The Bell and Dorje
The bell and the dorje are unique and important instruments in Tibetan Buddhist ritual music; they are indispensable to ritual practices and have great symbolic importance. They can in some ways be considered different and separate instruments, but the two are always played together. All the people I talked to said that there are three instruments used in Chod, but when they listed them they listed four, but did so as if listing them as three—the drum,
the bell and dorje, and the kangling. They considered the bell and dorje as if they were one. This perhaps has to do in part with the complementary symbolism of the two implements and the way that they are always played together. The dorje, also referred to in Sanskrit as the vajra, does not physically make a sound, but is nonetheless considered an instrument. It is said to make sound that is audible to the various gods and deities who may be listening, even if it is silent in this physical realm.
In Chod in particular, the dorje is not always played, since the bell is played with the damaru, but it nonetheless needs to be present. When the damaru is not being used, the dorje needs to take its place—the bell cannot be played on its own. When not in use, the dorje ought to nonetheless be nearby on the table. During shorter practices the dorje may not be played at all, but during longer practices it is often used in conjunction with the bell. While the dorje is not always used, it still deserves mention as an instrument used in Chod. If nothing else, it is always present, and it is often played alongside the bell. In Chod practice in particular, the bell is thought to tame or summon dakinis, and the dorje is thought of as a powerful instrument that is useful in a variety of ways.
There are several different specific types of bell that comes from the areas in and around Tibet. To a degree, these specific types are distinguished by their size, ornamentation, and place of origin. There are nine specific types of bell that are particularly well known. The rgya dril and rgya chu thig ma are two types that have traditionally come from China, the sdi dgi sha rkang ma and chos rgyal dril bu have come from the principality of Derge in Kham in
eastern Tibet, the myang dril has come from India, and the theg chon dril bu, rgyud sde ‘og m'i dril bu, rgyud sde gong m'i dril bu, and rlung dril have come from elsewhere in Tibet. Traditionally, Tibetan bells have been individually cast from bronze through a technique called sand-casting. In this method, two molds are made for the bell casing out of fine sand that has been compressed and bound together with radish juice or raw brown sugar. These
molds are used to make the bell, which in this form would be blank; however, different metal stamps are used to imprint various designs into the outer sand mold before the bell is cast. This process allows different designs to be made, such as a ring of dorjes or dharma wheels. The dorje, or vajra, also has a long history. The name of the instrument, the dorje, means ‘the lord of stones' when translated from Tibetan, and the
Sanskrit name, the vajra, means ‘the hard or mighty one'—implying that there it is related to the indestructible state of enlightenment. The history of the dorje can be traced back to India, where it was probably used as both a weapon and a scepter. It has a long history of religious use in ancient India,
where it was believed to be the weapon the of god Indra. Buddhist legend relates that Shakyamuni took the vajra used by Indra and forced its open prongs together to form the more peaceful scepter used by Buddhists. In the past, dorjes that were made in Tibet were often made from meteoric iron, which ties into its symbolic representation as the indivisibility of form and emptiness.
The bell and dorje are viewed as symbols of commitment and need to be treated with respect. They are considered to be an indivisible pair that represent “wisdom” and “method” or “wisdom” and “skillful means,” as well as representing the “Nondivided Being of phenomena and nothingness.” They furthermore represent the different aspects of the female and male genders. Put together, the bell and dorje can also be thought of as representing ‘emptiness' and
‘compassion,' which are important concepts to focus on during ritual practice. The handle of the bell is often shaped like a dorje, thus physically combining the two instruments to a degree and sharing their symbolic aspects. Each are important symbols both when considered together and when considered apart.
The bell, for instance, is said to symbolize wisdom or the realization of emptiness. It is the female aspect of the pair of instruments. Perhaps as such, it has the face of a deity, which is sometimes said to be the consort of Buddhas, below the top of the handle that is shaped like a dorje. This deity can be one of many and the specific deity is not of the utmost importance, but some practices do require a specific one to be present. Some bells have a sort of hole or ring of metal within the handle, which can symbolize emptiness—these bells are often used for the
practice of Chod. Some bells have decorations shaped like the umbrella used to shield Rinpoches from the sun or decorations shaped like the dorje. The bells with the dorje image are referred to as a vajrasatva bell and is considered to be a combination of many gods, perhaps as many as 100 gods combined into one in the form of the bell. Some bells have images other than these mentioned here. As a whole, the bell can be viewed as a mandala of sorts, consisting of the Body, Speech and Mind, and the realm of gzhal med khang.
Completing the pairing of instruments, the vajra represents the male aspect as well as symbolizing “method” or “skillful means.” The dorje usually has either five prongs or nine prongs on either end—the same is true of the end of the handle of the bell, which is shaped like a dorje. The five prongs are often understood to represent the five Buddha families, while the nine prongs are sometimes thought to represent the nine yanas—‘vehicles' of the path to enlightenment—or the eight male and female Buddhas, with the central prong left out of the count. Just like the bell, the vajra sometimes has the face of a deity on it.
Important Qualities the Bell and Dorje Should Possess
As a pair, there are several qualities that should be kept in mind when purchasing a bell and dorje. First and foremost, the two should be the same size in the sense that the handle of the bell should match and be the same size as the dorje. In order to help with this, the two implements should be bought together if at all possible. The specific number of prongs, decorations, or deity on the bell and dorje do not matter very much—which one you get is
largely a matter of personal preference, although some specific traditions do call for specific deities or specific decorations to be present. These days, the best bells and dorjes are said to come from Dehradun in India. Some practitioners enlist the help of their teachers or other monks or lamas in order to be sure they are getting good quality bells and dorjes.
In the case of the bell in particular—and perhaps in the case of the dorje, although it would be difficult to judge—the most important quality is the sound, much like with the damaru. When trying to select a bell, or judging whether or not it is good, one should focus intently on the sound, which should be clear and sharp. Kalsang Ngodub explained that one way to judge the clarity and quality of the sound is to ring the bell and then listen to a sort of
“wah wah” oscillating sound that comes when you open and close your mouth near the bell. This sound lets you determine if the bell has good resonance and a good sound. On a number of occasions people tried to sell me bells and often attempted to prove their quality and worth by doing this very test—ringing the bells either by striking them or by running a wooden dowel across the rim and then opening and closing their mouth near the still ringing bell so that I might hear the oscillating sound.
Playing the Bell and Dorje
The bell is always held in the left hand—the female hand, and the dorje, when it gets played, is held in the right hand—the male hand. The bell is played in the same basic rhythm and tempo as the damaru. The chant master, for instance, appeared to hit the bell at the same time as the drum beats occurred. The bell seemed to be played by being struck on the same side of the bell each time—a motion that was like “down, down, down” rather than “down, up, down.” When it is being played with the damaru, the bell should be held in front of the player's heart center. During these times, the dorje, which is not being played, should still be present nearby—perhaps on the table in front of the practitioner.
When it comes time for the bell and dorje to be played together, there is a specific way that they should be picked up, since both it and the bell are symbols of commitment and must be treated with respect. To pick it up correctly, you must pick up the dorje with the right hand, which is thought of as the clean hand, and then pick up the bell in the right hand as well. You then pass the bell from the right hand to the left hand, thus preparing yourself
to play in a respectful manner. When both are being played in this way, the dorje should be held near the heart. Strictly speaking, there is no correct way of grasping the dorje; however, I was able to observe various Chodpas performing Chod and noticed how they held it. This was primarily when they were performing hand mudras with the dorje.
The most common way of holding the dorje seemed to be gripping it by the lower half of the instrument—holding it pointing upwards into the air near their hearts—with their thumb on one side and their other fingers on the other side. Their hand was often in a sort of “U” shape underneath the instrument so that not much of it was covered by the hand. Some
people also grasped dorje gently with the whole hand, not bothering with any sort of “U” shape. The least common way seemed to be just holding it tightly in a fist. In the case of the bell, there also does not seem to be a uniform way of holding it, but in the instances I was able to observe some people held it with three fingers on one side and the thumb on the other—with the pinky finger not involved. Others held it with the index finger on the top of the handle and the remaining fingers