The Bell

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.

Walt Whitman

 In Kamakura, where the bamboo-covered hillsides slope in soft, wind-rippled curves around the ancient walled sanctuary encircling the great Diabutsu and the sea below conceals its periodic fury beneath brush strokes of silvery calm, there is a famous bell. Hanging from massive timbers in an open belfry, the bell intones a note that is believed to penetrate all the three worlds. Legend tells that once a local daimyo's son named Sadotoki became a priest and implored the goddess at Benten to reveal to him how he could obtain a great bell for the Engakuji monastery. He was told to explore the lake beyond the temple, at the bottom of which he would find a great quantity of metal. Doing this, he brought the metal to land, where it was fashioned into an eight-foot bell with sides six inches thick and a tone of such powerful resonance that people believed its voice divine. It was not long before it was said to possess the power to toll of its own accord, and those who reverently cherished this faith felt confident of its ability to protect and guide them.

 In a nearby village lived a man whose name was Ono. While still a young man, Ono fell ill and died. Descending into the presence of Enma, lord of death in the underworld, he was asked, "Why do you come here, Ono? You are still young and have not lived out the span of years planned for you." He was told that he should return to the middle world and finish his work. But in much the same fashion as Orpheus or any other sojourner in the realm of shades, Ono did not know the way. He was told to continue south until he heard the sound of a deep-toned bell. "It will be the great bell of Engakuji, whose sound-waves penetrate even into the darkness of the underworld. Follow that sound, Ono. It will lead you safely to the middle world of living men." Whilst bells credited with being heard in the nether world are few, their general shape is often identified with the celestial vault. Suspended as they are, bells are seen as symbols of that which hangs betwixt heaven and earth and is capable of expressing harmony between the gods and human beings. The sweetness of many a bell seems to betoken a blessing from a rarer sphere, and people are often moved by their knell to recall the untarnished simplicity of youth. When Napoleon viewed the dying on the fields of Austerlitz, the sound of evening bells from a nearby village wafted across the scene of victorious destruction. Suddenly he was no longer a conqueror but an innocent, happy boy in Brienne. He dismounted from his horse, sat down upon a charred tree stump and wept. Having descended into a self-created nether world, his was not the fortune to follow the bells' toll out of it. To him their sweet song could only be a painful reminder of all he had left behind.

And she already hears the trees
Of Eden with their crystal bells
Ringing in that ambrosial breeze
That from the throne of Alla swells.

Thomas Moore

 Muslims do not trust the music of earthly bells but hope to hear the bells in Paradise. Thus, the muezzin claps his hands to get attention and calls from on high the people to prayers. Almost all other religions celebrate the use of bells, and great was the unhappiness of the Greeks when the conquering Turks forbade their use. For to most people the bell is joyful and rains down on them a shower of life-giving hope. Even a funereal toll carries in it the vibrating seed of life and lends a fertility to death itself. Perhaps this is why bells were associated with virgins in the ancient Middle East and India, where they were also related to the yoni and worn around the ankles of the lovely devadasis who danced before Lord Shiva's shrines. Even his vahan, Nandi, always wore a bell and was known as Tandava-Talika when, with its music, he accompanied the tandava dance of his lord.

 Closely related to the ideas associated with thunder and lightning, bells have often been identified as the voices of gods. Made of wood, clay, stone or metal, their tolling has struck various measures of awe, exultation or fear in people all around the globe. In the New Hebrides bell 'groves' existed where six-foot bells fashioned of hollowed trees boomed forth their voices on appropriate occasions. To many the sound of metal symbolized the voice of God, perhaps because of the power and sharpness associated with the malleable yet hard substance. Here the idea of incisive penetration and reverberation seems paramount, though the more diffused tones of some of the wooden bells of the South Seas become impressively clearer as one moves further and further away from them. As with the bell of Engakuji, the idea that a voice can span the gap between worlds has caused many to treat bells as heralds of divine will or, like the Buddhists, as intoners of the pure sound of the doctrine of perfect wisdom. Thus, the sanctus bell rung in Christian mass is believed to indicate the presence of Christ, and model bells on the vestments of Buddhist priests represent the revelation of Buddha's Teaching.

 The sacred presence of wisdom is powerful because it can bear fruit. The virginal devadasis with their tinkling anklet bells were believed capable of evoking the creative flow of higher Eros because they possessed the untapped potential for life. Such beliefs and practices were widespread in the ancient world, and it is only with their subsequent corruption that such aberrations as the practices associated with the phallic bell-bearing god Priapus or with temple prostitution arose. As a result of the general debasement of consciousness, many in historical times came to relate the tinkling of bells on a woman's ankle with the lowest forms of erotic temptation. In the bell's sweet music men found the echo of their desire to possess divine wisdom but too often translated onto the level of the physical senses alone. The levels of consciousness capable of being aroused by the sound of bells are a subject suitable for deep meditation, for they, like the tone of the fabled Kamakura bell, span the gaps separating the three worlds.

 A less subtle but persisting belief associated with the bell concerns its power to protect. The tinkling sistrum indispensable to the religious ceremonies of Abyssinian Christians is still used to keep evil away. If not the voice of God or divine wisdom itself, bells are a charm against the powers of destruction. How many recall the rampaging evils of Hallowe'en night, so vividly expressed in Mussorgsky's music, being quelled at dawn by the church bell's toll? Breaking up the forces of darkness, its sound greets the coming of light. How many dark dreams, heavy laden with terror, have been shattered by a bell's voice which woke the dreamer from his travails and banished the hosts of vampirical shades to their dissolution? Thus, when the fiends of hell seemed to crowd over towns and cities in the raging currents of destructive storms, church bells were rung without rest until the danger had passed. It was not long ago that this was the common response to destructive elements in Europe, and in China and Japan the booming voices of many a great bronze bell have monitored earthquakes, storms and tsunamis. The ringing of the temple bell is still an elementary response to such threats, so much so at times that when the temple of Zozoji was set aflame by a religious fanatic in the late nineteenth century, the old bell-ringer there leapt to his post in the belfry and struck the great bell until its tone deepened with the increasing heat and he was finally consumed in the flames.

 In China bells have been used for more than forty-six hundred years. Their graduated tones provided the standard for the twelve-note musical scale believed to have come from the mystical phoenix. Bells were the first musical instruments used in performances and they were referred to as regularly as tuning-forks or pitch-pipes were by later peoples. Interestingly, in addition to the calibration of tone, bells were also used as units of measure for bulk and weight, their upturned cups being filled with various substances of either sacred or commercial value. Ancient bells played an important role in India as well as in Egypt, where they were placed in tombs as protection for the dead and as instruments of reawakening to another life. Despite early connections with the culturally advanced East and the knowledge of Greek and Roman bells, the spreading Christian world did not make significant use of the bell until the seventh century. In the fifth century the Bishop of Nola in Campania, Italy, set a bell atop his church in order to dispense with the services of a bell-ringer, who had to run through the streets to call the faithful to vespers. This simple act set a precedent for Christian practices and architecture, but even a hundred years later their use was so little known that when Clotaire, King of the Franks, besieged Sens, his army was frightened away by the bells of St. Stevens.

 If the use of bells in Christian ritual spread gradually on the Continent, they struck the British Isles with a continuous pealing that followed in the wake of the ubiquitous and energetic St. Patrick and St. Cuthbert, who carried hand bells wherever they went. By the eighth century the first peal of bells was hung in an English belfry by the Abbot of Croyland, and a century later Alfred the Great commanded that the Carfax bell at Oxford be rung every night at eight o'clock for curfew (the latter term coming from the French couvre-feu, a reference to the covering of the fire that marked bedtime and safeguarded the thatched houses from accidental fire at night). In the tenth century it was decreed that any Saxon churl who owned five hundred acres upon which a church with a bell tower was built could become a nobleman. For a town the highest recognition was the king's gift of a bell, and its worst punishment its confiscation. Bells came to mark the time of going to work and coming from work, of seeding, harvesting, gleaning, of the use of the manor oven by the serfs on baking day, of the castle watch or the watch on a ship. 'Bell-wether' became the name by which the leading sheep of a flock was known, the head of a group of men was their 'ringleader' (after the chief of a group of bell-ringers), and 'clear as a bell' became synonymous for visual clarity. Bell founding families took names like Belgetter, Belfounder, Bellman, Bellart and Bell. The names and terms associated with bells percolated throughout the fabric of widely varied aspects of human endeavour, and architecture increasingly reflected the centrality of their role in both the religious and secular realms.

 Some have asserted that towers were actually conceived of and made for bells. This may seem a distortion of historical developments, but one may well pause when considering a comparison of the Parthenon or the temple at Karnak with the cathedrals at Cologne or Chartres. It is difficult to imagine Christian architecture without its great turrets, towers and campaniles. Bereft of this central, vertical upthrust of wood, stone or metal, the sacred structures of Christendom would lose their definition and be reduced to piles of buttresses and vaults. Even fortress towers often contained bells and the castle watch was marked by their knell. In time certain towers and their bells became so fused in identity as to share each others' names, as in the cases of Great Tom at Christ Church in Oxford, Big Paul at St. Paul's Cathedral and Big Ben at Westminster. Held in deepest esteem and affection, such bells have witnessed, monitored and indeed influenced human actions and feelings for long periods of time. At nine o'clock each evening Great Tom still tolls out one hundred and one strokes (the original number of students enrolled at Christ Church) to call the undergraduates to return to their colleges. But whilst such bells are beloved and well known, and Big Paul is relatively weighty at sixteen and three-quarters of a ton, the really large bells of fame are to be found elsewhere. The Big Bell at Beijing was cast in 1420 and is still there. Weighing fifty-three tons and having a height of fourteen feet, its eight-inch-thick shape produces a deep melancholy knell. People used to say when they heard it, "Poor Ko-ai is calling for her shoe", because of the story that its maker's devoted daughter of that name sacrificed herself by jumping into the molten bronze that was to form the bell in order to ensure her father's success in its manufacture. Legend has it that in the process she left behind her shoe, for which her spirit calls from its brazen form. An even greater bell is to be found in Ivan Tower at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Moscow. Given by the tsar Boris Godunov in the early seventeenth century for the purpose of gaining spiritual merit, the tone of this massive bell (weighing one hundred and twenty-eight tons) is said to sound like "distant thunder" reverberating far behind the Kremlin walls. To sway its clapper is a task requiring the efforts of several strong men, whose willingness to expose their ears to the bell's mighty roar is, no doubt, in itself an act worthy of some sort of divine reward.

I to the church the living call,
And to the grave do summon all.

 The inscriptions on bells are almost always phrased in the first person. It is as though an individual being with name and history was declaring the intentions of his or her voice. "Cantabo laudes tuas Domini" ("I will sing thy praises, Lord") conveys this as surely as the more homely assertions such as "All ye of Bath who hear me sound, thank Lady Hopton's hundred pound", or "Although I am both light and small, I will be heard above you all." Like individual persons, bells have names. They are not just the Great Bell or the bell of some place-name. They are called Guthlac, Pega, Bega, Bartholomew or Kate. They are sometimes said to speak for themselves, as did the bells of Canterbury Cathedral when Thomas a Becket was murdered.

 "I am the voice of life", "I put to night", "I break the lightning." With each inscription the makers of bells vested in them individually a unique life. Perhaps it is not surprising then that those destined for sacred functions should, like individual humans, be baptized. Often tolling of their own accord for some event, bells were seen as expressing potentially moral force, and it was thought best that they be consecrated so as to act thus always on the side of the good. Godparents of the bell were chosen and a white christening robe made for it. Along with oil, salt, incense and napkins, the bell was brought to the church and hung low. Psalms were sung while the ritual items were blest and the bell was washed in salt water (to make it demon-proof) and wiped. The sign of the cross was made with oil while more psalms were sung and liturgies were chanted, including the calling of the name of the bell and the saint to whom it was dedicated. Then incense was burnt under it, filling up its inner hollow, and more singing and prayer accompanied its covering with the christening robe. It is odd to think of bells like this ringing through times of revolution or inquisition such as was described by Thackeray in his reference to those of Antwerp Cathedral, which had cheerfully rung while the scaffolds were put up and "regiments of penitents, blue, black and grey, poured out of churches and convents, droning their dirges, and marching to the Place Hotel de ville, where heretics and rebels were to meet their doom". Did they ring the mauvais quart d'heure with a note of sadness? Or did they continue to mark a longer curve of the human drama, echoing a wisdom more bound up with eternity than with time?

 A lover of Japan once wrote that Christian bells speak on occasions significant to the social world, whereas the Buddhist bell has "it seems a voice apart from temporal things, cognizant only of eternity and Nirvana. Yet on any occasion of sorrow its accent - tranquil, remote and unhurried - may be immeasurably consoling." He thought it seemed to be saying, "Despair not; for all this passes. All is well." It is certainly true that the resonating gong of such bells seems to emanate from a source beyond time and place. The one hundred and eight measured strokes marking the twelve divisions of the zodiac and year, the twenty-four divisions of the year into positions of the sun, and the seventy-two divisions of days, mathematically and in terms of sound, echo a vibrating link between the cosmos and earth. But the bells of the Western world can also intone the music of the spheres. Despite the liturgical and social purposes for which their ringing is intended, their own innate voice continually breaks these bonds and reveals a higher joy, a deeper compassion and a greater sorrow than any of their makers, donors, patrons or manipulators can ever imagine or consciously contain. This seems to be sensed by the societies of ringers themselves who, often of simple background and frequently unsympathetic with religious orthodoxy, observe strict taboos and rules in relation to the handling of the bells themselves.

 The anatomy of a bell uses many of the same terms as that of a human being. It has a crown, shoulders, a waist and a mouth with a tongue or clapper. In addition, it possesses a sound-bow along the swell of its rim. Broadly, its pitch is determined by diameter, the timbre by shape, thickness of various parts and the nature of the alloy, and the volume depends chiefly on size and weight. Though such variables would seem to be controllable, no two bells ever sound alike but have each their unique voice. A bell gives off more than one sound, each of which must be in tune with the others. A perfect bell rings a main note when struck by the clapper at the sound-bow. At the shoulder the sound should be one octave higher, with notes in tune on the ascending slope (from shoulder to waist to bow) in between, and a deeper hum one octave lower than the main note. If a bell comes out of a mould exactly in tune, it is said to have a 'maiden peal', requiring no filing or grinding to alter its inborn voice. It is naturally sacred and thought to be blest directly by some heavenly source, whose soulful speech it utters. Such pure perfection in shape and sound could easily be identified with the heavenly vault of Aditi, the divine melodious cow. Mother of speech and shakti in the sacred process of cosmic manifestation, she is the celestial bell-cow from whom the rivers of sustenance flow. Her bell-like voice echoes through all levels of creation, finding its resonance even in the tinkling bell of the cow leading a village herd. Because much of the ancient world was inspired by this symbolically rich archetype, cows were generally viewed as sacred, and in India the bell-cow of an especially sacred herd was kept by the Brahmin priests and taken to view the deity of the temple early each day in order to sanctify the worship of the god or goddess that would follow.

 Associated thus with the highest level of cosmic manifestation in the Hindu tradition, the bell also plays a profoundly lofty and holy role in the Buddhist faith. In the iconography of the Mahayana School of Tibetan Buddhism, the bell and the diamond sceptre are held in the hands of Adi-Buddha, the Primordial Buddha, said to be the first manifestation from the void and the origin of the first mandala of five Dhyani-Buddhas, from whom all deities stream. Called Vajradhara (Bearer of the Diamond Sceptre), he carries the vajra in his right hand and the ghanta (bell with a vajra handle) in his left. His hands are crossed on his chest in Vajrahwnkaramudra, which indicates the supreme mystic unity attained through permanent union of the void and wisdom. The vajra being a symbol of the absolute Reality of the all-pervading voidness (shunyata) and the ghanta representing Supreme Wisdom (Prajna), the union symbolized is one which resolves all aspects of dual existence, beyond which lies only the Unknowable.

 Never an historical figure, the Adi-Buddha is an exalted ideal of the pure Buddha-nature, that of all the Buddhas and that which is latent but present in every human. It can be inwardly experienced and comprehended by the true mystic. To the ordinary man it remains a mystery. In the Tibetan tradition true self-knowledge is said to be as indestructible as a diamond. It is gained when pure consciousness realizes the all-pervading void, remains there and then experiences the boundless bliss of enlightenment. In a mysterious way the vajra (Tibetan dorje) represents the vital means to experience Adi-Buddha, whilst the ghanta (Tibetan dril-bu) symbolizes the goal itself. On a ritual plane the two are the most important objects of Vajrayana practice and are used in all ceremonies as well as in initiations, where they are handed together to the newly initiated or ordained lama. In practice their intelligent and devoted use is held to permit the seeker to blend in harmony an awareness of voidness and bliss as he progresses along the Path. Relying on the bell of truth which penetrates all worlds with its ringing tone, he must fearlessly cut through untruth and continually void his consciousness of its residue. The bell sounds the keynote of compassion which the disciple seeks to embody but which leads into the world of suffering, the realm of seeming fullness, in order to realize union with the wisdom of the ever-present void. The path through Samsara in the search for Nirvana, these two - as path and goal, Samsara and Nirvana, vajra and ghanta - must be eventually seen as inseparable unities.

 The pairs of opposites - male and female, Buddha and Prajna, god and goddess - are all equal aspects of the One. The vajra is the indestructible diamond, symbol of appropriate and skilful action, and represents the masculine pole of the Buddha. The ghanta has the all-pervading ringing character of the void; it is the voice of supreme Dharma and the symbol of wisdom, representing the feminine pole of the Buddha. Whilst the vajra can be identified with the method and means of obtaining wisdom, the ghanta is identified with wisdom itself. The vajra is said to be the spiritual Path, whilst the ghanta represents the fruit of that Path. One thus obtains an impression of the active masculine aspect expressing itself through the passive feminine vehicle. But here the Tibetan Teaching becomes less easy to follow, for though the vajra is identified with shunyata (all-pervading voidness), it is also aligned with all-embracing compassion, and the ghanta is said to be expressive of voidness. A crossing over of principles seems to have occurred if one follows this at face value. But looking more deeply, one perceives that the fullness of the void is Compassion Absolute, the Law of Laws, and the fruit of its realization is the capacity to perceive the voidness of the seeming full. The apparent cross-over exists only in the mind of one who persists, consciously or unconsciously, in pursuing transcendental concepts from one set of dichotomies to another.

 The Secret Doctrine tells us that Prajna expressed in the symbol of the ghanta or bell is the capacity of perception. It exists in seven aspects, which correspond to the seven different states of matter, the seven forms of force and the Seven Logoi, who are really the One Logos appearing under seven different forms. The seven principles corresponding to the seven states of Prajna bridge the gulf that seems to exist between the objective and subjective and indicate "the mysterious circuit through which ideation passes". Conventionally speaking, the object of Prajna is shunyata. But shunyata, being transcendental to all empirical determinations, cannot be apprehended by means of thought constructs, however subtle. The question then is how can the capacity to perceive assist one in seeing beyond duality? It has been rightly remarked that the chain of our mental states of consciousness is like a double-headed monster, spewing us back and forth between the objective and subjective. T. Subba Row directs our attention to the great Adwaitee philosophers of ancient Aryavarta, who had examined the relationship between subject and object at every level of conditioned existence. All of these different states of matter are not perceptible to our present limited consciousness, but they can be objectively perceived by the higher Ego. "To the liberated spiritual monad of man, or to the Dhyan Chohans, everything that is material in every condition of matter is an object of perception." There are, in actuality, but six states of matter (the seventh being the aspect of cosmic matter in its original undifferentiated condition). Correspondingly, Prajna is split into six states of consciousness, the seventh being a condition of perfect unconsciousness where there is no separation between perceiver and perceived.

 Theosophically, the trinitarian aspect of Parabrahman is referred to as the "bare potentiality of Prajna", the infinite field of universal consciousness and undifferentiated matter. This one permanent condition in the universe is the state of perfect unconsciousness, bare Chidakasha (field of consciousness) or Chinmatra, which contains the potentiality of every condition of Prajna. It is this 'field' which results in consciousness on the one hand and the objective universe on the other by operation of its latent Chichakti, the power which generates thought. Chinmatra exists everywhere in the infinite Chidakasha. The terms represent two subtle aspects of the subjective side of one principle.

 Considered as something objective, this principle is Mulaprakriti. From a subjective standpoint, it is Chidakasha when considered as the field of cosmic ideation, and Chinmatra when seen as the germ of cosmic ideation. At the commencement of a cycle of manifestation, the concealed wisdom or latent Chichakti acts in the universal mind and Fohat forms the manifested universe.

Know your own mind completely, O Yogin!
Like water meeting with water.

 In arcane tradition Adi-Buddha is identical with Parabrahman, from which is emitted a Bright Ray (the First Logos - Vajradhara), who sends into the world his Diamond Heart (the second Logos), from whom emanate the Seven Anupadaka, the primeval Monads. Adi means 'the One' or 'first', the Unknown Deity, the One Unmanifest from whom the Manifest One emanates periodically as the Universal Mind. Called in the Mahayana tradition Vajradhara, Adi-Buddha would seem to be an ideal Buddha manifested symbolically through the vajra and ghanta, which subsequently become the means of returning to the realm of his unmanifest oneness. The ghanta or bell represents the Sound first emanated in the infinite field of Akasha. Its shape is an objectified conception of the vault of heaven, which contains all, measures all and yet is empty. The echoing tone of the bell is the sound of Truth, which, reverberating through the levels of matter, is perceived by Prajna. But it is Truth which echoes the emptiness of all those levels and of the consciousness that perceives them. What then can perceive shunyata? Can the perceiver merged with the act of perception and that which is perceived be said to express perfect unconsciousness? Is this devoid of any fullness whatsoever? What is the bliss of enlightenment? Where is the source of Aditi's melodious voice to be found?

 One hears the bell, one contemplates its clarity of tone and follows it back to the most abstract concept of sound one is capable of. One contemplates this and begins to void the extraneous ideas and images one had of sound. One begins to meditate upon Akashic space to the point where all thought constructions cease and one begins to experience an abandonment not only of false doctrines but of true doctrines. The ideas of Truth begin to disappear and one experiences it increasingly face to face. Finally, objects and constructs and ideas about things will be seen as having no self-nature. They are shunya (empty of self-nature because dependent upon conditions). Gradually one will know this. One will merge more and more completely into the truth of this, and as one does one will become increasingly aware that perception itself is dependent upon conditions. At this point Prajna becomes empty and no different from shunyata; the pilgrim is in the position of one who is ready to abandon the raft of Dharma as he or she approaches the Other Shore. The bliss that embraces the pilgrim is the merging into Oneness which has taken place in every aspect of his or her being. To merge fully into this is to complete the crossing to the Other Shore. To know the voidness of all manifest life and yet turn back to enlighten those who clutch at it, searching desperately for a fullness that will never be found, is the supreme act of Bodhisattvic renunciation.

 To do this one must be able to hear the bell of Truth, know that its echoes in the world are but fragmented and often discordant reflections, and yet perceive, in man's very ability to thrill and be uplifted by the sound of a bell, the soul which in essence is ever merged in the One. All the rituals and lore associated with the bell are dim reflections of this greater truth. Behind all the squalid victories, minor joys, triumphs and sadnesses celebrated by ringing bells lies the great, vast field of Akasha which interpenetrates all the three worlds. Every shred of nobility, dignity and truth which human beings collectively experience through the solemn or joyful toning of a great bell takes its origin in this field wherein all are unseparated from one another. The bell hangs aloft between heaven and earth, and its ringing is heard by collective humanity. The bell does not ring for one and not for another, but tolls for all. All will pass through Samsara as surely as life follows death, and all, regardless of time or space, make the journey together. That is the message of the bell, and it is its realization which will enable us to hold the vajra and the ghanta across one another in perfect balance over our hearts and bend our whole effort towards embodying the Buddha that we are. The individuality invested in each bell, from one whose voice is cracked to one with a 'virgin peal', reflects the individual human being's potential, in the face of whatever limitations any might have. To rise up and make of one's whole being a bell whose voice is ever in harmony with the pure Sound of Truth that rings eternally in Silence - this is the great aim. This is the Path that leads to Adi-Buddha's shore.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson