Bells, Bowing and Buddhas

Looking over this blog, you may have gotten it that I’m gaga over bells. There’s a bowl bell at the top of the blog and two big bells represented by photo and painting on the side and bottom. The one on the top is the bell I ring at the end of the meditation I lead every week in the class I teach in my home. It was purchased at the end of a retreat a few years ago, after Howie Cohn led a listening meditation ringing a variety of these bells. When we went to Mexico I took my bell bowl and left it in our casa, thinking I would buy another one for our home in San Rafael. But all bell bowls are not alike and I never found one as perfectly sonorous as the one I had. So on our next trip I brought my bell bowl back and my students enjoy its tone at then end of our meditation together.

The painting on the bottom of the blog is of the bell that sits outside the Community Hall at Spirit Rock, where classes and day longs are taught. I painted it so long ago that there was no bench or signage, and the foliage was less dense so you could see the golden hills through the trees. It is the bell that Jack Kornfield had us take turns ringing 108 times after the attack on the World Trade Center September 11th, 2001. It is the bell that first called me to Buddhist meditation practice and is very dear to my heart. Occasionally while on retreat we can hear that bell ringing down below as a call to practice to those attending a day long class. It rings out a lovely connection of well wishing between the retreatants above and below, a sending of metta and support each way.

The photograph on the right side of the blog is of the main retreat bell that sits outside the beautiful Spirit Rock Meditation Hall. It frames the ever-changing view of the valley where the Center is nestled. This is the bell I have developed a deep relationship with over the past years of going on retreat and having the honor to ring it.

Why am I gaga over these bells? Well, first and foremost because they call me to practice. They ring out across the silence of the valley and remind me and all of us in the sangha of the importance of meditative practice. It is so easy to forget! Especially in the early years of the practice, but even in later years if one gets very busy, we can forget to make room for meditation, forget how much of the calm, kind and often joyous way we feel is due to this regular practice. We might think we are just like that naturally! Until we go without it for a few weeks or months and whoa! We discover that our inner life has been taken over by a hoard of nasty squatters digging up the dirt and flinging it at us.

The bell calls me to practice, and as bell ringer I am very aware and appreciate of being a part of that call to practice of the sangha. While I am not a particularly ritualistic person, I do have a very formal way of ringing the bell. This was never taught to me but I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I stand four feet in front of the bell, pause a moment to really be present, to relax into gratitude, to take in the wonderful way the thick metal ring from which the bell hangs frames the view. Then I bring my hands together and bow to the bell. This bow sets my intention to be fully present for this experience. I then remove the banger from its holder, step to one side and begin to ring the bell.

Because Spirit Rock is a large campus and people go on hikes, we are asked to ring this bell as loud as we can, so I really swing that hammer-shaped ringer. The sight of a retreatant swinging with such gusto in the slow, peaceful quiet of a meditation retreat can be quite surprising. I ring it eight times, allowing about five waves of sound to play out between each striking of the bell. Then I replace the ringer, move in front of the bell again, pause, listening to the waves soften, never knowing for sure when they really end, or if they end at all. Then I bow in gratitude.

When the bell calms and quiets, it reminds me to do the same, and to notice that that’s how this calm experience is, of being repeatedly struck out in the world, by the to do list, the expectations, the rushing, the forgetting to be mindful, all culminating in huge waves of big noise, and then on retreat, the feeling of coming to stillness, settling in to a deep bottomless quiet.

On the last day of this recent retreat, it happened that I was the last bell ringer, calling the sangha to the closing meeting. And when I bowed to the bell the last time, I didn’t feel the sadness and sense of impending loss that I had felt on the August retreat. I just said, “Until we meet again,” because this is now a solid ongoing relationship I am in with this bell!

The 2:20 bell ringer on this retreat was a severely physically challenged woman who rode around in a motorized wheelchair plastered with bumper stickers full of messages of joy. There were some things on retreat that she couldn’t do, like the walking meditation, the Qi Gong and hiking in the hills. But she would just set her wheelchair up to face out at the view as the rest of us walked back and forth across the patio; or she would read a book. She couldn’t open doors and she struggled with her crippled hands getting in and out of her outerwear in the cloakroom. Over the ten days we all spent together, she became the heart of the sangha, sharing her impish joy as she sprung her arms open to let you unzip or zip her sweater. Whoever was closest to her helped with whatever was needed at the moment. She was the only one with whom we had eye contact, the only one we could touch, so she became very dear to us all.

Given her physical limitations, her volunteering to be a bell ringer was quite amazing. She positioned her chair in just the right place to make connection with the bell, and worked her hands around the ringer until she had a firm grasp. The first few rings were soft as she adjusted her stroke, but soon she was able to really bang that bell. It made my heart soar to hear those gongs, knowing what a triumph it was for her to be able to perform this very physical energetic task, and knowing from my own experience what an honor it is and joy it is to do so. True delicious mudita.

Bowing
I mentioned that I bow to the bell. I also bow at the end of meditation with gratitude for having taken the time to meditate and for whatever teacher has led the meditation. On retreat I bow when I first enter the Meditation Hall in the morning, setting my intention to be as present as possible for whatever arises during the day, and when I leave after the last meditation at night, my heart full of gratitude for the gift of a day full of spaciousness, mindfulness and peace, even if it also contained physical, mental or emotional pain.

I bow to anyone who bows to me, and I bow in gratitude to anyone who has performed a service or kindness, since we are all in silence. This all feels very natural to me.

Toward the end of the retreat, I found I was bowing at the beginning and ending of my yogi job, setting my intention to be mindful and ending with gratitude for the insights received while working and well-wishing for anyone who would be using the facilities I had just cleaned. Since I was the bathroom cleaner for my dormitory building, I am sure there was some wonder or amusement for anyone who happened to notice me bowing at the door of the bathroom!

I remember many years ago when I first observed people bowing, I didn’t understand it and I was very uncomfortable with it. Fortunately bowing is a totally optional personal choice! My resistance came from my background of attending church as a child. From a Christian perspective, putting ones hands together in front of the chest and lowering the head is a sign of prayer. One prays to God, so doing this position to non-Christian altars and to people seemed to be making them gods.

And in one way that is so. There is the Sanskrit greeting ‘namaste’ that basically means ‘the god in me greets the god in you.’ This Hindu-based but multi-religious greeting is done with this bowing gesture. From a Christian viewpoint this could seem heretical to some, but I believe Jesus would have understood, for he saw the holy fingerprint of God in every being, regardless of their social status. His devotion to the poor and outcasts exemplified this recognition that we are all children of God. And that is the same with this expression and with bowing.

Coming from a Christian background, it is hard to see an altar and not be uncomfortable if God, Jesus or Mary are not upon it. Altars are to pray to, are they not? Well not in Buddhist practice, even though with the bowing it certainly looks that way. With a statue of Buddha on the altar (and at Spirit Rock the altars have both Buddha and Kwan Yin, the Asian goddess of mercy and compassion), it certainly looks like prayer and supplication.

But Buddha is not a god, and he made that very clear from the start. The first person Buddha met along the road after he had his great awakening was a man who was stricken by the illumination emanating from this stranger. “Are you a God?” he asked. “No,” the Buddha replied. “Are you a man?” “No,” he replied. “I am awake.”

The word ‘Buddha’ means awakened. It is a state of awareness possible in any given moment for any of us, rare though it may be to be able to sustain it indefinitely. The Buddha deflected all attempts to make him into a god. Therefore Buddhists don’t pray to him. They aspire to walk the path he taught in order to be present and compassionate beings.

On retreat I did notice a great variety of bowing. Some people bowed every time they entered and exited the meditation hall all during the day, and some bowed much deeper than others. There is in some Buddhist traditions ritual prostration, not something that I with my hip replacement would ever get into! But even without that physical limitation, it would not be in my nature to do so. Some people are just by nature more devotional. This is often called a bhakti path, and one of the teachers on this retreat, Robert Hall, says he is very much of the devotional path, the path of surrender.

I am not on a devotional path, except in the sense of feeling a welling of gratitude for sensing connection to all that is (what some might call divinity) when it comes. But surrendering to another person, which is the path some people take when they follow a master or guru in some religious traditions, is anathema to me. It’s just not in my DNA. I appreciate that Spirit Rock teachers deflect any attempts by students to be devotional towards them. They protect themselves by team teaching retreats, by staying very authentic and honest, often using their human foibles for dharma teachings, and by remembering that the Buddha himself deflected all such attempts.

Fortunately there is plenty of room for non-devotional types like me in Buddhism and for devotional types as well. That’s part of what I like so much about being part of a Buddhist sangha. We are not all alike either in our beliefs, in the way we look or anything else. What we have in common is our intention to be present as much as we possibly can be, and to be as kind to ourselves and others as we can be. That is a lot to have in common really, and the subsequent sense of community, trust and loving-kindness that arises naturally out of that shared intention is a treasure of great value.

Buddhas Everywhere!
So, one might ask, if Buddha is not a god, then why are there statues of him all over the place? At Spirit Rock there are not just statues on altars. Outside there is a blue-ish Buddha statue in the reflection pool and a huge stone one just above the dining hall with a nice curved bench for you to sit in the shade of an oak tree and have a private session. On many hiking paths all over the vast property you will come across Buddhas, sitting or standing. In the dormitories there are lying down Buddhas. And there are lots of Buddha statues of all sizes in the Spirit Rock bookstore that you can buy and take home with you if you are so inclined.

So what are they for, these Buddha statues? They are a reminder to be present, to access our inner Buddha nature, that part of ourselves that knows its connection to all beings everywhere. Spending time with one of these statues, one might be inspired to ponder the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his awakening under the Bodhi tree after a long night of being taunted and tempted by Mara. But even without that story, the statues with their warmth, calmness and serenity will either resonate and increase our own inner calm, or make us aware of the degree to which we are tense or feel disconnected, and bring us back to the practice in order to make room for that peace and deep connection in our lives.

On this retreat I began seeing Buddhas everywhere, even when there weren’t statues! In the meditation hall, while sitting on a chair in the rear of the room for a change of position, I saw the hunched shape of a retreatant leaning forward and somehow her brown patterned shawl took on the look of a curly-haired flat-faced Buddha head, like a large stone head sitting on the ground.

Then one morning at breakfast, looking out the double-paned window, pierced by the sun rising over the hills, the dancing reflections of the leaves against the glass revealed the small smiling face of a gentle Thai Buddha.

I felt incredibly supported in my practice by these lovely encounters. Having taken hallucinogens in my youth, I understood that the mind has the ability to create images out of patterns, so I wasn’t at all alarmed. I just realized that Buddhas are everywhere in every moment. The only time they don’t exist is whenever you strive too hard to find them.

So that’s what I know so far about bells, bowing and Buddhas! Bells are a call to practice. Bowing is a greeting, a setting the intention to practice and an expression of gratitude to others and for the practice. And representations of Buddha are the ever-present inspiration that spacious awareness is possible in any moment.

May it be so for you in this moment.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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