dailybell: INSPIRATION

Sunday, December 30, 2007


In February of 2007, Norman and I went to India to hear the winter teachings of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. At the end of the teachings, it was early March and we descended from the mountains and went to the Ganges River in Varanasi. Every morning at dawn and every evening at sunset thousands of people gathered on the bank of the river. In the predawn darkness, slowly and very quietly, monks began to chant and softly ring small bells. Gradually the chanting got louder and more people joined in to chant or listen. Chanting voices and ringing bells greeted the sunrise every morning. Every morning.

In the evening, the farewell to the sun was much more elaborate. Again thousands of people lined the banks of the Ganges River: monks, pilgrims, tourists, and residents of Varanasi. This time the chanting was much louder and there were many, many bells. And fire. In some places the chanting was electronically amplified. Further along, there were no chanting voices, but small orchestras accompanied other choruses. People were talking and laughing and singing. And ringing hundreds of bells. The bells were mounted atop very tall poles with their ropes dangling to the ground. Anyone in the proximity of a bell pulled the string and rang the bell for as long as they could. This singing and ringing went on for at least an hour. And it happened every single night. And it had been going on for a very, very long time.

It was an amazing experience and I wondered what it would be like to greet the sun and bid it farewell everyday once we returned home. As a culture, it seems we reserve our bell ringing for special occasions like weddings, funerals, sacred ceremonies and commemorations. People are not used to ringing or hearing bells in their daily lives. Furthermore, our bell ringing is not often associated with the time of day as it once was.

I have a large clock in my house that chimes every 15 minutes. The chiming pattern for each quarter hour is distinctive so that I can tell what time it is by listening. Listening to time pass is a very different experience than looking at a clock. Punctuating intervals of time with sound accentuates the passing of time and the accumulation of memory and experience. When listening to the chiming of a clock in order to know the time, one must stop and wait and think. For a brief moment, one suspends what one is doing to become aware of something else. That something else is constant and ongoing. And timeless. Through that moment of awareness perhaps we can connect with the rest of the world. Or at least our immediate worlds.

Japanese New Year's Bell Ringing Ceremony.
I attended The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco's version of this bell ringing ceremony today. The museum has a large Japanese Temple Bell in their collection that they bring out each year for this occasion. The public is invited to participate in a version of the Joya No Kane ceremony that traditionally takes place in a temple on the first day of the year beginning at midnight. The bell is rung 108 times.

The Joya No Kane ceremony provided the final piece of inspiration and clarity. There were 1000 people present in the room. When the chairs were full, people sat on the floor. The bell was at one end of the room and it was framed by a large, open window. After the initial blessing, people were invited in groups of 6 to approach the bell, stand on either side of a long wooden pole and gently swing the pole into the bell. Watching and waiting and listening with so many people wove a delicate connection among those present. I would like to inspire and participate in an activity that extends that connection day by day.

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