As we approach the New Year, Abbot Paul reminded us that we have an opportunity to slow down and reflect on what it means to end something and begin something. In Japan, Zen Buddhists approach the New Year differently than the typical New Year’s Eve celebrations in America.
Bonshō (Japanese: 梵鐘, Buddhist bells), also known as tsurigane (釣り鐘, hanging bells) or ōgane (大鐘, great bells) are large bells found in Buddhist temples throughout Japan, used to summon the monks to prayer and to demarcate periods of time. Rather than containing a clapper, bonshō are struck from the outside using either a handheld mallet or a beam suspended on ropes. At each monastery in Japan on New Year’s Eve, the monks take turns slowly ringing these gigantic bells exactly 108 times and the bells from miles away all ringing at once give the appearance of the bells communicating with each other across great distances and time. Then at exactly one minute before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the monks traditionally slurp Soba noodles noisily and continue slurping into the New Year until 1 minute after midnight in an effort to connect the past year with the future. And the number 108, ie, the number of times the bells are rung, in some traditions, represents the number of lives lived in the evolution of the Higher Self, our God within.
The New Year period is of special significance in that it offers us the opportunity for deep contemplation of what we are doing with our lives. In particular, the New Year symbolizes a chance for rebirth. It is said that most cells in our body (with the exception of neurons) are capable of regenerating although some cells (such as our red blood cells or the cells that line our digestive track) turn over more rapidly than others. As humans, given this constant cell turnover, who we are today biologically is not who we will be in the future. Given this constant turnover, we, as humans, are given a unique opportunity to decide who we want to be in the future.
In the West, we pride ourselves on the feeling that through will power alone we can change our lives. However, in the East, it is the belief that true behavior modification takes the form of the three R’s, ie, rules, rituals, and routine. And those with more sand at the top of the hourglass have more chance at improvement and more opportunity to evolve into something marvelous compared with those whose sands are running out.
There is a simple formula to life: in life you pay for everything and the later in life you pay, the greater the cost. The longer we wait to make changes, the harder it is at the end. So we need to put the process of change into action NOW. In order to be whoever we want to be we need to take control of our lives. That message is the true blessing of this season of light. So as we imagine listening to the bells tolling at midnight on New Year’s Eve throughout Japan, the evening gatha comes to mind…
“Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance
Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost
Each of us should strive to awaken…
Take heed. Do not squander your life.”
Transcribed by Debra B. Kessler from notes taken during the Dharma talk delivered by Abbot Paul on December 16, 2017