Bonsho: The Buddhist Temple Bells of Japan

The BBC’s Julian May has produced an excellent – I want to say “beautiful” – radio programme for the Heart and Soul series about the bronze temple bells – bonshou – of Japan. The programme captures the physical and symbolic power of these bells very well:

David about to strike the bonsho, Nagasaki, Summer 2007.

A bonsho bell differs from an English church bell in several important respects. Firstly, a bonsho has no clapper. It is suspended from a wooden frame struck directly by a “ramrod” tree trunk that is swung on a couple of chains by the bell ringer.

Some of the biggest bonsho weigh more than thirty tons, and the biggest bell in Japan, the Rengein Tanjyoji Temple’s Flying Dragon bell – hiryu no kane – on the southern coast of Kyushu, weighs 37500kg or 82000 lbs. On a clear day it can be heard on an island 30 miles across the sea.

The Flying Dragon bell was cast in Kyoto in 1977, but the oldest bell mentioned in the programme was cast 1,225 years before, in the year 752, so temple bells can be expected to have a long life.

However, during the Second World War most of Japan’s temple bells were taken by the government and melted down for war materiel. Only 500 bells remained in place by the end of the war, but a few thousand of those which had been impounded had not yet been destroyed and some of them were returned to their temples. Since the end of the war bell makers have been busy casting bells for temples all over Japan. It must have been a terrible thing in war-ravaged Japan to have no opportunity to hear the sound of a temple bell.

The sound of a bonsho has three components. The impact sound –daoon. The great reverberation set up – oshi. The final tailing resonance – ookuri. There are also overtones as the form of the sound waves expand and contract – baion.

For those who are willing to listen, the tone of a bonsho changes with age and the season, and with the spirit of those who strike it. Sadly, however, many people fail to appreciate the beauty of the bronze temple bells. Nowadays, some people think the best thing to do is to strike them as hard as they can, and the resounding tone rings out the sound of their egotism. Then there are others who complain about the “noise” of the bells. As one Japanese monk observed on the Heart and Soul programme, “Those people must be a bit strange because the bells have been there much longer than they have and will still be there long after they have gone.”

Casting a large bell in bronze is a risky operation with a 50/50 chance of success or failure. In the Heart and Soul programme, Ikko Iwasawawho runs the foundry which cast the Flying Dragon bell explains the process as a new bell is being cast and Buddhist monks pray for its success. Their recitation of the sutras is considered to directly contribute to the successful casting of a bronze temple bell, and after listening to this programme you may come to believe that too.

Spring twilight gathers in the mountain village,

arriving there to find, as the vesper bell booms,

scattering cherry petals.

David Hurley