newsletter logo: Sangha Reflections

Bell Training
by Susan Hadler

Itís Sunday afternoon in mid August and still hot when I arrive at Carolynís for the bell training. Eric is standing at the end of the upstairs hallway smiling and bowing, showing the way to Carolynís door. The first thing I see is the big bell sitting on its red and gold cushion in the
middle of the room. It seems to belong here, surrounded by buddhas sitting, buddhas standing, pictures of Thay and the Dalai Lama, angels and saints and green growing plants. Carolyn offers us cool water and grapes fresh from her neighborís arbor.

We sit on cushions circling the bell. Mary arrives and Carolyn begins, "The bell master holds and protects the space for everyone." Yes, that is how Iíve felt with the Sunday Night Sangha. Held. Safely and quietly. No need to worry about appearances or intrusions. Space to calm down and open up to myself, to bring my body, emotions, and thoughts together in one place, one time, a little island in a calm sea surrounded by little islands. A gift beyond measure.

I remember Thay sitting so peacefully in front of the meditation hall in Plum Village, monks and nuns behind him, lay people in front. Thay sat in silence and I sat in silence letting anxiety about what would happen next disappear like steam rising from a cup of tea. Thay didnít seem to worry about time or schedule. He was completely present. His presence helped me be with myself in that peaceful moment.

Carolyn tells us she invites the bell with her heart. Her heart. Not her thoughts about when to invite the bell or how it should sound. Her heart knows. Carolyn trusts her heart. Then she taught us the gatha that is recited, most often silently, by the bell inviter before inviting the bell,

Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,
I send my heart along with the sound of the bell.
May the hearers awaken from forgetfulness
and transcend all anxiety and sorrow.

I love this gatha. Itís an invitation to unload all the stuff I usually carry around with me, self consciousness, defensive pride, phony cheer, preoccupations and plans, leftover conversations . . . . The gatha is a door opening to a place of freedom.

"Now we can practice inviting the bell." Carolyn hands the mallet to Eric who smiles and recites the gatha. The bellís pure deep voice reverberates inside the room, inside me. Eric practices inviting the bell a few more times and hands the mallet to Mary. Mary recites the gatha slowly and softly wakes the bell. She waits a bit and then the rich and lovely sound surrounds us. Mary practices inviting the bell from the side, and the bell rings out clear and strong.

She passes the mallet to me. Holding the mallet I remember seeing a nun in Lower Hamlet standing in the grass in front of the big bell. It was raining. She held the mallet in her hand and stood for what seemed to me a long time. She stood in reverent silence before she invited the bell. I admired her patience, her ability to be with herself alone with the bell. She wasnít in a hurry to get out of the rain. It didnít seem like a "task" for her, something to accomplish or finish, but rather an act with meaning, as if the existence of the bell, the mallet and herself deserved her whole attention. I saw this in the nunís silent stance and the slow steady swing of her arm.

Tears fill my eyes as I hold the mallet and look at the bell. The bell seems holy, a symbol of the peace and freedom I found in Plum Village. I hear myself say out loud, "Iím not ready to invite the bell." I canít invite the bell. Iím not calm or patient enough.

Carolyn suggests I take a few breaths. Carolyn, Eric, and Mary gently encourage me and then accept me as I am, off balance, self conscious, a little embarrassed and grateful for their acceptance. Eric and Mary practice inviting the bell some more and then Mary hands me the mallet.

I take it, lay it down to bow, recite the gatha, pick up the mallet, raise my arm and swing. No sound. Silence. Iíve completely missed the bell. We laugh. I try again, from my heart, and this time I hear the sound of the bell flowing out like waves washing dry land. I relax and smile. I feel so happy.

Eric gives me a ride to the Sangha. Thayís talk and the dharma discussion focus on the emptiness of emptiness and on impermanence. Joseph suggests we sing.

No coming, no going.
No after, no before.
I hold you close to me.
I release you to be so free
Because I am in you and you are in me.

Josephís voice, like the bell, reaches a place deep inside that is still and clear. In the silence after singing I notice a little burst of energy tingling up from my stomach to my nose. I bow in and speak, telling the Sangha about the bell training, about not being ready to invite the bell. "I see now that I separated myself from the nun and put her above me. I felt low and unworthy and was unable to invite the bell, even when I tried. The second time I took the mallet I remembered Carolynís words and let my heart do the work. In that instant the nun was with me and I was with her. We were inviting the bell together and the bell sang out!" Inviting the bell is inviting everyone to be present, even myself, even the nuns in Plum Village.

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