One of the most universally found structures at a Korean Buddhist temple, outside the main hall, is the bell pavilion. In Korean, the bell pavilion is known as the Jong-ru – 종루. Typically, a Korean temple’s bell pavilion is open in design, and it’s usually found at the entry of a temple. A temple’s bell pavilion can range in size and height. Sometimes, they are simple one story structures; and other times, they are two stories in height. With that being said, a standard Korean Buddhist bell pavilion has four different percussion instruments. Together, these four percussion instruments are known as the Buljeon Samul, in Korean. This literally means, in English, “The four items belonging to the Buddha Hall.” These four percussion instruments are:
1. Beomjong – Brahma Bell: 범종
2. Beopgo – Dharma Drum: 법고
3. Mokeo – Wooden Fish Drum: 목어
4. Unpan – Cloud Plate Drum: 운판
While there are four percussion instruments in total, they all have different meanings and designs. So what exactly do each of the four look like, and what is the meaning behind each of their designs?
1. Beomjong – Brahma Bell: 범종
The large Brahma Bell inside a Jong-ru Pavilion is known as a Beomjong, in Korean, and it’s made from bronze. In English, this bell is known as the Brahma Bell. Another name this bell sometimes is called is the “Whale Bell,” in reference to the myth of Poroe the Dragon. The top of the bell is crowned with a bronze sculpture of Poroe the Dragon. The body of the bell can be adorned with various Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities), Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Buddhist teachings, or poems.
The Brahma Bell is typically used during the day preceding morning and evening services. Typically, it is struck thirty-three times in the morning and twenty-eight times in the evening. The number thirty-three is meant to represent how the dharma will spread throughout all the heavens and touch each of the celestial beings there. And the number twenty-eight comes from the twenty-eight constellations in the East, which are similar to the twelve zodiac signs in the West. Thus, the striking of the bell throughout the day is meant to bring the dharma to all those in the universe. More specifically, the Brahma bell is meant to awaken all sentient beings to the truth of the dharma and to rescue those who are suffering.
2. Beopgo – The Dharma Drum: 법고
The second percussion instrument that you can find housed inside the Jong-ru Pavilion is the Dharma Drum, which is known as Beopgo – 법고, in Korean. The reason that it’s called a Dharma Drum is that they are said to make the same sounds as the Buddha’s voice. Like a lion’s roar, the Buddha’s voice is deafening like the Dharma Drum. Initially, the Dharma Drum was built when bronze bells were hard to make during the repression of Buddhism during the Confucian-first religious ideology of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
The Dharma Drum is typically made of wood with each end made from rawhide. The leather on one side of the drum is made from a cow, while the other side’s leather is made from a bull. This is meant to symbolize the idea of Yin and Yang and how the universe must be in harmony. It’s through this harmony that the Dharma Drum can produce the perfect sound. The sound of the Dharma Drum is meant to be a metaphor for the spreading of the Buddha’s teachings throughout the world. It’s also struck during various Buddhist rituals and lectures. The striking of the Dharma Drum symbolizes the saving of all sentient beings. And it’s also meant to relieve all sentient beings of their anguish.
3. Mokeo – The Wooden Fish Drum: 목어
The third percussion instrument found inside the Jong-ru Pavilion is the Wooden Fish Drum. In Korean, This drum is known as the Mokeo – 목어. The Wooden Fish Drum is carved from a hollowed out log.
The design of the drum is meant to resemble a carp. Interestingly, there are a few reasons as to why the Wooden Fish Drum is meant to look like a carp. The first reason is that a fish never closes its eyes. And much like the wind chime that adorns temples, the sound of the drum is meant to remind monks and nuns to never relax in their self-cultivating practices.
Another reason is that a fish can swim through water unimpeded. Furthermore, in the past, large bodies of water were seen as obstacles that kept people apart. So people used the ocean as a symbol for going to the Western Paradise because the water was hard to traverse. So instead of the sky, people looked to water.
Another story about the design of the Wooden Fish Drum relates to a novice monk that didn’t follow the instructions of his famous monk master. After the novice monk died, he was reborn as a fish with a log stuck in its back as punishment for his errant ways. In rough seas, the waves that rocked the log back and forth in the fish’s back would cause it a lot of pain. One day, the master monk was crossing the sea in a boat. He spotted the fish and recognized it as his former disciple. As an act of mercy and compassion, the master monk performed the “rite of water and land,” which freed the fish from its physical pain. At that moment, the fish (novice monk) repented for his past transgressions. The log that was taken from the back of the fish was then carved into a wooden fish by the monk. It was then used as a moktak (a hand-held wooden bell) to warn others to remain vigilant in their practice of the dharma.
While the Wooden Fish Drum started off as a fish in its design, more recently, its head has slowly morphed into that of a dragon-like creature with a pearl in its mouth. This transformation is said to symbolize freedom from all restraints and obstacles. Additionally, the Wooden Fish Drum is used for saving all sea creatures. One more use for the Wooden Fish Drum is that it’s struck to gather members of a temple or hermitage for a meal.
4. Unpan – The Cloud Plate Gong: 운판
The fourth, and final, percussion instrument that can be found inside a Jong-ru Pavilion at a Korean Buddhist temple is the Cloud Plate Gong, which is known as an Unpan – 운판, in Korean. A Cloud Plate Gong is made from copper or iron, and it’s shaped like a cloud. The images that adorns the face of the gong are the sun and the moon; however, it’s the clouds that are dominant on the gong. Originally, the Cloud Plate Gong was simply used to announce meals for the temple’s monks or nuns. Now, however, the Cloud Plate Gong is used as an instrument to announce morning and evening worship. Another meaning for the Cloud Plate Gong is to deliver a message of love and compassion to all creatures of the sky. It’s also meant to lead all wandering souls back towards the correct path.
In Korea, there is only one bell pavilion that’s a Korean Treasure. It’s the bell pavilion at Songgwangsa Temple in Wanju, Jeollabuk-do. It’s Korean Treasure #1244. And there are four bells that are National Treasures and thrity-five that are Korean Treasures.