A Buddhist tradition of ringing the big, outside Temple bell 108 times at year’s end is both welcomed and significant. And, if it is not possible to be among those gathered at a temple to observe this tradition, the home Obutsudan (shrine) or a quiet place where you slowly count to 108 can be your gathering place.
The ringing traditionally begins at midnight of the last day of the year. The last striking of the bell takes place at 1:00 AM on New Year’s morning. More modernly, we gather earlier that evening for the ringing of the bell.
Each striking of the bell symbolically eradicates our (at LEAST) 108 impurities, one by one, and the new year brings us to a fresh start. Well, perhaps, but I think that each striking of the bell reminds us that we have at least 108 parts of our personality that could be improved; that we have at least 108 imperfections we will no longer ignore. I would like to think that we could look deep into ourselves, as the bell is struck or the counting taking place, and identify that which we can improve or extinguish behavior wise.
WHY IS THE BELL STRUCK PRECISELY 108 TIMES?
The Temple priest or a monk (and sometimes the Sangha members take turns) strikes the bell as a means of teaching the Dharma!
This is how it works: In Buddhism, we have the six senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and consciousness of the unenlightened being (the mind). Each of our senses have experiences that are either pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. When the six senses are multiplied by the three types of experiences, the total becomes 18.
Our lives are spent in search of pleasure, however fleeting, so these experiences are further defined as being attached to getting what we want or lamenting getting what we don’t want. Multiplying the two types of desires by 18, we now have 36.
Since all these attempts have taken place in our past, are now taking place in our present, or will be taking place in our future, the number 36 is then multiplied by past, present and future (X3) to obtain the final total of 108. (Even the 108 is simply a reminder of an infinite number of possible hindrances to Enlightenment)
What can the experience of listening to the bell at year’s end do for us? It can, importantly, remind us to look at our life as we are actually living it. Did you know that each of us can tell what we were like in the past and what we will be like in the future by looking at our life today? We are everything we have ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought. Furthermore, we will become everything we are now seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking.
Thus, the true significance of the ringing of the bell at year’s end is self-examination, and self-examination is the fundamental aspect of Buddhism. This examination, or insight, to quote Rev. Dr. Nobuo Haneda, in a contribution to THE PACIFIC WORLD journal (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai publication), “comes only from the ‘negative elements’ of the human experience of suffering and struggle.”
DOES THIS MAKE US MORE ECOLOGICALLY AWARE?
If we look at ourselves clearly, we realize that we are part and connected to this wonderment we call the universe. Our planet is but a small part of the universe, yet it is large to us who dwell upon it. Right mindfulness and understanding of our behavior will help make this planet healthier, calmer and more protected from destruction.