ON ONE of the hills overlooking the blue sky's mirror of Lake Biwa, stands the ancient monastery of Miidera which was founded over 1,200 years ago, by the pious mikado Tenchi.
Near the entrance, on a platform constructed of stoutest timbers, stands a bronze bell five and a half feet high. It has on it none of the superscriptions so commonly found on Japanese bells, and though its surface is covered with scratches it was once as brilliant as a mirror. This old bell, which is visited by thousands of people from all parts of Japan who come to wonder at it, is remarkable for many things.
Over two thousand years ago, say the bonzes, it hung in the temple of Gihon Shoja in India which Buddha built. After his death it got into the possession of the Dragon King of the World under the Sea. When the hero Toda the Archer shot the enemy of the queen of the Under-world, she presented him with many treasures and among them this great bell, which she caused to be landed on the shores of the lake. Toda however was not able to remove it, so he presented it to the monks at Miidera. With great labor it was brought to the hill-top and hung in this belfry where it rung out daily matins and orisons, filling the lake and hill sides with sweet melody.
Now it was one of the rules of the Buddhists that no woman should be allowed to ascend the hill or enter the monastery of Miidera. The bonzes associated females and wicked influences together. Hence the prohibition.
A noted beauty of Kioto hearing of the polished face of the bell, resolved in spite of the law against her sex to ascend the hill to dress her hair and powder her face in the mirror-like surface of the bell.
So selecting an hour when she knew the priests would be too busy at study of the sacred rolls to notice her, she ascended the hill and entered the belfry. Looking into the smooth surface, she saw her own sparkling eyes, her cheeks, flushed rosy with exercise, her dimples playing, and then her whole form reflected as in her own silver mirror, before which she daily sat. Charmed as much by the vastness as the brilliancy of the reflection, she stretched forth her hand, and touching her finger-tips to the bell prayed aloud that she might possess just such a mirror of equal size and brightness.
But the bell was outraged at the impiety of the woman's touch, and the cold metal shrank back, leaving a hollow place, and spoiling the even surface of the bell. From that time forth the bell gradually lost its polish, and became dull and finally dark like other bells.
When Benkei was a monk, he was possessed of a mighty desire to steal this bell and hang it up at Hiyeisan. So one night he went over to Miidera hill and cautiously crept up to the belfry and unhooked it from the great iron link which held it. How to get it down the mountain was now the question.
Should he let it roll down, the monks at Miidera would hear it bumping over the stones. Nor could he carry it in his arms, for it was too big around (16 feet) for him to grasp and hold. He could not put his head in it like a candle in a snuffer, for then he would not be able to see his way down.
So climbing into the belfry he pulled out the cross-beam with the iron link, and hanging on the bell put the beam on his shoulder to carry it in tembimbo style, that is, like a pair of scales.
The next difficulty was to balance it, for he had nothing but his lantern to hang on the other end of the beam to balance the bell. It was a prodigiously hard task to carry his burden the six or seven miles distance to Hiyeisan. It was "trying to balance a bronze bell with a paper lantern."
The work made him puff and blow and sweat until he was as hungry as a badger, but he finally succeeded in hooking it up in the belfry at Hiyeisan.
Then all the fellow priests of Benkei got up, though at night, to welcome him. They admired his bravery and strength and wished to strike the bell at once to show their joy.
"No, I won't lift a hammer or sound a note till you make me some soup. I am terribly hungry," said Benkei, as he sat down on a cross piece of the belfry and wiped his forehead with his cowl.
Then the priests got out the iron soup-pot, five feet in diameter, and kindling a fire made a huge mess of soup and served it to Benkei. The lusty monk sipped bowl after bowl of the steaming nourishment until the pot was empty.
"Now," said he, "you may sound the bell."
Five or six of the young bonzes mounted the platform and seized the rope that held the heavy log suspended from the roof. The manner of striking the bell was to pull back the log several feet, then let go the rope, holding the log after the rebound.
At the first stroke the bell quivered and rolled out a most mournful and solemn sound which as it softened and died away changed into the distinct murmur:
"I want to go back to Miidera, I want to go back to Miidera, I want to go-o back to-o M-i-i-de-ra-ra-a-a-a."
"Naru hodo" said the priests. "What a strange bell. It wants to go back. It is not satisfied with our ringing."
"Ah! I know what is the matter" said the aged abbot. "It must be sprinkled with holy water of Hiyeisan. Then it will be happy with us. Ho! page bring hither the deep sea shell full of sacred water."
So the pure white shell full of the consecrated water was brought, together with the holy man's brush. Dipping it in the water the abbot sprinkled the bell inside and out.
"I dedicate thee, oh bell, to Hiyeisan. Now strike," said he, signalling to the bell-pullers.
Again the young men mounted the platform, drew back the log with a lusty pull and let fly.
"M-m-m-mi-mi-de-de-ra-ra ye-e-e-e-ko-o-o-o-o" "(Miidera ye ko, I want to go back to Miidera)" moaned out the homesick bell.
This so enraged Benkei that he rushed to the rope waved the monks aside and seizing the rope strained every muscle to jerk the beam its entire length afield, and then let fly with force enough to crack the bell. For a moment the dense volume of sound filled the ears of all like a storm, but as the vibrations died away, the bell whined out:
"Miidera-mi-mi-de-de-ra-a-a ye-e-e-ko-o-o-o-o." "I want to go back to Miidera," sobbed the bell.
Whether struck at morning, noon or night the bell said the same words. No matter when, by whom, how hard or how gently it was struck, the bell moaned the one plaint as if crying, "I want to go back to Miidera." "I want to go back to Miidera."
At last Benkei in a rage unhooked the bell, shouldered it beam and all, and set off to take it back. Carrying the bell to the top of Hiyeisan, he set it down, and giving it a kick rolled it down the valley toward Miidera, and left it there. Then the Miidera bonzes hung it up again. Since that time the bell has completely changed its note, until now it is just like other bells in sound and behavior.