The Legend of Benkei and the Great Bell of Mii-dera

At the foot of Mount Hiei, in the city of Ōtsu in Shiga Prefecture, Japan, a Buddhist temple rises from the verdant hills overlooking Lake Biwa. Founded in 672, the temple is called Mii-dera, or more formally, Onjō-ji. It is one of the four largest temples in Japan. 

As an ancient temple and monastery, Mii-dera is steeped in ritual, tradition, and legend. One such tale from the temple’s past tells of the misguided doings of the monk Musashibo Benkei – a strong, hulking figure from a nearby monastery. Benkei was enchanted by the bonshō of Mii-dera and set himself the task of stealing the bell and bringing it back to his rival temple on Mt. Hiei. 

Grounds of the Mii-dera temple complex in Otsu, Japan

Image: Nature and architecture blend together on the grounds of the Mii-dera temple complex in Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture, Japan.

The bell hung solemnly near the entrance to the Mii-dera temple complex, on a platform constructed of stoutest timbers. It was said the bell was originally cast for a temple in Sravasti, India, which Buddha himself had built. The bell’s brilliant patina was as smooth as glass and as reflective as a mirror, with no writing or inscriptions to mar its surface. It would ring every morning and evening, calling the monks to prayer and filling the hillside with deep, bellowing tones. No wonder Benkei coveted it so.

Late one night, Benkei crept over the mossy slopes to Mii-dera and scaled the small belfry. He unhooked the five-and-a-half-foot tall bell from the thick iron link which held it. As William E. Griffis writes in his Fairy Tales of Old Japan (1911):

“How to get the heavy thing down the mountain was now the question. Should he let it roll down, the monks at Mii-dera would hear it bumping over the stones. Nor could he carry it in his arms, for being sixteen feet round, it was too big for him to grasp and hold despite his own huge strength. He could not put his head in it like a candle in a snuffer, for then he would not be able to see his way down.”

Benkei pulled out the cross-beam that had originally suspended the bell, swung it over his shoulders and, like a pair of scales, was set to walk the bell down the mountain. But the only thing he had to counterbalance the weight of the Mii-dera bell was the small paper lantern he had brought to guide his way. The coming trek of some six or seven miles was to be colossally difficult.

Japanese woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi of Benkei hurling the bell of Mii-dera

Image: Japanese woodblock print, “Benkei Hurling the Great Bell of Mii-dera” (1854) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Courtesy: Fuji Arts.

By early morning, he had reached his own monastery and, having hung the bell in the belfry, Benkei collapsed into a pile of exhaustion and hunger. When his fellow monks saw what he had achieved, they implored him to sound the bell at once. Benkei refused – not before he should be satisfied with a bowl of nourishing soup.

After a vigorous meal, Benkei gave permission to sound the bell. Several young monks scrambled up the belfry, pulled back the striking log, and let it go. Expecting a rich, eddying sound, the monks recoiled at what they heard. A solemn, plangent murmur resounded from the bell: “I want to go back to Mii-dera! I want to go back to Mii-dera!” 

Aghast, the monks brought sacred water to consecrate the bell, hoping to rededicate it to its new home. They struck the bell again, and again the homesick bell seemed to say: “I want to go back to Mii-dera! I want to go back to Mii-dera!” Enraged, Benkei took command of the rope and swung the log so hard that a deafening blow filled the ears of all the gathered monks and dented the beloved bell, but as the vibrations died away, the familiar chorus remained: “Mii-dera, I want to go back to Mii-dera!”

Benkei bell on display at the Mii-dera monastery in Japan

Image: The bell that Musashibo Benkei stole according to legend on display at the Mii-dera temple complex in Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture, Japan.

In a huff, Benkei ripped the bell from its mounting and hurled it down the valley toward Mii-dera, where the Mii-dera monks found it and lovingly restored it to its original home. From having been dragged, tossed, and tumbled across the landscape, the once-pure surface was now tarnished with scratches and blemishes, but it remains at Mii-dera today – the one place it never wanted to leave.

Cover image: Japanese woodblock print, “Benkei and the Great Bell of Mii-dera” (1888) by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912). Courtesy: Fuji Arts.