Four instruments: the Dharma sound for liberation
By Kim Haan-young
``Samul” or Four instruments represent the basic percussion instruments installed in the temple bell pavilion. The main purpose of these instruments is to express the Buddha’s teaching symbolically through sound. They are ‘Beomjong’ (Temple bell), ‘Beopgo’ (Dharma drum), ‘Mokeo’ (Wooden fish) and ‘Unpan’ (Cloud gong).
Each percussion instrument is used for the purpose of liberating all sentient beings in the universe: ‘Beomjong’ is for those living on Earth; ``Beopgo” for those residing in heaven and hell; ``Mokeo’’ for those belonging to the water world, the rivers and seas and ‘Unpan’ for those in the sky.
``Samul-nori” or the Four-instrument ensemble, the most famous Korean traditional musical performance is often said to be derived from this Buddhist paradigm. Samul-nori is comprised of the four Korean percussion instruments, ``buk (big drum), ``janggu” (small drum), ``jing (big gong); and ``ggwaeng-gari” (small gong).
Beomjong (Temple bell)
The character of ``beom” means ``Brahma'' standing for the truth of the cosmos and ``jong”means bell. This bronze bell was originally used for gathering people or telling the time but now is struck at the time of morning and evening services and specific Buddhist ceremonies.
The number of strikes on the temple bell has significantly different meanings. Twenty-eight strokes imply the incessant lineage of Buddhist tradition from Sakyamuni Buddha to the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638-713). Thirty-three tolls signify the Buddhist realms of 33 celestial worlds. 108 times mean that all sentient beings can be relieved from all the earthly delusions, agonies and evil passions numbering 108 by the Buddhist viewpoint.
The Korean temple bell is not only beautiful in its form, but also well known for its magnificent and peaceful sound across all Buddhist countries. The bell shape looks like an upside down urn. The most celebrated and the biggest temple bell in Korea is the Emille Bell weighing about 25 tons made in 771 A.D. during the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) that is now enshrined in the Gyeongju National Museum.
Beopgo (Dharma drum)
The sound of the drum is considered to be an echo of Buddha's teachings and thus to beat the drum means to spread Buddha Dharma as its sound diffuses in the air. At the same time, it is intended to liberate the sentient beings in heaven and hell by its sound. Drum beating usually comes after ringing of the Beomjong. It also tells the time of major meetings and ceremonies to be held in the temple.
Similar in spirit to Japanese Taico drumming, this drum is played with great artistry and energy by the monks of the temple. People can still hear this drum being played in downtown Seoul at Jogye Temple in the early morning and evening, which is extraordinary to hear.
The body of the drum is made of well-dried wood and both surfaces are covered with leather hides of both bull and cow. Using the male and female cattle implies the symbolic of harmonizing the cosmic dual forces, Yin and Yang.
Mokeo (Wooden fish)
Mokeo symbolizes all the creatures living in water, and makes a beautiful sound when struck. At first, it was used to call the monks in the temple but later on its use widened as the signal of temple ceremonies or events along with the temple bell. Two strikes are the signal for mealtime while one long one is used for gathering people.
Beating the Mokeo has the symbolic meaning of liberating all the sentient beings in the marine world. Its figure also has a unique meaning: just as the fish always has eyes open, Buddhists should be awake and alert at all times, expelling drowsiness. Mokeo is alternatively called ‘Eogo’ (Fish drum)’ or ‘Eopan’ (Fish plate).
The Mokeo is considered to be the origin of the ‘Moktak’ (Wood block), a handheld gong used by monks and Buddhist nuns. There are some special types of Mokeo painted in various colors, sometimes holding a magical jewel between the teeth. The most famous Mokeos in Korea are held in Daeheung Temple, Donghwa Temple, Jikji Temple and Ssanggye Temple.
Unpan (Cloud gong)
The Unpan is made of bronze or iron forming a cumulus cloud, and represents all the sentient beings in the sky. It is believed to serve for liberating all airborne creatures while it is also used for indicating the time for meals in the temple.
There are two holes for hanging a plate and the image of Buddha or phrase of sutra is usually inscribed on it. Some lay Buddhists hang it from the ceiling of the kitchen for the purpose of protecting the house from fire. To strike the gong holds the additional meaning that the sound helps the hovering spirits of the dead find the Buddha’s Pure Land for rebirth.