By Susan Hadler
It’s Sunday afternoon in mid-August and still hot when I arrive at Carolyn’s for the bell training. Eric is standing at the end of the upstairs hallway, smiling and bowing, showing the way to Carolyn’s door. The first thing I see is the big bell sitting on its red and gold cushion in the middle of the room. It seems to belong here, surrounded by Buddhas sitting, Buddhas standing, pictures of Thay and the Dalai Lama, angels and saints and green growing plants. Carolyn offers us cool water and grapes fresh from her neighbor’s arbor.
We sit on cushions circling the bell. Mary arrives and Carolyn begins, “The bell master holds and protects the space for everyone.” Yes, that is how I’ve felt with the Sunday Night Sangha. Held. Safely and quietly. No need to worry about appearances or intrusions. Space to calm down and open up to myself, to bring my body, emotions, and thoughts together in one place, one time, a little island in a calm sea surrounded by little islands. A gift beyond measure.
I remember Thay sitting so peacefully in front of the meditation hall in Plum Village, monks and nuns behind him, laypeople in front. Thay sat in silence and I sat in silence letting anxiety about what would happen next disappear like steam rising from a cup of tea. Thay didn’t seem to worry about time or schedule. He was completely present. His presence helped me be with myself in that peaceful moment.
Carolyn tells us she invites the bell with her heart. Her heart. Not her thoughts about when to invite the bell or how it should sound. Her heart knows. Carolyn trusts her heart. Then she teaches us the gatha that is recited, most often silently, by the bell inviter before inviting the bell,
Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,
I send my heart along with the sound of the bell.
May the hearers awaken from forgetfulness
and transcend all anxiety and sorrow.
I love this gatha. It’s an invitation to unload all the stuff I usually carry around with me—self-consciousness, defensive pride, phony cheer, preoccupations and plans, leftover conversations. The gatha is a door opening to a place of freedom.
“Now we can practice inviting the bell.” Carolyn hands the inviter to Eric, who smiles and recites the gatha. The bell’s pure deep voice reverberates inside the room, inside me. Eric practices inviting the bell a few more times and hands the inviter to Mary. Mary recites the gatha slowly and softly wakes the bell. She waits a bit and then the rich and lovely sound surrounds us. Mary practices inviting the bell from the side, and the bell rings out clear and strong.
She passes the inviter to me. Holding it, I remember seeing a nun in the Lower Hamlet standing in the grass in front of the big bell. It was raining. She held the inviter in her hand and stood for what seemed to me a long time. She stood in reverent silence before she invited the bell. I admired her patience, her ability to be with herself alone with the bell. She wasn’t in a hurry to get out of the rain. It didn’t seem like a task for her, something to accomplish or finish, but rather an act with meaning, as if the existence of the bell, the inviter, and herself deserved her whole attention. I saw this in the nun’s silent stance and the slow steady swing of her arm.
Tears ﬁll my eyes as I hold the inviter and look at the bell. The bell seems holy, a symbol of the peace and freedom I found in Plum Village. I hear myself say out loud, “I’m not ready to invite the bell.” I can’t invite the bell. I’m not calm or patient enough.
Carolyn suggests I take a few breaths. Carolyn, Eric, and Mary gently encourage me and then accept me as I am, off balance, self-conscious, a little embarrassed and grateful for their acceptance. Eric and Mary practice inviting the bell some more and then Mary hands me the inviter.
I take it, lay it down to bow, recite the gatha, pick up the inviter, raise my arm and swing. No sound. Silence. I’ve completely missed the bell. We laugh. I try again, from my heart, and this time I hear the sound of the bell flowing out like waves washing dry land. I relax and smile. I feel so happy.
Eric gives me a ride to the Sangha. The Dharma talk of Thay’s we listen to and our Dharma discussion following both focus on the emptiness of emptiness and on impermanence. Joseph suggests we sing.
No coming, no going.
No after, no before.
I hold you close to me.
I release you to be so free
Because I am in you and you are in me.
Joseph’s voice, like the bell, reaches a place deep inside that is still and clear. In the silence after singing I notice a little burst of energy tingling up from my stomach to my nose. I bow in and speak, telling the Sangha about the bell training, about not being ready to invite the bell. “I see now that I separated myself from the nun and put her above me. I felt low and unworthy and was unable to invite the bell, even when I tried. The second time I took the inviter I remembered Carolyn’s words and let my heart do the work. In that instant the nun was with me and I was with her. We were inviting the bell together and the bell sang out!” Inviting the bell is inviting everyone to be present, even myself, even the nuns in Plum Village.
Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Washington, D.C. where she practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.