On your arrival you might hear a bell sound and suddenly people around you have stopped still, stopped talking, and stopped moving. It might be the telephone ringing or the clock chiming, or the monastery bell sounding. These are our bells of mindfulness. When we hear the sound of the bell we relax our body and become aware of our breathing. We do that naturally, with enjoyment, and without solemnity or being stiffed.
Thich Nhat Hanh
by Joseph Hall
In the monastery, your days are filled with constantly ringing bells. There are bells to call you to whole hearted practice; to wake up in the morning, to go chop wood, to eat, to go to the zendo, there is even a final bell after you sit on the cushion to remind you that it’s time to actually start meditating, just in case you started off by pondering the details of your life. In the monastery, there is little in the way of verbal instructions, bells do most of the talking. Since you can argue with a solid tone, you eventually learn to surrender and see that what you needed to learn is apparent right in front of you. The bells turn out to be your most important teacher as they constantly tell us, ‘just do this, now’. The problem with trying to practice zen in the midst of an everyday life is that there are no bells. As we run about our days down the hill, it’s easy to forget that we are in the middle of the greatest revolution in Buddhism. We are doing what the Buddha’s monks didn’t plan on, which is to take Buddhism out of the monastic community and practice it everywhere we go.
When I left Tassajara, the difference between an intentional community and the rest of the world became painfully obvious one evening as I held a brand new iPhone 5 in my hand and realized that underneath everything, there was this constant sensation of being lost. Sure, I could track all my data and keep to my schedule, but there weren’t any bells to remind me to drop the detritus of what I was doing and step fully into the next moment. Without the sound of the bell, things felt empty - and not in the zen way. That feeling, in turn, made it pretty clear that something needed to change.
Since the device in my hand had more computing power than NASA used to land a person on the moon, it seemed clear that it was time to let go of the self pity and accept that my problem was not actually the lack of bells, but my relationship to the simple calls of the world. This phone was ready to go just about everywhere I went and it could learn things, so I tapped a button and to see what it could do. I spent the rest of the day downloading apps and exploring their capabilities. By the end of the afternoon I had cobbled together a series of apps that created a structure for daily life in the world, helped me create new habits and kept me connected to my communities. Whenever possible, I set the notifications to ring a bell.
Properly configured, the phone was enthusiastic about teaching me Zen. In the morning, it’s black and empty screen lit up and rang a bell to wake me. Throughout the morning the bells let me know when it was time to meditate, shower and eat. My breakfast was recorded on an app and calories counted, which helped me sort through the delicious choices that life on earth had to offer. Maps guided me to locations and also reminded me to practice zen driving when I left the house for work. Other apps tracked my time and even billed the clients for me, while also making sure that I heard a bell to do the mini meditations that I had intended to do throughout the day.
One thing I noticed, was that when I found myself in an unexpected conversation the sound of the bell from the phone made it easier to segue back into what I had originally intended to do.
So I started learning how to live the life of a guerrilla monk in the midst of the world. The most important thing I learned though had very little to do with the iPhone, which while it was often my teacher, was still just an object. What it taught me, was that the bells are always ringing, I just had to change my relationship to them in order to hear their message. At Tassajara, I arrived with the clear idea that the bells were my guide, and learning the sounds and inflections of each was my practice. Bell rings, you go. No problem. Down the hill though, the problem wasn’t actually the lack of bells, but there were so many bells that I was tuning them out. I was going to have to figure out the bells I needed for this constantly adapting life and to adopt them.
So here’s what I learned about bells. You always have the option of being a monk, all you need to do is decide that the world is your monastery. There are bells constantly ringing around you and it’s up to you to decide which ones you are going to align yourself with. Each bell has something deep to teach you that is only revealed when you commit yourself to it. The deepest teachings of Zen are hidden in a meditation bell and many of the secrets to a long life are intrinsically intertwined within a traffic light. You just need to make it your practice to shift when they ask you to.
Your life is filled with practice opportunities and your phone is pretty good about keeping track of the ones you don’t want to forget. It can remind you to give your wholehearted attention to things and ring bells for you.
Meditation timer apps are a good place to start. I tried a lot of them and didn’t find one I liked. Numbers going by on a timer seem to be an invitation to think about the time going by, and yet a completely motionless app can become a distraction when one wonders if it is working. Most of the good ones seem to be created by people who have some sort of method or service that they would like to sell. And finally, for zen people, we seem to notice that most of them use a Tibetan bell. All of this was enough to make me learn a programing language.
This turns out to be far easier said than done but now Pop Up has its own meditation timer app.
I can now tell you that the reason why these apps love Tibetan bells is that it’s a lot of work to get a Keisu bell to sound decent on a tiny speaker. To make it happen, you have to learn how to practice with frustration as you try to gather the images and sounds of your world and squeeze them into your pocket. What we built was a simple meditation timer app from the perspective of Zen people. There’s not much to it and it has nothing to tell you about the benefits of meditation or to track your progress. It opens to a circle and a slider so you can set set your time. Tap the screen and it’s just the circle, three keisu bells to remind you that you just created a zendo where you are, and an ink stroke slowly erases the the circle. When the screen is completely empty, the keisu rings once, just as it does at the temple. And, of course you can mute the bells or change over to a white screen just in case you prefer a black on white kanji look. You can find it for your iPhone or iPad on the App Store. Mac and Android coming soon. Ok that’s enough about the app we built…
Like I said, mediation timers are just one place to start equipping your inner temple with bells.
Monk’s have a schedule to train them and so can you. A quick trip through your calendar app and you can map out your day. Don’t forget that your phone knows where you are and this can be a conduit to deliver well timed insight. All you need to do is say, ‘Hey Siri (or Google or Alexa), remind me to take three deep breaths whenever I arrive at work,’ and you have a new strategy for walking into the office. Anything tied to a time or place is a space where you can put a bell. A quick trip through settings and you can uncover the bell tones your device was shipped with, or just leave the notification sounds as they are.
If you have take the last paragraph on with enthusiasm, you are going to notice very quickly that there is suddenly a lot more going on with your phone. Just like a real monastic, you are about to discover what every novitiate learns: these infernal bells can make a person kind of crazy. Here you are, fully immersed in something, and, out of nowhere, a notification comes in to do something else, or perhaps you are already engaged in the task and way over these constant reminders. It’s a relentlessly painful experience and every bell becomes the source of irritation. Just like the new monk, you are learning an important lesson about the futility of arguing with bells, or clocks, or calendars. If you don’t shift your relation with these things, they will start to rule your life.
It’s just a bell, a tone moving through the air. It is not a command, and it can’t force you to do anything. If you experience it as ‘someone’ coercing you against your will, this will be difficult. Fortunately, there is no reason to feel any sense of failure here, because I don’t think any monastic has ever escaped coming to a place where they are in the midst of something and wanted to curse back at the bell in rage. This is a very fortunate lesson. The problem isn’t the bell. The bell is neutral, the problem arises from all our projections, associations, and attachment to a moment which has already passed. Since the bells will never stop, the only way to escape is to change our relationship to it.
A bell is simply a note sent from your finest self to remind you of its intentions. Now that you are in the future, it is completely up to you what you will do with the present moment. It is simply an invitation to step out of the place where you are rushing about and to let go of the moment we get lost in. It’s an opportunity to pause and enjoy the resonance of sound and the precious life that brought us to the place where we can receive this gift. At the monastery, a bell rings, monks listen to it resonate, and step into the next moment to make their choices. You too, can simply dismiss these notifications in gratitude for the music that tells you that you are on a path.
Beyond keeping time, an iron, bronze, or brass bell serves little other purpose than to teach us how to turn our life into practice opportunities; teachable moments that we create for ourselves. The most important bells are the ones that ring only in our heads. These bells can turn our challenges into places where we grow.
Any place in our lives where we struggle to do our best is a good location for a bell. This is especially true when we notice that we seem to have a patterned response that isn’t working so well. We can make a decision to set aside the desire to win an argument and shift our effort to learning how to avoid the argument. These arguments with life come in myriad forms of course, but we can arrange them in such a way that our challenges will ring a bell for us.
As a building contractor, there was a time when it seemed inconceivable that a structure could be built without a liberal application of cursing and occasional bursts of anger when additional force was required. While this is apparently standard practice in modern construction, it was not helpful in my day to day life. As I began to work with my anger, I began to notice that it sometimes arose without my knowledge, but it could be recognized by a high rate of cursing. Looking at this, I noticed there was also certain laziness involved, that I didn’t have to search for the best word to communicate something and it was also a shortcut that allowed me to inflict my emotions on others without having to explain how they arose. So, I decided to make my cursing a bell. This was simple. I resolved to stop cursing and when I heard the words come out of my mouth, to let go of the conflict I was immersed in, and examine why such a simple thing as choosing the most helpful words seemed to be out of reach. There were a lot a bells the first year and they could be frustrating. There I was, winning a ‘debate' and suddenly WTF came out of my mouth. So, now I had to apologize, concede whatever I needed to in order to deescalate the situation, and take a look at my own dang self rather than trying to gain the ground I was getting lost in. A few years later, I had forgotten what I lost in all those disagreements I surrendered, and the anger was not so strong anymore. It became a lot easier to work with people. My head seems clearer and I enjoy the sounds of people and bells.
There are a lot of useful places for a bell. Any place where we would like to grow is a good location for a marker and there are many practices to help us wake up. When trouble comes, rather than seeing it as trouble, we can be reminded that this is a place where we can resolve to forget about our patterned behavior and exercise the best of our selves. Just like when someone says ‘Thank you’, and we say ‘You’re welcome,’ creating bells like this can turn adversity into gratitude. When we notice anger, we can resolve to make that an opportunity to do olympic level compassionate listening training. When someone tells us about a complex problem, we can ask, “how can I help?” When we recognize a topic that we tend to avoid, we can instead make it our practice to work on our curiosity and lean into it.
Whether we place them intentionally or not, there will always be bells in our life. Any place where there is a habituated response is a place where a hidden bell rings. So it seems useful to move them around a bit. It’s also useful to recognize the ones that are producing a reflexive response that isn’t so helpful. Some of the bells will be well and good where they are, but perhaps could be heard and responded to a little more fully. In the end, though, it’s not so much the sound of a bell, but how it resonates within you. That is where the beauty of a bell is revealed.
As Zen moves from the temples to the world that surrounds them, we all have to figure out a way to carry the bells with us. Zen, after all, is mostly conveyed in silence and the sound of bells resonating through it. They provide the constant reminder that every moment is and opportunity to wake up. It is up to you to figure out how to construct these bells in such a way that they can be carried with you and heard across the travels of the day. They are, after all, the music that guides us.
If you are curious about the Pop Up Zendo App, we would be grateful for your support. The button below will allow you to download it and if you were kind enough to leave a review, I would smile for the rest of the day and the rest of the world would be able to find it.