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The Bell Pavilion

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One of the better examples of a two-storied bell pavilion is at Tongdosa Temple, which houses all four of the Buddhist instruments.

Hello Again Everyone!!

One of the most universally found structures at a Korean Buddhist temple, other than the main hall, is a bell pavilion. Sometimes, these bell pavilions are nothing more than a smaller sized bell, and sometimes these bell pavilions are large and ornately designed. However, a standard Korean Buddhist bell pavilion should have four different percussion instructions. These four are all percussion instruments; and yet, they all have different meanings and designs. So what exactly do each of the four look like, and what is the meaning behind each of their designs?

When you visit a Korean Buddhist temple, you’ll be able to easily locate the bell pavilion. Usually, the bell pavilion, better known as the Brahma Bell Pavilion, is in front and to the right of the main hall. The bell pavilion should house four percussion instruments. The first is the Brahma Bell, and the second is the Dharma Bell, the third is a Wooden Fish Drum, and the fourth is the Cloud Shaped Drum. And the point of having the bell pavilion house all four of these instruments is to make offerings. What these offerings are, are completely dependent on the individual instrument.

The Brahma Bell from Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

1. The Brahma Bell and Dharma Bell:

The Brahma Bell is the larger sized bell inside the bell pavilion. It’s the most important instrument inside the bell pavilion, as well as the namesake of the structure. Another name for the Brahma Bell is the “Whale Bell,” in reference to the myth of Poroe. The bell itself is adorned with a dragon sculpture of Poroe at the top of the bell. The bell itself is adorned with various designs like Biseon, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, poems, or religious writing and is made of bronze. The bell is used for awakening to the great sound and the “Ultimate Way” within the Buddhist faith.

The richly coloured pavilion that houses the diminuitive Dharma Bell at Seokbulsa Temple in Busan.

Housed alongside the Brahma Bell is the smaller sized Dharma Bell. While not as large in size, it’s almost as important in meaning. The bell is almost identical in design as the larger Brahma Bell. It’s decorated with Biseon, Buddhas, poems, or anything else significant the designer of the bell might have thought to be important. Again, the crown of the bell is adorned with Poroe. The Dharma Bell is struck to tell the time or to call the monks or nuns of the temple or hermitage. In the morning, the bell is struck 28 times, which symbolizes the 28 Heavens. And in the evening, the Dharma Bell is struck 33 times, which stands for the Heaven of the thirty-three devas (Trayastrimas). However, the primary reason for having the Dharma Bell toll is to awaken all sentient beings to the truth of the Dharma and to rescue those who are suffering in hell. Great examples of these bells can be found at Tongdosa Temple and Beomeosa Temple.

The large turtle-based Dharma Drum from the world famous Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

2. The Dharma Drum:

The second instrument housed inside the Brahma Bell Pavilion is the large Dharma Drum. The Dharma Drum is usually made of wood with each end made of rawhide. Significantly, the leather on one side is from a cow, while the leather on the other side is made from a bull. This gesture is believed to be symbolic of the Yin and Yang of the universe and how it must be in harmony. And it is through this harmony that the drum can produce the perfect sound. The sound of the drum is said to be a metaphor for the spreading of the Buddha’s teachings throughout the world. It is also struck during various Buddhist rituals and lectures. The striking of this drum symbolizes the saving of all sentient beings, and it also relieves all sentient beings from anguish. A good example of this can be found at Bulguksa Temple.

 The grotesquely original Wooden Fish Drum from Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.

3. The Wooden Fish Drum:

The third instrument found inside a Brahma Bell pavilion at a Korean Buddhist temple is the Wooden Fish Drum. Other names for the Wooden Fish Drum are the “fish plank” or more simply, the “fish drum.”

The Wooden Fish Drum is carved from a hallowed out log. It’s said to resemble a carp (a fish). Interestingly, there are two reasons as to why the drum is said to look like a carp (fish). The first reason is that a fish never closes their eyes. And much like the wind chime that adorn temples, the sound the drum makes is said to remind monks and nuns not to slack in their self-cultivation practices.

The second story, and the more interesting one, is that the fish was once a disciple that didn’t follow the instructions of his famous monk teacher. After the disciple died, he was reborn as a handicapped fish with a log stuck in its back as retribution for his errant ways. In rough seas, the waves that rocked the log back would cause the fish a lot of pain. One day, as the monk teacher was crossing over the sea in a boat, he spotted the fish and recognized him as his former disciple. As an act of mercy, the monk teacher performed the “rite of water and land,” which freed the fish from his physical pain. At that moment, the fish (and former disciple) repented for his past transgressions. The log that was taken from the back of the fish was then carved into a “wooden fish” by the monk. It was then used as a percussion instrument to warn others to remain diligent in their faith.

More recently, while the Wooden Fish Drum started off as a fish, its head slowly took the shape of a dragon-like creature with a pearl in its mouth. This transformation is said to symbolize freedom from all restraints and obstacles; namely, the independence of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Additionally, the Wooden Fish drum is used for saving all fish in the water. One other meaning for the Wooden Fish; particularly when it’s struck is to gather all members of a temple or hermitage for meals. A great example of this drum can be found at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.

A fine example of a Cloud Plate Gong from Haeinsa Temple.

4. The Cloud Plate Gong:

The fourth, and final, of the instruments that resides inside the Brahma Bell Pavilion is the Cloud Plate Gong. The Cloud Plate Gong perfectly describes what it looks like: it’s a copper or iron gong in the shape of a cloud. The images that adorn the face of the gong are the sun and the moon; however, it’s the cloud-like images that are dominant on the gong. Originally, the gong was simply used to announce meals for the monks and nuns. Now, however, it’s used as a ritual instrument for morning and evening worship. Still others say that the Cloud Plate Gong was initially conceived as a means to deliver the Dharma message to all creatures of the sky, as well as to lead wandering souls towards the correct path.

So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple have a look for the Brahma Bell Pavilion. It should be pretty easy to find either because of its size or proximity to the main hall. Once you’ve found it take a moment to have a look at all the beauty of the different instruments, both physically and symbolically.

Yet another fine example of a two-storied bell pavilion. This one can be found at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

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