The Bell Tower
The large hanging bell at the entrance to the temple grounds has a tradition that stretches back to ancient India, where a wooden instrument attached to a building was struck to call people together. In China this was transformed into a metal bell. Many of these were made throughout China in the 6th and 7th centuries. This custom passed on to Korea, and from Korea to Japan. Tōzenji’s bell was cast in Korea and it weighs roughly two tons.
There are several names for this type of large hanging bell in Japanese. Most people called it tsurigane, which simply means “hanging bell.” As a Buddhist implement, however, it is called kōshō 洪鐘 (“voluminous bell”) or bonshō 梵鐘 (“bell of Brahmā”), and its symbolism is important. It represents the dispelling of darkness (i.e. ignorance) and the bringing of sentient beings into the light of awareness. In Mahayana Buddhism the highest form this awareness takes is a state called shōgaku 正覚 (Skt. Sambodhi). It is the state of a fully enlightened Buddha. The traditional verse associated with this type of bell, and which is cast in Chinese characters on the bell itself reads:
May the sound of this bell cross the entire universe
To be heard by all who are enclosed by the iron cell of darkness and seclusion;
May it liberate them from the suffering of the Three Crossings, bringing them to a state of restfulness,
And cause every sentient being to attain the state of Complete Enlightenment.
At some large temples the bell is struck early in the morning and at sundown, but it is associated in most people’s minds with a ceremony that takes place at the end of the year, when it is struck 108 times to ring out the old year. In this case the number 108 represents the number of afflictions, disturbances and negative emotions (bonnō 煩悩, Skt. Kleśa) that have plagued our lives throughout the year.
Ringing the bell symbolizes letting them go so that we can greet the New Year with a fresh spirit. Tōzenji conducts this ceremony every year on December 31st.