Another year has gone by, and as always, we (literally) rang in the New Year in style with our annual New Years Eve Bell Ringing ceremony. The event has been a member and staff favorite for 28 years.
The end-of-year ceremony has its roots in a Buddhist temple practice that happens daily, each morning and evening. In present-day Japan, it is customary to ring the bell 108 times on New Years Eve to correspond with the number of evil desires we suffer from on earth. Ringing the bell 108 times rids us of our evil passions and purifies us for the upcoming year (the number differs in Korean tradition; in that ceremony, ringing 33 times symbolizes the Thirty-three Heavens, the Trâyastriṃœa, where the Buddhist guardian Indra resides).
The bell we use for the ceremony was made in Japan in 1532 by Daiji Temple in Tajima province. Our current belfry was constructed in 2002. About two weeks before each ceremony, our museum prep team brings the bell and belfry up from art storage and carefully installs them in Samsung Hall, where they remain on view for about three weeks.
When I started working at the museum about six years ago, I couldn’t believe the museum allowed visitors to strike a 16th century bell. But I’ve since realized how special a moment it is to be together with friends and family (and sometimes with a complete stranger), looking back over the past year.
Reverend Gengo Akiba from Soto Zen Buddhism in North America has led the ceremony for the past ten years. The ceremony includes a purification ritual and Heart Sutra chanting. It is a solemn and sincere moment, and even young children seem to understand the purity of it (and there were many young ones this year).
My favorite moments are when the group meets at the bell, shares good wishes with smiles and turns to ring the bell. And of course, afterward there is the inevitable scrambling to get selfies in, posing for the perfect shot with the bell. And in the rare moments when there is no one to claim the next turn at ringing the bell, people goodheartedly step in to ring it for everyone.
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