The Ritual of the Four Instruments

Religious rituals regularly involve blends and are often characterized by both linguistic and non-linguistic elements. These blends often exhibit considerable complexity.The daily rituals around the four Buddhist temple instruments that are situated within a central pavilion at large Korean Buddhist monasteries provide a good example of how different elements of ritual illustrate a complex range of connections uniting various ideas, beliefs, and practices. The four instruments—a cloud-shaped gong, a wooden fish, a large dharma drum, and a giant Brahma bell—are struck in succession twice a day, prior to morning and evening chants. At a practical level, the loud sound of the instruments notifies everyone at the temple, both monastic residents and visiting laypeople, that they should gather in the main hall for the morning or evening services, during which time members of the community bow in unison before Buddhist icons while reciting a fixed series of chants.

The ritual significance of the four instruments can be understood in terms of a complex conceptual blend (see Figure 7.6). Within the generic space of the blend is the familiar notion of powerful forces or entities which, through various means, exert a pervasive and profound influence. The four instruments constitute a central input to the blend. The sound of each instrument is mapped onto a tonal

The ritual of the four instruments complex blend height

FIGURE 7.6 The ritual of the four instruments complex blend height (see Figure 7.7). Through an analogy link, these heights are then mapped onto the various realms where sentient beings reside. Specifically, the high sounds of the cloud-shaped gong correspond to the realm of animals that fly in the air; the wooden fish to animals living in the water; the large drum (made of cowhide) to four-legged land animals; and the giant bell (as the instrument with the lowest tones) to sentient beings residing in hell (traditionally regarded as deep within the earth). This listing of realms and sentient beings is not exhaustive (notably, human beings are missing) and can therefore be regarded as metonymic in nature.

The large bell is struck 28 times in the morning and 33 times in the evening. The morning bell, through a representation link, is associated with the 28 constellations (the total number of constellations in East Asian cosmology, which are controlled by four deities) and the evening bell with the Heaven of the 33 (Skt. Trayastrimsa), a vast realm that sits atop a mountain at the center of the world, where powerful deities reside. In Buddhist exegesis, even these deities are in fact mortal and subject to the rounds of rebirth and suffering and, therefore, also need to be saved by the bodhisattva. Again, mention of the constellations and the Heaven of the 33 should be understood metonymically as suggesting the pervasive nature of the bodhisattva’s compassion.

The ritual space input involves a further set of properties of the sounds and physical size of the instruments. The instruments, which are much larger than their secular counterparts, are also very loud and, especially in the case of the large bell, reverberate long after being struck. Other properties also signal importance. They are played at the beginning of each Buddhist service and occupy the central space in the monastery. Their loud sound would have the effect of awakening anyone who was sleeping. These properties, through additional cause-effect and analogy links, emphasize the importance of the message within the blend and suggest that the purpose of the bodhisattva’s compassion is to lead all beings to awakening.

A further and more obscure element of the blend is the tale associated with the wooden fish. According to one version of the story, there was a wise master with many disciples. One disciple, who was lazy and dissolute, died and became a fish which, due to its bad karma, had a tree growing out of its back. The master saw the fish struggling in the water and, through his spiritual powers, realized that the fish was his former disciple in reincarnated form. He performed a ritual freeing the disciple from his fish body, and the tree growing out of the fish’s back was eventually carved into the form of the fish and hit as an admonition to all regarding the effects of bad karma (Buswell & Lopez, 2014). In the ceremony, the wooden fish, through vital links related to cause-effect and syncopation, serves as a narrative example of the bodhisattva, who continually works for the salvation of even the most obstinately wayward and deluded sentient beings.

An essential element of the blend is provided by background knowledge regarding the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. Korean Buddhists are well acquainted with the idea of the bodhisattva, who puts off enlightenment until all beings in the universe are saved from suffering. The bodhisattva represents the

Ritual space and dharma space in the four instruments blend

FIGURE 7.7 Ritual space and dharma space in the four instruments blend

central ideal in Mahayana Buddhism and is therefore both an object of pious devotion and an exemplar of noble religious motivations based on unflagging concern for all sentient beings. The assumption is reflected in Korean Buddhist parlance in which a female Buddhist devotee is referred to as a bosallim (an honored bodhisattva).

Other elements, not depicted in Figure 7.6 and Figure 7.7, contribute further to the blend. The four instruments would be struck by a monk with a shaved head and gray monastic robes, identical to those of other monks (the lack of adornments and individual choice in attire suggesting demotion of the ego). The monk would stand and strike the drum with both ends of the drumsticks in a vigorous and animated manner. This “ostentatious display” (Bulbulia, 2004, p. 28) expresses the energy and commitment of the bodhisattva’s vow. The ritual implements contain some minor linguistic elements as well. The giant bell is typically inscribed with Sanskrit mantras. Striking the bell is thought to send these mantras into the universe based on supernatural assumptions common in Buddhism; for example, in the Tibetan practice of spinning prayer wheels that contain mantras on the inside and on the exterior so as to send their beneficial powers outward to save all sentient beings.

The use of an ancient and foreign script furthermore suggests the validity of the message through time and across cultures. Additionally, it projects the source of the message into the obscure and ancient past. Finally, the blend established by striking the four instruments is itself embedded within the set of blends that occur in the full morning and evening services, which involve group chants and bows in the temple’s main Buddha hall. This suggests an additional property of blends.

In addition to providing compression of an array of events to a human scale, they provide compressions of these compressions in an iterative manner, which helps explain why the devout have a sense that religious ideas contain never-ending depths waiting to be fathomed.

One ambiguity in the ritual is whether it depicts the actions of the bodhisattva or the aspirations of devotees to follow the bodhisattva path. Sweetser (2000) points out that the representations appearing in ritual often contain this sort of ambiguity between performative or descriptive interpretations. Using blending theory to analyze the role of descriptives and performatives, she notes that the former represent an attempt to coin expressions that fit the world, whereas the latter represent an attempt to fit the world to the expressions. She gives the example of ancient paintings of buffaloes on a cave wall. These could be a description of a hunt or the desire for an outcome in a future hunt. Similarly, white garments may serve as a descriptive indication of purity (when worn at a wedding) or as an attempt to become pure (when worn by Christian or Jewish penitents).

Sweetser notes that construal of a ritual act as descriptive or performative can also have great doctrinal significance. For example, Protestants hold that the consecration of the host during the Eucharist is descriptive (and thus symbolic), whereas Catholics see the act as performative, with the bread and wine becoming, as an effect of the ritual, the actual body of Christ. Returning to the Four Instruments Blend, the possibility of both descriptive and performative interpretations can be regarded as a feature of this and many religious blends, ensuring that the blend can be run in multiple ways by different believers or by the same believer at different points in their spiritual practice.

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