One of the most common things that you’ll see at a Korean Buddhist temple outside a pagoda or temple shrine hall is the Brahma Bell, which is a large, decorative bronze bell. The Brahma Bell, which is known as a “Beomjong – 범종” in Korean, is well-crafted and is usually several hundred years old. Typically, the exterior walls of the bell are adorned with various Buddhist figures like Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities), Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. Joining these bell reliefs is a decorative metal hook that holds the bell to the rafter’s of the bell pavilion. The decorative metal hook that crowns the top of the bell is designed like a dragon. So why is this metal dragon hook crowning the top of the Brahma Bell? And why is it a dragon? First, it’s important to know the significance of the Brahma Bell to better understand the purpose behind the dragon hooks.
Purpose of the Brahma Bell
During the day, there are two main times that the Brahma Bell is struck. The temple bell is struck twenty-eight times in the morning and thirty-three times at night. The reason that the bell is struck twenty-eight times in the morning is in hopes that the sound will travel throughout the twenty-eight levels of heaven, which are to be found within three bigger worlds.
So in Buddhism, there’s believed to be three worlds/realms which are known as “Samgye – 삼계” in Korean. These three worlds are known as “Trailokya” in Sanskrit, and they are in reference to the destination of ones karmic rebirth. The first of these three worlds is known as “Kāmaloka” in Sanskrit. In Korean, this world is known as “Yokgye – 욕계,” or “Field of Desire” in English. In this world, it’s a world of desire which is typified by base desires. This world is populated by hellish beings, Agwi (Hungry Ghosts), animals, humans, and lower demi-gods.
The second world is known as “Rūpaloka” in Sanskrit. In Korean, this world is known as “Saekgye – 색계,” or “Field of Forms” in English. This is the world of forms, which is a world free of baser desires. This world is populated by Dhyāna (perfected mindfulness) dwelling beings.
The third world is known as “Arūpaloka” in Sanskrit. In Korean, this world is known as “Musaekgye – 무색계,” or “Field of Formlessness” in English. This is the world of formlessness. This world is populated by the four heavens. It’s also the world for those that are almost ready to enter Nirvana.
In these worlds of existence, those that live in them are determined according to their karma and wisdom. As for humans, they are separate. In order to enter into these realms, they need to adhere to the ten rules that ban things like killing, stealing, lying, obscenity, and adultery. So the reason that the bell rings thirty-three times at night is in hopes that the sound will travel throughout the thirty-three heavens located in Yokgye, or “The Field of Desires” in English.
Korean Brahma Bell Design
While each Korean temple bell is unique in its own way, they all have fairly common characteristics. For example, each bell has a dangjwa, which is the round spot in the middle of the bell where the striker is meant to hit the temple bell. Usually, a large wooden striker, sometimes designed as a whale, will hit the dangjwa of the temple bell. Interestingly, bells made during the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.) had two dangjwa on opposite sides of the bell. The Silla dangjwa was traditionally surrounded by a lotus design. Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) dangjwa, on the other hand, were placed on all four sides of the Brahma Bell.
Another feature that distinguishes one Brahma Bell from the other is the actual exterior wall designs of the temple bell. For Silla Dynasty bells, it was typical to find Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities) with flowing clothes kneeling on top of lotus flowers or riding clouds, while playing a musical instrument. During the Goryeo Dynasty, this changed. Instead of Bicheon, it was more common to find a Buddha or Bodhisattva sitting on top of a lotus flower. And in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), larger images of the Buddha appeared praying while standing on top a lotus flower.
Yet another indicator of the age of the Brahma Bell outside the central image or images on the surface of the bell are the secondary designs. If the Brahma Bell is from the Silla Dynasty, the secondary designs were either vines or floral patterns. This largely changed during the Goryeo Dynasty, when lightning and chrysanthemum designs became more popular. And finally, during the Joseon Dynasty, the predominant secondary designs were lotus flower patterns.
Poroe Design and Myth
So what does all this have to do with Poroe? In general, there are metal hooks that hold the Brahma Bell to the rafters using a chain. These hooks are shaped like a dragon. This dragon can be highly ornate in design or a little more simplistic. As a result, these metal hooks are known as the “dragon hook” in English. More specifically, the dragon that adorns the top of a Korean Brahma Bell is known as “Poroe – 포뢰” in Korean.
So why does Poroe adorn the top of the Brahma Bell? Poroe, rather interestingly, is mentioned in the historic Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). According to this myth, Poroe is a mythological dragon that’s afraid of whales in the East Sea. So whenever Poroe encounters a whale, Poroe let’s out a large scream. So what exactly does this have to do with a Korean temple bell, you might be asking yourself? Well, if you look at the wooden striker that hits the bell, traditionally, these wooden strikers were whale-shaped. While not as common these days, they can still be found at some Korean Buddhist temples. So when the whale-shaped striker hits the Brahma Bell, coming close in contact with Poroe atop the temple bell, Poroe lets out a loud scream. This helps the bell, according to the Poroe myth, to sound even louder. In Korean, that’s why the sound that a bell makes is known as a “whale sound.” And rather uniquely, Poroe is exclusive to Korean Brahma Bells. You won’t find this mythological dragon adorning the tops of Buddhist temple bells in neighbouring China or Japan.
So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, take a look around the temple grounds for the Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion). Whether it’s big or small, the temple should have a Brahma Bell. Not only will you now better understand the overall design of the Brahma Bell, but you’ll now better understand the cetaphobia dragon that adorns the top of this bell: Poroe – The Dragon that Adorns the Top of the Temple Bell