Sunday, December 31, 2006


It's forty-five minutes past midnight, and the temple bells have yet to finish their ringing. 108 rings, carefully spaced, one for every passion that leads to human suffering. One for every troublesome desire.

Bells in japanese Buddhism have secret power. They clear the air of evil spirits; they drive away bad omens. You see bells on almost every pendant and charm associated with religion in Japan, hanging from bags and cell phones, or dangling in the windows of cars to protect their drivers. During WWII, a bastardized, militarized version of Shinto was made the official state religion, and the government here tried to break the back of Buddhism by regulating it and restricting its reach. When metal for the war effort ran low, the government demanded the temples donate their bells. I imagine the machines made from those bells. Did they ward off evil? Were their operators kept from harm? I imagine canons ringing out munitions, carefully spaced, one for every worldly desire.

Bells on New Year's are a somber siren's call. The deep pitch runs through you like a metallic shiver, seductive, till it seems the most natural thing in the world to take up your coat, put on your scarf, and softly step outside to follow the pied piper sound. At the temple you can get in line to ring the bell yourself, kneeling beside the monks rubbing their rosaries and intoning sutras, and rearing back the long wooden clapper to strike the side of the thick bronze form. Pause to let the reverberations die, then let fly the clapper again to resurrect the note. The first ring is for sins of the past year, and the second is for those of the new one. Funny how you can know ahead of time. When you leave the bell tower, your hands smell like incense. There's amazake being ladled out into little paper cups; it's warm and sweet. Sugar used to be precious, only for holidays.

I don't believe in Buddhism. But hearing the sad, knowing tenor of the bells is like hearing your own conscience. The bell tower becomes a confessional, the amazake the Eucharist. The parishioners silently burn old ofuda in the temple courtyard, and watching the papers catch and curl I start to cry. Last New Year's I was in a bar in Court House, noisy, hopeful, upbeat... This year still upbeat, but different. Realistic. Older. Wiser? It's been a trying year. I've made a lot of mistakes. I've made a lot of mistakes. But you learn with each one. And the bells are cleansing.


Anonymous said...

I'm not entirely sure how closely you still check your blog notifications, but I wanted to let you know that this is the second time I'm reading your blog in its entirety, and it's still hard for me to believe how BEAUTIFULLY everything is written. I came to this blog a few years ago to gain further insight into foreign service life for a young woman, but I keep coming back for passages like this one.

I really do hope you find the time to keep this up, because reading these entries have become a bright spot in my life.

Katie said...

Thank you -- that means quite a lot to me. I'm struggling a bit with whether it's appropriate to keep blogging, but haven't given up on it completely. Mid-level is just a harder place from which to write, but please don't mistake silence for disinterest or displeasure. I love my career with all my heart. If you've joined or are considering joining the Foreign Service, I hope that my writing is encouraging to you.