The bell master is responsible for the meditation hall and, in the liturgy, works with the celebrant. The celebrant may specify exactly what is going to happen or may take it as it comes. The bell master fills in the gaps and keeps everything flowing - organises who is to read passages, bells to begin and end periods of chanting or meditation, rising and sitting, and generally keeping order in a gentle and easy manner.
The role of bell master is an excellent training in which the deep truth of Buddhist practice becomes manifest. Here one runs into all one's quirks. One has to sing! Nobody will move until you ring that bell. Keep your eye on the celebrant – what is she doing now?! So what did I get wrong this time? It all looks so effortless when the other person does it. Just how does one remain calm, tranquil and smooth while also being minutely attentive and on one's toes?
One's foundation is compassion, yet one must be crisp and decisive. Everyone depends upon you, yet you must harmonise with the celebrant and the needs of the situation. You have to learn the fixed form of the liturgy, yet change or adapt, without prior notice, if the celebrant takes a new direction. This all means that one must take responsibility without losing sensitivity, quickly recover from sometimes making a fool of oneself, and try to make life easier for everybody else in the room.
It also means getting ahead of the game. Is the room set up right? Is it clean? Tidy? With chairs and cushions in the right places? What are we going to need for the next ceremony? Are the things going to be in the right place at the right time? Do we need a rehearsal? Sometimes we just have to wing it. Did you notice that last time we missed a whole section out and nobody noticed?
It is actually quite rare that a ceremony goes all the way through absolutely faultlessly. We are all human and glitches happen. Sometimes the mind, hands and bell seem to be in three different stories. Sometimes it all comes together. Ideally, the job is done, the Dharma is manifest and the person disappears. Let the robe do it, we say. When in doubt bow – oh, and ring the bell. Namo Amida Bu.
Yes, "clang" is the word - that moment when as you turn to sit down you dislodge the bell from the tan and it goes clanging across the floor and you have to decide how to get it back again. We have all been there. Namo Amida Bu.