Thursday, 6 February 2014

Hermitcraft: Bells

Regular readers of this blog know that I generally eschew material attachments in Zen practice. We humans have a tendency to pile up insignia and trophies to justify ourselves to others, and that erodes practice, often to the point of replacing it. Thus Zenners accumulate zafus and rakusus and statues and incense and any number of other gewgaws – often very expensive ones – for bling, or to create an ambiance.

The first is questionable, the second legitimate if mindful. (An ambiance of what?) Early in my practice I determined that – rama-lama-ding-dong aside – a bell is useful in meditation. I ring mine once when I start and once when I finish; sometimes in between, to help concentration. And sometimes I just strike it in passing, to reaffirm my commitment. Like incense it's a Pavlovian prompt (literally, in this case) that establishes or re-establishes a monastic mindset.

However, I have issues with spending large sums of cash on fancy gong-type paraphernalia. The stuff sounds great, I admit; a high-quality singing bowl can ring forever. If someone wanted to get rid of one, I'd take it. But you can buy a lot of rice with the price of that perennially empty bowl.

So instead, I upcycle free or nearly-free non-bells that ring well in spite of themselves. First was a length of brass pipe. It had good tone, but was hard to suspend. I then upgraded to a small brass bell cannibalised from an old telephone (see photo above). It rests on a salvaged scrap of ash, finished with trinity tar, and I beat it with a large nail. It's cheap, portable, and dings expertly, though not so loudly that it's obtrusive to others.

Other times I use a Revere Ware saucepan lid (see photo below), sounded with an old toy xylophone beater. (Wooden spoons work well too.) Revere Ware products are often quite musical. Others may ring as sweetly, but lack that broad flat Revere Ware knob that makes a perfect gong base. In any case, if you don't already own a serviceable piece, head down to the Good Value Army and pluck all the pot lids with your thumbnail. Chances are you'll find a good one.

Saw blades and metal mixing bowls can also do bell duty if properly suspended. Old doorbells – better yet, door chimes – are another good source of dingstock, as are wind chimes and some types of glassware. Old garden bells can be had cheap at garage sales, then mounted and dung. And few things peal as beautifully as those gas-bottle bells you see around. They fetch usurious prices in garden and Buddhist supply stores, but are nothing more than worn-out propane tanks cut in half. If you or someone you know can do that (cutting torch? angle grinder?) : Keisu City.

Because anything that bongs when you bump it is a bell.

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