Friday, October 23, 2009

Sound Of The Temple Bells

This short tale comes from Anthony de Mello's wonderful book called The Song of The Bird (from one of the stories, which i will have to write about some day).

The Temple Bells

The temple was built on an island and it had a thousand bells. Bells big and small, fashioned by the finest craftsmen in the world. When the wind blew or a storm raged, all the bells would peal out in a symphony that would send the heart of the hearer into raptures.

But over the centuries the island sank into the ocean and, with it, the temple bells. An ancient legend said that the bells still rang out ceaselessly, and could be heard by anyone who would listen. Inspired by the legend a young man travelled thousands of miles, determined to hear those bells. He sat for days on the shore facing the vanished island and listened with all his might. But all he heard was the sound of the sea. He made every effort to block it out but to no avail; the sound of the sea seemed to flood the world.

He kept at his task for weeks. Each time he got disheartened he would listen to the village pundits as they spoke with unction of the mysterious legend. Then his heart would be inflamed.., only to become discouraged when weeks of further efforts yielded no results.

Finally he decided to give up the attempt. Perhaps he was not destined to listen to the bells. Perhaps the legend was not true. It was his final day, and he went to the shore to say goodbye to the sea and the sky and the wind and the coconut trees. He lay on the sand, and for the first time, listened to the sound of the sea.

Soon he was so lost in the sound that he was barely conscious of himself, so deep was the silence the sound produced. In the depth of that silence, he heard it! The tinkle of a tiny bell followed by another, and another and another... till every one of the thousand temple bells was pealing out in harmony, and his heart was rapt in joyous ecstasy.

Do you wish to hear the temple bells? Listen to the sound of the sea.

Do you wish to catch a glimpse of God? Look intently at creation.

There is another island that i know of, which is also covered with temples. And, like the island in de Mello's story there are thousands of temple bells scattered from north to south and east to west. From mountain peak to valley floor. From ocean beach to land-locked inland community. From times ancient, some people have said that these bells can talk to you, and although most people today say it isn't possible to hear them at all, legend states that the bell's stories can be heard by those who are willing to become henro and to walk the long and lonely roads and trails to each of 108 temples where the bells can be found.

Many think that this legend is nothing but that, old stories perpetuated by senile old men who maintain web sites of dubious authenticity on the internet, but i tend to think there is more to it than that. You see, i've known one of those henro.

According to his tales, usually recounted only after plying him with a few beers, the search for the bell's stories remains futile, until the henro comes to realize that it isn't at the temples that you will hear them. When i have pressed him, and pointed out how contradictory this sounds, he almost always just smiles — and asks for another beer.

On rare occasions, though, late into the night, as fatigue and alcohol begin to take their toll, he is willing to continue and tell more. As he explains it, most visitors go to the island, don the appropriate clothing and feel this alone gives them the right to call themselves henro. He confesses to having done this himself once. Many then immediately rush to each of the temples, trying to get around the island and to each of the temples in as short a time as possible. These people apparently never hear the bells.

According to my friend (and i take great pleasure in calling him a friend, despite his drinking problem), as de Mello's seeker found out, it is only when you forget the temples that the bells and their stories can be heard. When your focus remains solely on the trail, listening to the sounds of your footsteps, the sounds of your breathing, the songs of the birds, the wind in the trees, the cry of the children walking to school, the barking of the dogs, the roar of the cars and trucks flying by 50 cm from your shoulder, the tinkling sound of the bell hanging from your backpack, the sound of your walking stick hitting the ground with each step.

The stories can be heard when you forget the search, when you forget why you went to the island and just allow yourself to be on the island. When you don't try to hear the stories, you will find yourself immersed in them. When you stop looking for them you will find yourself stumbling over them with each step.

And i'll never forget that one time when, as the sun was coming up and my friend was beginning the process of stumbling home, he turned to me and slurred, "Do you wish to hear Shikoku's temple bells? Listen to the sound of being." He stared right at me for the briefest of moments to see if i understood, then, apparently satisfied, smiled as he turned and went out the door.

But then again, my friend is a senile old man who maintains a web site of dubious authenticity on the internet...

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