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Thunderbolt and bell, 1403–1424

Thunderbolt and bell, 1403-1424

Thunderbolt and bell, 14031424. China; Ming dynasty (13681644), Reign of the Yongle Emperor (14031424). Gilded bronze. Gift of Margaret Polak, B85B3.a and B85B3.b.

What are these ritual objects?
The vajra (Tibetan: Dorjie) and bell (Sanskrit: ghanta; Tibetan: drilbu) are the most important ritual objects of Tibetan Buddhism. Most every lama has a pair and knows how to use them. They represent “method” (vajra) and “wisdom” (bell). Combined together they symbolize enlightenment as they embody the union of all dualities: bliss and emptiness, compassion and wisdom, appearance and reality, conventional truth and ultimate truth, and male and female, etc.

What is meant by method and wisdom?
Method indicates the compassionate activities of the bodhisattva that relieve living beings of their miseries. It is the skillful means that brings about the elimination of ignorance, greed, cruelty, etc. in living beings and causes them to follow the path to enlightenment. Wisdom is the direct insight into ultimate reality; it is the wisdom that realizes emptiness. By combining method and wisdom, the bodhisattva accumulates merit and insight and eventually attains Buddhahood.

What is the symbolism of the Vajra and bell?
Most vajras have five prongs that symbolize the five wisdoms that are attained through the transcendance of five kleshas (greed, anger, delusion, pride and envy). The hub between them signifies emptiness. This one has eight prongs plus the central hub. Vajra is a Sanskrit word, in Tibetan it is called a dorje. It is related to the word for diamond, and appears to be similar to the thunderbolt weapon carried by the Vedic god Indra, and the Olympian Zeus. As a thunderbolt weapon it destroys both internal and external enemies. As a diamond it symbolizes the indestructible and all-penetrating mind of enlightenment.

The sound of the bell calls to mind the empty nature of all things. That is, according to the Buddha, nothing whatsoever can exist independently, all phenomena are empty of true or inherent existence. By being profoundly aware of the empty nature of all things, we become free of attachment and aversion, and are liberated from the painful cycle of birth and death (samsara). The bell is also a musical instrument Its sound, together with other sacred instruments such as the hand-drum (damaru), are played in rituals as musical offerings to the Buddhas and other gods.

How are they used?
The vajra and bell are often seen represented in the hands of deities in art, and in practice are held in the hands of the monks during rituals, the vajra in the right hand, the bell in the left. They are moved in prescribed movements. When the arms are crossed this symbolizes that the two are united—representing enlightenment. The sound of the bell is considered by Tibetan Buddhists as the most beautiful music. This music is presented as one of eight offerings to the deity that is invoked during the ritual.

What are the eight offerings presented in rituals?
When Tibetans Buddhist begin meditation, they will invoke the presence of the deity, bow, and make offerings. For peaceful deities, the offerings are as follows:

  1. pure water for the deity to drink
  2. water for the deity to wash with
  3. scented oil for the deity to be anointed with
  4. flowers
  5. incense
  6. butter lamps
  7. food
  8. music, played on the ghanta (bell) and the damaru, a small two-faced drum with clappers attached by string, played by twisting back and forth in the hand

What is Sino-Tibetan art?
This thunderbolt and bell were cast for the Chinese Emperor Yongle (14031424) as a gift for a distinguished lama of Tibet. The Emperor possibly wished to gain merit for the commission. This and other gifts like it show the relationship between the Tibetan lamas and the emperors of China. Known as the priest-patron relationship, this was one way that ideas and artistic styles spread between China and Tibet. Artists working in China in imperial workshops were ordered to make Tibetan style objects for either the personal use of the emperor or to send to important lamas in Tibet, who were often considered to be their spiritual teachers.

Discussion Points/Teaching Suggestions:
Discuss the concept of origins, e.g. Sino-Tibetan: Have you ever thought about the origins of hip hop music or blue jeans? What about where you came from. Do you or anyone you know identify themselves as Chinese-American or Irish-American or African-American? This bell and thunderbolt may have been made in China, but they are classified as Tibetan objects because the form, style, and use are Tibetan. Museums usually classify objects by place, but object like this complicate matters. There is a comparable situation in Japan, where Korean-style ceramics were made by Korean potters in Japan for Japanese consumers. Which department do you think these objects belong to—their country of manufacture or the country that used them, or should they be hyphenated?

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