Chinese Culture: Enlightenment from the Bell

Temple Bells

Each culture with a glorious history has at least one "bell culture" legend.

Discussion about the earliest of Chinese bells centers around a popular belief that the earliest found bell was unearthed in Shaanxi Province and was made approximately 5000 years ago. The people of that time made small ceramic bells that were used for entertainment after work. Over time, these bells became larger.

During the Western and Eastern Han Dynasties, with the introduction of Buddhism, bells moved into the temples and were used to call the monks to gather together. It became the Buddhist instrument.

Research shows that during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, bells that were circular in shape were found in temples. Southern Dynasty era records about 500 temples in the national capital, and every temple had bells. During the Tang Dynasty and later on, bell-casting techniques were developed and refined. Massive, finely cast and uniquely shaped bells appeared. During later dynasties, bells were popular all over the nation. There arose the saying, "Where there is a temple there is bell; where there is no bell there is no temple." Bells were found in temples across the country.

The bell is important in traditional Chinese Buddhist etiquette. In many ancient temples, large bell towers enhanced the temple's magnificence and dignity. In Buddhist tradition, the sonorous, deep and distant bell sounds are said to, "Awaken people seeking fame and fortune, and call to dreaming people sinking in the bitter sea." A temple bell can be categorized as a Fan (Buddhist) bell or a Huan (calling) bell. The Fan bell is also called the big bell, striking bell, mighty bell or the whale bell. Hanging in the bell tower, it used to call the populace or announce the time. The Huan bell is also called the half bell, or small bell. It hung in the corner of the sanctuary and was used to announce the start of temple meetings and events; therefore it is also called the "event bell."

In the Temple Regulations - Buddhist Instrument, it is said, "Bells play the role of verbal commands in temples. When it strikes at dawn it breaks the endless night, and wakes one from sleep. When it strikes in the evening, it alters the dusk, to banish the bad elements." No matter if a bell was used to call people to the main building, to read study the scriptures, to announce morning's arrival, to mark the time for sleep, for meals and so on, all these activities were done according to the command of the bell. The early morning bell sounds at a fast pace at first, then slows down. It's to awaken everyone, as the long night is over; do not sleep endlessly, as one must get up early to make the best use of the time to cultivate. The nightly bell sound was slow at first then turned fast. It was to remind a cultivator to be alert at dusk, and to banish the bad elements. A temple's daily schedule starts and ends with the ringing of the bell.

Two Stories of a Young Monk who was Assigned to Ring the Bell

A young monk in a temple was assigned to ring the bell. According to temple rules, he was to ring the bell daily, once in the morning and once in the evening. At first he was quite serious. But six months later he felt this duty was too mechanical and boring and so he started to slack off. One day the temple abbot announced a change of duty for the young monk and had him carry water and cut wood in the back yard. He no longer wanted him near the bell. The young monk felt strange and asked the abbot, "Was it because my ringing the bell was not on time, not resounding?" The abbot told him, "The bell sound was very loud, but the sound was hallow, worn out. Because your mind didn't understand the significance of ringing the bell, also you didn't do it truly attentively. The sound of the bell is not merely the temple clock, the more important part is to awaken all the sinking, confused sentient beings. Therefore, the bell sound must not only be sonorous, but also be rounded, vigorous, deep and distant. If a person's heart does not contain the deeper meaning of the bell, it is the same as not having reverence for a Buddha. If one is not sincere, how can he take on the duty of ringing the bell?" Hearing these words the monk felt ashamed. Thereafter, he cultivated with additional concentration and finally became an outstanding monk.

Early one morning an older monk heard an intermittent melodious bell sound. He couldn't help but attentively listen to it. As soon as the bell sound ended he couldn't wait, and called someone over, asking, "Who was ringing the bell?" The monk who responded the call replied, "A young, recently arrived monk." The older monk asked that new monk, "This morning, when I heard the bell, what kind mood were you in?" The new monk didn't understand why the old monk asked him this and replied, "No particular mood. I was only ringing the bell." The old monk said, "Could it be? When I heard the bell you must have been thinking of something in particular, because the sound I heard today was extremely noble. Only a wholehearted person could evoke that sound." The novice monk thought a moment and said, "Actually, I didn't think of something else. Before I became a monk, my family teacher often reminded me that when ringing the bell I should think of the bell as the Buddha. I must sincerely respect the bell as Buddha, and must use the heart of scarifying myself and worshiping Buddha to ring the bell." The old monk was extremely satisfied and reminded him over and over, "From now on, when you deal with other things, make sure you don't forget to maintain today's mindset."

As a matter of fact, this not only applies to the bell. In all things, using the mind and paying full attention are extremely important. The abbot relieved the first young monk in this story because he simply went through the motions and did not consider it a sacred duty of cultivation. He lacked respect and lacked the mindful attention to do this task with a sense of priority, and lacked responsibility. That is why the bell sounded hollow and worn out. The second monk served the bell well, because he understood the reason, to "respect the bell as Buddha." His mind was filled with respect for the Buddha. That is why he would naturally be responsible and wholeheartedly do his duty. The effect would certainly be good. A proverb says, "One can tell whether one has good or poor ambition simply by observing how he lights the fire and sweeps the floor." Only when one can do well in small things can one do well in important things. This also validates the truth that only when one's thoughts are righteous can one conduct righteous actions.

Today's Thinking

Monks in ancient temples took the sound of the bell as a command and took care of work and rest on schedule according to what the bell tolled. Everyone considered the bell as a clock, consistently following time to practice. Thus, the way of following the bell maintained the temple's tradition and defended Buddhism's dignity.

While cultivating in today's society, we Falun Dafa practitioners certainly don't have the daily "morning bell and evening drum" to remind us to study the Falun Gong teachings, to do the exercises and send forth righteous thoughts. Sometimes we miss the times to send forth righteous thoughts - perhaps because of work or being otherwise occupied. Then how might we do better and be on time? Many practitioners use clocks and cell phone alarms. Some set reminders for every hour of the day. As long as conditions permit, they put other matters aside and clear their minds to send righteous thoughts every hour.

Cultivation is a serious matter. In Buddhism there was a saying, "Life is between a breath." What it means is that a cultivator must treasure time, and make the best use of time to be diligent. Because one's current lifespan is only around one hundred years, all fame and fortune passes quickly. It is only by treasuring time like gold that one might eliminate the pain of samsara and transcend. The founder of Falun Gong, Mr. Li Hongzhi said,

"You might think: "Oh, so it doesn't matter whether I pass the tests well or not. I'll just go ahead take my time, and that will be cultivation." That's unacceptable! You must be diligent. If you slack off and aren't diligent, I can see your heart then too, and you aren't being responsible for yourself. So you have to regard yourself as a true cultivator and take this seriously. Only then can you raise your level as quickly as possible." ("Teaching the Fa at the Conference in Singapore")

A cultivator is also supposed to be on time. When it's time to send forth righteous thoughts, everyone should have the whole body of practitioners in mind. No matter how important one's own matters, it's not more important than those of the whole body. If all practitioners can really calm down and have serene minds to send forth righteous thoughts at the four globally preset times, and send the most compassionate and the most formidable, merciful righteous thoughts, then there must be an extremely magnificent picture in the other dimensions. That kind of formidable righteous thought can certainly eradicate the evil and awaken all sentient things.

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