Essay by Chae Haejeong
Echoing down to souls in the underworld
Buddhist bells come in a wide range of different sizes, from small hand-held bells to huge bells that are hung in a separate pavilion of the temple. In addition to being used to signal gatherings and mealtimes at the temple, bells are essential items for various Buddhist rituals. Because of their clear and resonant toll, bells are believed to symbolize the Buddha’s teachings. But different types of bells are used to guide different types of beings: dharma drums (法鼓) are used to call to beings on land; wooden fish (木魚) call to creatures in the water; cloud-shaped gongs (雲版) call to creatures in the air; and large temple bells (梵鐘) send their deep, sonorous sound all the way down to reach the souls in the underworld.
Korean Buddhist bells differ from those of China and Japan in terms of form and decoration. The style of Korean bells is exemplified by the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok (exhibited in the outdoor space of Gyeongju National Museum), which was completed in 771 during the Unified Silla period. The same style was faithfully maintained for bells produced in the ensuing Goryeo period, as demonstrated by this bronze bell with an inscription that reads “Cheonheungsa,” which is exhibited in the Metal Crafts Gallery of the National Museum of Korea.
Oldest extant Goryeo Buddhist bell
On the very top of the bell is a dragon-shaped handle for hanging the bell, next to which is a sound tube that amplifies the sound of the bell. The sound tube is divided into five sections that are decorated with a floral design. The same floral design can also be seen on the upper and lower bands on the bell itself. Arranged symmetrically on the four sides of the upper body (just below the shoulder) are four rectangular sections, each of which contains nine knobs shaped like lotus buds. Two sides of the bell are marked with a striking point, where the clearest sound can be produced, while the other two sides are decorated with designs of a flying apsara (female spirit). Also, one side of the bell bears an embossed description inside a frame that resembles a mortuary tablet, a new stylistic element that is believed to have emerged in the Goryeo period. According to the inscription, the bell was produced in 1010 at Cheonheungsa Temple near Mt. Seonggeo in Cheonan (“聖居山天興寺鍾銘統和二十八年庚戌二月日”), making it the oldest extant bell from the Goryeo period.
The Metal Crafts Gallery of the National Museum of Korea also holds some smaller Buddhist bells (around 40 cm tall), which were likely used in smaller indoor rituals in the late Goryeo period. For example, despite its smaller size, a bronze bell found in Yeoncheon-gun, Gyeonggi Province is crafted in the quintessential style of Korean bells. However, this bell has four striking points, which alternate with four apsara designs. Another distinct feature is the band of protruding petals around the rim, a decorative element that seems to have appeared in the late Goryeo period.
Read the essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.