you may recall, was the one whose brave voice chimed out at the first public reading of the American colo-nists’ Declaration of Independence. Later, in 1835, it was report-edly cracked when knelled at the funeral of John Marshall, the thirteenth chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Today it still bears the honorable scars as a memento of those historic oc-casions, as it hangs near Independence Hall in Philadelphia for all to revere. As I think about some important events in my own past, I realize that we both are bells of freedom! I cannot help but think about my own life and swell with boundless emotion.

As the big bell here in this serene temple, I am different from all the other Dharma instruments. My large, heavy body may keep me stationary, but no obstacle is able to block my great voice. My ring carries through curtains, over rooftops and mountains, and resounds freely through the air. That is why people also call me a “symbol of freedom.”

I use my voice sparingly, though, never sounding without good cause. Usually singing out twice a day, I am up bright and early in the morning without delay to ring in a new dawn, and during the silence of the night, someone will come to strike me announcing the time for rest. When I toll at night with my voice resounding solemnly through the darkness, people say I am the “signal for slumber.” Numerous sentient beings take their repose when they hear my voice, and I awaken them when the sun is rising. I not only announce the beginning and ending of every day but also sound the alarm for everyone to gather for an important event or in the case of an emergency. My duty is a grand and glorious one!

There is one elder monastic who is my best friend. Whenever he comes to ring me, whether morning or night, he always accompanies me with the “Gatha of the Bell.” He sings one line of his gatha following each of my notes. His robust, yet plaintive voice joins with mine, arousing mindfulness in all who hear our heartfelt harmony and transporting listeners to a realm of peace. The elder monastic’s song goes like this:

When the mighty bell was first rung, the gatha was sung.
It reached up to the skies and down to hell.
May wars cease, as soldiers and galloping war horses stop fighting.
May those who were defeated and killed be reborn in the Pure Land.
May all beings in the three realms be freed from the cycle of birth and death.
May all beings be liberated from the sea of suffering.

My friend’s deep compassion resounds in the sincere words of his song. In addition to my friend, many poets have celebrated my existence, especially Zhang Ji, a well-known poet of the Tang dynasty, who wrote a famous poem about me. I’ll recite it for you:

Moon sets, crows caw, sky is full of frost;
River maples, fishing-boat lights break through my troubled sleep.
Beyond the city of Suzhou lies Han Shan monastery.
At midnight the clang of the bell reaches the traveler’s boat.

My voice is heard at midnight across the land, touching the hearts of those who are miles away. Upon hearing my sound, travelers far from their homes pause with longing and a heightened sense of life’s vicissitudes. I also awaken the travelers from their dreams. The young, renewed with great vigor when they hear my voice, put any hardship and injustice behind them and valiantly press on toward their goals.

Do you need more evidence? Which monastic in the temple, upon awakening to my voice, has not hurried to continue their practice and be liberated from the suffering of birth and death? Which resident living near the temple, upon hearing my voice, has not been encouraged to get up and get ready for the day? When my voice resounds—reaching villages, cities, fields, and mountains—it becomes a light in the darkness, reminding everyone to be mindful of the impermanence and temporariness of life.

I remember one time when a friendly visitor came to the temple and passed by me saying, “Oh, Bell! I love your deep and lingering vibrations. Every time I hear you it’s like a familiar call, wafting from a Buddha land. Why don’t you just make one big clang, and knock awake those people who are living lives of self indulgence!” I remember another time when a young monastic, full of unexpressed emotions, passed by me. “Oh, Bell,” he said. “I’m so fond of your smoothly disseminating voice. It resonates so deeply and carries over such a long distance. I can’t even count the number of ignorant people in whom you have awakened the urge to pursue the true meaning of life. Buddhism is declining, and since many Buddhists are as if dreaming in a deep sleep, why don’t you make one big clang, knock them all awake, and revive people’s interest in the Buddha’s path?”

The countless numbers who have prayed near me and lingered within the reaches of my voice have wished that my sonorous tone be shot up to the clouds in the sky—reaching the inner depths of the self-indulgent and calling them out of their lives of delusion.

I do not want to keep silent. I am usually eager to sing out. But I have been misused by people; allow me to recall one such occasion. A famous, wealthy person had come to the temple on a casual visit. As he was leaving, the abbot of the temple asked one of the monks to strike me so that my voice could be used as a spectacular farewell to this visitor. While I was ringing, another monk with a stern face came up to me. “Apple polisher!” he called me. “You green bell! Pandering to money!” he scolded. “You are forsaking the honor and importance of your duty! Your responsibility is to awaken ignorant people and to wake up the monastics in the morning.”

Well, the words of that monk resonated to my iron core. Every word he said was right; I do have a pure and noble calling. I hope that abbots will never use me so unethically again. After this ordeal, I resolved to use my voice to bring hope to the despondent and to make the hearts of the courageous even stronger. Bong! Bong! Bong! Listen! I am singing with all my might! I want to use my fierce roar to sing!

I am Big Bell forever hanging high in the temple.
I send forth my robust voice to awaken those indulgent ones.
Let everyone for themselves and others establish the banner of Buddhism.
May it flourish and fly freely in the sky.

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