Bells closely linked to Buddhist religion

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Bells closely linked to Buddhist religion

4th in the series / Korean Bells
As it has every year since 1953, at the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the huge dark bell in Bosingak in downtown Seoul rung strongly to signal the first day of a new year. A huge crowd that had gathered despite the freezing cold cheered loudly as the sky filled with fireworks and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and other delegates hit the bell with a huge log suspended by a rope from the roof. The nation, whether downtown or at home watching television, had their eyes fixed on the bell.
Other bells at Buddhist temples around the country rang out at the same time.
For Koreans throughout history, bells have played a significant role in daily life. For example, although the Bosingak bell is rung only on special occasions today, during the Joseon dynasty it was rung regularly twice every day to tell the time. It was also used to restrict entrance to the capital and to give warning of fires or other emergencies.
Bells also played a major role in the religious practice of the Korean people and are deeply rooted in the Buddhist faith.
According to the Doosan Encyclopedia, although it is unknown exactly when the first bell was made on the Korean Peninsula, the production of bells became active with the wide spread of Buddhism. Through the sound of the bell, Koreans tried to comprehend the Buddhist belief that all objects and living things in the universe don’t stay in one shape but continuously change form. Koreans also believed that bells had the power to subdue evil and erase sin and pain.
“Korean bells are very different from foreign bells. While bells from Western world are high pitched, Korean bells, because of their religious background, have a low tone,” said Won Kwang-sik, chief executive of Sungjongsa, a bell manufacturing company.
In October last year, Mr. Won restored the Naksan Temple Bell that had been damaged by a wildfire the previous year.
“Korean bells are focused to soothe the listener and purify their minds and therefore need to have a low tone,” he added.
Huh Gyun, a researcher of Korean folk art who was once an advisor at the Korea Cultural Properties Administration, wrote in a column on Buddhism that the bell is rung accordingly to Buddhist tradition. In the morning, the bell is struck 28 times and at night it is struck 33 times.
At the turn of the year, the Bosingak bell and others across the country were struck 33 times.
The bell is struck 28 times in the morning in hopes that the sound will travel to all 28 levels of heaven, which are all within three bigger worlds.
Buddhists believe those worlds are Yokgye (Field of Desire), Saekgye (Field of Forms) and Musaekgye (Field of the Formless). The three worlds are occupied by different Deva or heavenly people. In yokgye, living beings have strong materialistic desires and are easily satisfied.
Saekgye is a higher realm where the residents no longer seek material things, but pursue spiritual happiness through such arts as music and meditation.
Musaekgye is the most divine world and is devoid of any form or bodies. The Devas enjoy complete freedom in this realm.
The realms are determined according to the Devas’ karma and wisdom.
The world of ordinary humans is separate and to enter the heavens, they need to adhere to 10 rules that ban killing, stealing, adultery, lying and the use of obscenity.
Devas, including those in musaekgye, are not free from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is only when entering the holy realms where Buddha resides that one is freed from the cycle.
The bell strikes 33 times at night in the hope that the sound will travel to the 33 heavens located in Yokgye, or the field of desires.
Mr. Huh writes that there is a legend that explains the shape of the Korean bell. The name of the dragon at the top of the bell is Poroe. According to legend, Poroe fears the whales that live off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula. This is also mentioned in Samgukyusa, sometimes known as the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, a publication on legends and folktales of the Three Kingdoms period written by the monk Iryeon in the 13th century.
It is said that when the bell is struck by an object in the shape of a whale, the surprised dragon makes a huge cry.
The dragon decoration at the top of the bell is unique and is not found in other parts of the world, even in China and Japan.
The unique features that are found only on Korean bells are:

Yongnyu: The top of the bell that is shaped like a dragon. A steel chain connects the yongnyu to the bell’s body.
Eumgwan: Also known as eumtong or yongtong, this is a bamboo shaped piece that sits beside the yongnyu. Its purpose is to create a clear sound. Eumgwan are only found on bells made during the Silla Kingdom and the Goryeo dynasty. Bells made during the Joseon dynasty have no eumgwan.
Sangdae and Hadae: Both are thicker patterned designs located on the top and bottom of the bell.
The design indicates the year in which the bell was made. Vine and floral medallion patterns are found on bells made during the Silla Kingdom, while bells made during the Goryeo dynasty have lightning and chrysanthemum patterns. Bells made during the Joseon dynasty have lotus patterns.
Yugwak, Yudoo: The Yugwak is a decorative frame that is directly beneath the sangdae. Inside the square frame are Yudoo, nine raised circles of steel. The yudoo, which has a flower design, were so named because they look like nipples, which are also pronounced yudoo.
Dangjwa: This is the round spot in the middle of the bell which indicates the spot where the striker, usually a huge log, will hit the bell. Bells made during the Silla Kingdom had dangjwa on two sides engraved with a lotus design. Bells made during the Goryeo dynasty had four dangjwa around the bell.

Decorating the body of the bell, those made during the Silla Kingdom feature Bicheonsang, or heavenly maidens, with swaying clothes kneeling on lotuses or riding on clouds while playing instruments. During the Goryeo dynasty, Buddha or a Buddhist saint sitting on a lotus replaced the maidens. In the Joseon dynasty, larger Buddhist saints were featured praying while standing on top of lotuses.
The bell considered to best represent Korea of all those in temples and museums throughout the country is the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok the Great, which was built in 771.
The Sacred Bell is also known as the Emille Bell and is not only the largest bell in Korea but also one of the biggest in the world. The bell is 3.33 meters (10.9 foot) high and 2.27 meters in diameter and weighs 25 tons.
The bell was made by Silla’s King Gyeongdeok to honor his father King Seongdeok. The bell is known for its elaborate designs and decoration.
Among one of the many legends, one has it that the bell was named Emille because when it was first made no sounds came from it so it was melted down to be remade. One night in a dream, a monk was told to throw an infant into the melting pot of metal and only then would the bell make a sound. The monk did this and since then the bell has made the sound of eh-mee-leh, which in Silla terms, was the cry of a baby calling its mother.
The Sangwon Temple Bell is the oldest existing bell in Korea today and was cast more than four decades earlier than the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok the Great, in the year 725 during the Silla Kingdom.
The bell is known for representing Korea’s ancient metal art in the 8th century. It is 167 centimeters high and 91 centimeters in diameter.
The writer Cho Gyu-dong in his book “Buddhist Bells in Korea,” described the Sangwon Temple Bell thus: “The sound of the bell is solemn and courteous. The low and slow tone and the heartbreaking cries create a long, clear, far-reaching sound into the wide space.”
Another representative bell in Korea is the Naksan Temple Bell, which melted during a wildfire incident in April 2005, but was restored in October last year.
The bell was made in 1469 during the Joseon dynasty by King Yejong to honor his father King Sejo. Unlike earlier bells, there are two dragons at the top of the bell. The bell is 158 centimeters tall and 98 centimeters in diameter. The Buddhist saint engraving on the side measures 36.9 centimeters.
Mr. Won at Sungjongsa said bells made in Korea in modern times are based on those made during the Silla Kingdom.
“Many of the bells made during the Joseon dynasty were heavily influenced by Chinese bells. Silla bells are the real Korean bells,” he said.


by Lee Ho-jeong

More in Features

Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix

[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes

Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers

When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it

The traveling grandma who's 'alive and kicking it'

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now