Mannequin heads

It’s been more than three years since I’ve sung the Evening Bell Chant at the Cambridge Zen Center: yet another practice interrupted by the pandemic. But when three attendees at last night’s meditation intro class asked to hear the temple bell, I decided to show them the bell the best way I could, and that was by hitting it.

The Evening Bell Chant is a short–two- or three-minute–solo chant sung at the beginning of evening practice by someone who accompanies themselves on the big brass bell that sits like a tank in one corner of the Dharma room. It is my favorite chant, either to sing or listen to, largely because of the bell itself, which reverberates with a thrumming pulse. That sound spreads throughout the room–there is no missing or mistaking the bell when it is struck–and when you are the one hitting the bell with a worn wooden mallet, those vibrations thrum through your entire body. You hit the bell, but it feels like your own body is ringing.

The lyrics to the Evening Bell Chant are in Korean, with a translation in the back of the chanting book. The sound of the bell, those lyrics explain, cuts off thinking, and the sound of the bell coupled with the mantra repeated three times at the end Destroy Hell.

Hearing the sound of the bell,
all thinking is cut off,
Wisdom grows;
enlightenment appears;
hell is left behind.
The three worlds are transcended.
Vowing to become Buddha
and save all people.
The mantra of shattering hell:
om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha
om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha
om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha

Usually when I sing the Evening Bell Chant, I have to keep one eye on a laminated printout with the lyrics and pattern of hits in LARGE PRINT: there’s nothing worse than forgetting your lines or literally missing a (bell) beat when an entire Dharma room is listening. But last night, as soon as I sat on the cushion and picked up the mallet, the words came back like muscle memory. It was as if the bell itself were singing the words.

Buddha and houseplant

Last night I went to evening practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, even though I still haven’t fully recovered my voice from the cold-turned-bronchitis I’ve been fighting all month. My voice is mostly better when I’m simply talking…but chanting was a whole other story, with my voice squeaking, croaking, or falling silence whenever the melody varied from the middle-monotone. It will take a while before my vocal cords are back in shape for either chanting or singing, but in the meantime, it was good to squeak by with roomful of other practitioners who filled in the melodic gaps when my voice wasn’t able to rise to the occasion.

This is my Day Twenty-Four contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Pointless graffiti

I’m back from a soggy dog-walk, with raindrops falling from gray-flannel skies; Reggie is dotted with the first crop of beggars ticks. Rainy days are good for staying home and grading, which is good since I have papers to read and classes to prepare. But right now now, I’m relishing a moment of calm before the day begins, even though the day has already long begun. I hear my upstairs-neighbor stirring, and occasionally I hear Reggie breathing as he rests in a soggy spot on the kitchen floor. And when I’m quiet, there is the background sound of rain — the world’s most soothing sound. When you stop and truly, deeply listen, what do you hear?


Listening is almost always calming, even when your surroundings are noisy. The Zen Center is in a city neighborhood, so there are always the sounds of passing traffic and noisy neighbors: auditory itches you want with all your being to scratch. And yet you train yourself not to scratch that itch, returning to the inner silence of meditation rather than chasing the distraction of outward stimuli. It’s not that you drown the sound out, as there is absolutely no aspect of pushing it away. Instead, you let the sound wash over you; you let it permeate and percolate through your being, remaining passive and receptive. You let your Self be dissolved by sound until there is no Hearer, only Hearing.


But that happens only occasionally. In the meantime, while you’re still human and humbled, you struggle with sounds, choosing the ones you like and railing against the ones you don’t. You play endless songs in your head, pumping psychic quarters into your own internal jukebox so it plays and replays your favorite songs, your favorite thoughts, and your favorite fantasies over and over.

Real, actual sound — the pops and thuds and slams of the tangible world around you — shake you out of your inner trance because these sounds drown out, for an instant, the inner radio that keeps chattering, humming, and buzzing through every minute of consciousness. One sound — Ha! — cuts through every sound like a blade through warm butter. The honk of a horn, the cry of a child, the bark of a dog: these sounds are precious — psychological lifesavers — because they burst the bubble of our inner fantasy.


This is why the Evening Bell Chant insists that listening to the sound of the Dharma room bell destroys hell: the waves of sound that wash over you and the vibrations of sensation that seep to your inner core bring you back to the heaven of Here and Now, where enlightenment, change, and compassion happen. Coming back to Here and Now, you automatically leave behind the hell of both Yesterday and Tomorrow. What is either one of these but an infinitely elusive, illusory dream?

The magic of a mantra doesn’t lie in its meaning but in its music. When you chant a mantra, its words resonate down to your very bones, your body becoming a vibrating vessel of truth and light. This sounds otherworldly, but it isn’t. It’s as near as your nose, as immediate as your ears, and as tangible as the toes which tingle with every chanted syllable, alive.

Spray can

If you want to wake up, simply open your ears, and the singing Universe will serve as your alarm clock, tapping raindrops on your window to rouse you.

It is indeed raining in Keene today, but I wrote this entry last Thursday, on a morning when the sound of rain nicely resonated with the chapter on “Hearing” from Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses, which I’m re-reading with my Creative Nonfiction students. “The sound of rain” made for a good in-class writing prompt, and these scenes from Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge make for good rainy-day visuals.