The Principles of the Evening Bell Chant

The Evening Bell Chant marks the beginning of evening practice in Buddhist temples in Korea, and variations of it open the evening practice for temples in China and Japan. The chant is a solo offering, played on the large bell in the Main Buddha Hall, at the main altar of the temple. In the compound of the temple where the Zen nuns/monks live and meditate — which is usually walled-off and separate from the rest of the often-busy temple — the Evening Bell Chant is never chanted, since the activity of the Zen Hall is born of silence and even the absence of any chanting forms and practices: just sitting.

But in the Zen centers established by Zen Master Seung Sahn, later organized by his students in a chain called the Kwan Um School of Zen, the Evening Bell Chant is done at the beginning of evening practice in the Dharma Room, and usually comes after “special chanting” when that happens at the beginning of evening chanting.

The Evening Bell Chant is not mere ornamentation. It is chanted solo; so, for some folks gathered in the Dharma Room, it can be easily “passed over” in the listening experience as we ready ourselves for the “main” chanting of Evening Practice and then sitting Zen.

But the Evening Bell Chant does have a clear function: it is the beginning of our meditation practice because it is the beginning of our “tuning-in-to-the-true-nature-of-reality-through-listening” (kwan um, in Sino-Korean). If done properly — and not just run-though — it can strongly prepare the gathered meditators in a deeper sensitivity to the time-honored doorway for accessing our True Nature: the experience of sound, which is the tipping-point for the enlightenment experiences of innumerable Zen practitioners and teachers, and was the sense which exploded my own Teacher’s mind, and sound was the nuclear trigger of my own first big fusion-reaction in February 1992.

Please forgive the rough and unpracticed quality of this videoette. It is the result of an unplanned encounter, when I came into the Dharma Room one day at Zen Center Regensburg to retrieve something, and found one of our resident teachers instructing members of the Greek sangha in how to do this chant. At some point in their lesson, I was asked to give some points (or just imposed myself on them). Whatever it is, the encounter was filmed somewhat after it had begun, in case there is some value for other practitioners who wish to learn the attitude and feeling for how to conduct the expression of this chant’s heart.

The words of the chant are a great piece of Bodhisattva orienteering: from hearing a hammer on a bell, attaining don’t-know in that instant, and leading to the vow to save all beings from suffering.

Evening Bell Chant

mun jong-song bon-ne dan ji-hye jang bo-ri saeng ni-ji ok

chul sam-gye
won song-bul
do jung-saeng
pa ji-ok jin-on
om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha

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

The “best” version of the chant is, of course, by Dae Soen Sa Nim himself. (Also, his Morning Bell Chant is also unbelievably deep and expressive, the very voice of wisdom and compassion itself.)

Here is the best model to chant along with, the Master himself, in all his samadhic glory:

And, for what it is worth, here is another, longer instructional video (in three parts) on some of the finer “technique” of the chant. (In Korea, young “haeng jas” and novice nun/monks are instructed for days and weeks in this chant, so this is really not too much pedagogy.)