Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Year's Eve Gong / Bell Ringing in Pa'ia

This New Year’s was a peaceful and spiritual experience which isn’t something I can say about New Year’s in general. Last year, DH and I went to Casanova in Makawao for a more typical and raucous celebration, replete with dancing, cabaret entertainment, colored lights, scantily clad people, and flowing drinks. I really enjoyed this past New Year’s in Paia town. A friend mentioned that the Paia Mantokuji Mission was ringing a gong – actually a huge bell – 108 times before midnight. The bell ringing started at 11:20 pm.  (I think some Japanese may consider it a gong, and it sounds like a gong, but to me, looks more like a bell.)

First person to ring the bell (or gong) on New Year's Eve. 

We actually arrived on time, and only a few people were there. Closer to 11:30 pm, a monk stepped up to the tower, which was not that tall - more like a platform, and hit the bell three times, each time slowly and deliberately, waiting for the sound to die down before striking again. Ah, those smart Buddhists figured out that they need to tell Maui people to show up 10 minutes before the real start time. A jolly-faced man in Aloha shirt and shorts (like a Hawaiian Santa Claus) stood on top of the platform and recorded the number of rings in a notebook. The monk stepped down. Then the man in shorts called out to the small group of us below for the next person to show up. After a hesitation, another man stepped up to ring the bell. The record keeper asked his name, recorded it, and said the man could ring the bell three times. After watching the first few gong ringers, I stepped up and was worried that I wouldn’t hit the bell or would make only a wimpy sound. The record keeper asked if I had ever done this before, to which I vigorously shook my head.

Cemetery visible on the far side of the gong / bell platform.
Even though it's night time, it's not eerie at all.

A quick lesson in bell ringing. The bell does not have a rope. It’s not like a church bell in a steeple. There is a big wooden mast or shaft horizontal to the bell and that shaft is connected to a rope. The shaft’s forward motion is what rings the bell. Stand forward, close to the rail, close to the bell, then holding the rope, take a step back so the shaft moves back with you. Then move forward, easing up on the rope, and letting the forward motion carry the shaft so that it hits the bell.  Then hold the rope steady so that you don’t tap the bell again while it’s still resonating from the first strike. It was easier than I thought it would be.  Must be all the pushups I’ve been doing lately.

A short video clip of the bell or gong ringing:

The event was beautiful and very casual. No one dressed up, except for a couple of monks, one of whom was a tall Caucasian man dressed in different garb than the temple’s monks. The ringing was slow and ceremonious. Some people hit the bell very hard and others lightly. Around the back of the mission, surrounded by the inky blackness, we could hear the rolling of ocean waves and the bell tolling over the water, as if carried on bird’s wings. Ring out the old year, all the expectations and longings, hopes and disappointments, joys and grieves. Wring out the old year like a piece of wet laundry that needs to be hung up and aired out. Shake it out and let it go. Occasionally we could see fireworks shoot up from nearby houses.

Here's a sound clip of what the bell sounded like with the ocean in the background:

As time passed, more people showed up to ring the bell, and the record keeper took down names and recorded the count.  For the last three rings, a couple shared the task of striking the bell, so that the total number of rings would not exceed 108.

What the bell or gong platform looks like during the day,
at the Pa'ia Mantokuji Mission, a Buddhist temple on Hana Highway. 

Why 108? I'm not sure but  variations of 9 are important in Chinese numerology – like feng shui and the I Ching. It’s important for numbers to add up to 9. I think the I Ching is based on 108 trigrams. Granted, this is Japanese culture, not Chinese culture, but they are related. After doing some research, I found that 108 rings signifies the 108 human sins and rids one of 108 human desires, according to Buddhists. 

A shrine housed within a free standing structure on the grass. Items include bamboo and pine in the vase, a tangerine with the stem attached, and a special kind of mochi ball, made from pounded sweet rice. I don't know the significance of all these items, but the Wikipedia link of Japanese New Year's is very helpful.  

Afterwards, the Mantokuji Mission invited everyone to stay for the New Year’s Eve Buddhist service, which we did. One didn't have to be Buddhist or Japanese. We walked up the steps to the main room, past a donation box and the welcome table, where we were asked to record our names in clear handwriting.  The reverend did a series of intonations, chants, bowing, and plentiful waving of incense. At one point, he intoned everyone’s names in a ritual kind of way, as part of a New Year’s blessing. It was so subtle, I didn’t realize it until DH mentioned it several minutes later.  He must have gotten the names from the guest book. It was very hypnotic. The reverend gave a short talk questioning good and bad, using the analogy of flowers and weeds. Is a flower good or bad? What if a flower is a weed? Is a weed bad in and of itself? It’s bad in a garden, but is it bad if it’s somewhere in the wild and doesn’t affect you? 

Handmade ofuda
Towards the end, people walked toward the altar and offered a pinch of loose incense to the burner, then the reverend ceremoniously fanned and tapped heads and shoulders of each person with an accordion-like book, and the reverend’s wife gave each individual or head of the family a mysterious piece of paper folded in thirds, and written in Japanese calligraphy with a gold foil wrapper around the middle. 

This was called an ofuda, a house blessing or talisman that the reverend had made by hand. He said the handmade ones were better than the store bought ones. I had no idea what to do with it, but the reverend’s wife said to hang it inside the house near the front door, and leave it for a year to bless the home. A week after New Year’s Day, people bring the previous year’s ofuda back to the mission to be burned in a ceremony.  

Omamori for
good health
The reverend’s wife also pulled out several boxes of colorful mini cloth tapestry decorations called omamori, which are good luck amulets or blessings for health or safety while driving, prosperity, etc.  The cutest omamori, which I wish I had bought, was a little green cloth frog, which hangs from a car mirror. Refreshments were served – sushi and soba noodles and tea cookies and kanten, a jello like dessert – while a row of ground firecrackers burned and crackled outside on the sidewalk below. It was a good and refreshing way to start off the year.


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