Campanology Word of the Day: Bonshō

A Buddhist monastery in Japan is a rather peaceful place. Monks go about their daily rites and ablutions with dutiful continuity. But as constant and routine as these rituals may be, one always finds a timekeeping signal to be most beneficial. Enter the bell. 

Bells have a long heritage of deep integration in Buddhist monastic life. The movements of monks on various occasions are directed by the tinkling, ringing, or gonging of a bell. No verbal cues are needed. A bell installed in the main hall is called a denshō. It invites Buddhists to worship and guides the faithful during prayers. A kanshō bell hung under the eaves is rung to sound an alarm, as for a fire. However, the largest of Japanese Buddhist bells is the bonshō.

Illustration from the Butsuzōzui showing different Japanese temple bells

Image: Excerpt from the Butsuzōzui, a collection of Buddhist iconographic sketches said to have been painted by Hidenobu Tosa in 1690 CE, detailing different Japanese temple bells.

Bonshō, sometimes called tsurigane or ōgane, are found on the immaculately manicured grounds of Buddhist temples throughout Japan. Cast in bronze, bonshō hang solemnly in roofed but wall-less structures known as shōrō. They are hung mouth-down and remain motionless. A wooden beam or mallet is swung to sound the bell. 

Bonshō bell at the Byōdō-in temple in Japan

Image: Bonshō at the Byōdō-in temple in the city of Uji at the foot of the Ko'olau Mountains in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan, built in the late Heian period. 

Rung not merely to announce the morning and evening, but also to allow the listener to think on enlightenment, the penetrating and pervasive toll of the bonshō rolls over the surrounding hills and can be heard at a great distance – an aural manifestation of the spreading dharma or universal truth.

The Tale of the Heike, an epic account of a 12th-century war between Japanese clans, says this of a bonshō temple bell: “The sound of the bell of Gion Shōja rings with the transience of all things, the color of the flowers of paired sal trees shows the truth that all glories must fade.”

Elements of a bonshō temple bell

Bonshō derived from the largest bell within the Chinese bianzhong, an ancient court instrument comprising a series of tuned bells. Used to summon listeners to a recital, the largest in the set of up to 64 bells produced a deep and lasting resonance. 

Brought to Japan from China (likely as spoils of war via the Korean Peninsula as early as 562 CE), Japanese bonshō developed distinctive characteristics that evolved alongside shifts in significant cultural periods, helping campanologists and Japanese historians date bonshō quite precisely. 

Detail of a bonshō with shu-moku (swinging wooden beam) and tsuki-za (reinforced sounding area) in floral motif.

Image: Detail of a bonshō with shu-moku (swinging wooden beam) and tsuki-za (reinforced sounding area) in floral motif.

The basic shape maintains consistent elements across most bonshō, which are typically arranged into three horizontal bands or sections. Four jutai, or vertical bands, further segment the bell’s surface. Other common elements include:

  • Ryūzu, the suspension loop formed by two downward-facing dragon heads clutching the kasagata, or domed crown of the bell, in their teeth. The necks of the dragons join in the form of a flame to complete the loop. 
  • Nyū, bosses arranged across the upper third of the bell that symbolize fertility and improve the bell’s resonance.
  • Ikenomachi, a barren field providing a place for mei-bun – poetry or iconography that details the bell’s provenance. Others are decorated with depictions of tennin (heavenly beings) or Buddha.
  • Tsuki-za, a raised panel or reinforced area on the bell’s surface where the bell is struck by a mallet or shu-moku, a swinging wooden beam suspended by rope. Having no internal clappers like Western-profile bells, all bonshō are sounded externally. The tsuki-za is often decorated with a lotus or chrysanthemum motif to symbolize peace, enlightenment, longevity, and happiness.

It is said the sloping shoulders and flat base of a bonshō emulate the seated posture of Buddha. As such, the bells are accorded utmost reverence and those sounding the bell will first bow three times on approach. Casting the bonshō is also a sacred event, with sprigs of hallowed mulberry, gold offerings, and papers containing Buddhist prayers tossed into the molten bronze. 

Bells surrendered to the armed forces of Imperial Japan.

Image: Bells surrendered to the armed forces of Imperial Japan are collected at a school in Shiga Prefecture and await transfer for smelting, 1942. Courtesy: Kakumeiji Temple, Moriyama.

During World War II, an ordinance to collect metals was decreed throughout Japan. To feed its war machine and keep its armies outfitted, Japan needed vast quantities of industrial materials – and like plucking fruit from a tree, they turned to peaceable, defenseless bell towers. An estimated 70,000 bells (approximately 90% of the bonshō then in existence) were destroyed and smelted into armament.

Today, bonshō maintain their sacred place in Japanese society and have become an internationally-recognized symbol of peace and diplomacy. With the establishment of the World Peace Bell Association, new bonshō are cast and installed around the globe to strengthen understanding and collaboration between peoples of different cultures. Bells of peace? Our world could certainly use more of both.

Cover image: The 8th-century bonshō bell at Tōdai-ji temple in Nara, Japan, weighs 26.3 tons. The shōrō which houses the bell was built between 1207 and 1210 and combines both Zen and Daibutsuyō architectural styles.