Bell & Dorje in the Vajrayana Tradition

Tibetan Bell and Dorje Tara Mandala

The bell and dorje are used in many Vajrayana practices. The bell, which is held in the left hand, symbolizes the feminine principle and the wisdom of emptiness.  The dorje, or vajra, symbolizes the masculine principle and compassion expressed through skillful means.  The union of these two principles brings about the enlightened mind.

Both the bell and vajra are rich with symbolic meaning.  The entirety of the universe is found in the bell and is considered the mandala of Prajnaparamita, the Great Mother, from which all arises.  The hollow of the bell where the sound arises represents the void from which all phenomena arise.  Together with the clapper, which represents form, the union of form and emptiness is created when the sound issues forth.  Just like phenomena, the sound radiates and outward then dissolves back into emptiness.  The sound is the speech of the Buddha teaching the dharma. 

All the designs of the bell have subtle and profound meanings.  Located on the rim of the bell is the ‘disk of space’ which gives rise to the sound of emptiness.  Encircling the bell is the vajra fence, an indestructible circle of protection denoting that spiritual qualities are the true protection.  The vajra fence has two levels, an upper bordered by pearl or conch rosaries, and a lower with wisdom flames.  The upper ring of pearls represents enlightened consciousness, and the lower ring of wisdom flames represents the five primordial wisdoms.  The loops of jeweled pendants located above decorate the celestial palace and the eight vajras between represent the eight charnal grounds. The eight petals of the lotus represent the Eight Bodhisattvas and the syllables inside the petals represent the Offering Goddesses.  Above this is another double row of pearls and vajras which are the inner walls and protection circle of the mandala.  At the base of the handle are the lotus petals of Prajnaparamita’s throne with pearl rings representing the Six Perfections.  Between the three top and bottom rings is a square or round long-life vase.  Some bells have a finger loop for the ring finger in place of the longevity vase.  Prajnaparamita’s face adorns the top of the bell with five wisdom jewels embodying the Five Wisdom Buddhas; Akshobya, Amitabha, Amoghisiddhi, Vairochana, and Ratnasambhava in her crown.  Her hair is bound representing the binding of all views into the non-dual.  

Always held in the right hand, and never separated from the bell, is the vajra or dorje. The vajra, is also steeped with symbolism and can be found with one, two, three, four, five, six, or nine prongs, with five prongs being the most common.  The five prongs on the vajra represent the Five Buddhas and the Five Buddha Families and their consorts, as well as the Five Perfections of generosity, morality, patience, perseverance, concentration.  Dorje is the Tibetan word for the Sanskrit term vajra.  Do-rje can be translated as noble stone:  Do = stone and rJe = noble or prince.  

The dorje has the indestructible properties of a diamond and the force of a thunderbolt.  At the center of the dorje is a small sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe.  It is sealed by the syllable HUNG representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas.  Outward from the sphere there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature.  The next symbol found are two lotus flowers representing samsara and nirvana.  The sixteen petals on the lotus represent the sixteen modes of emptiness. The upper lotus petals also represent the Eight Bodhisattvas and the eight lower petals, their female consorts.  The outer four prongs symbolize many things: the Four Immeasurables; compassion, love, sympathetic joy and equanimity, The Four Doors of Liberation; emptiness, signlessness, aimlessness, and lack of composition, Victory over the Four Maras; emotional defilements, passion, death, divine pride and lust according to the Sutrayana tradition or the tangible mara, the intangible mara, the mara of exultation, and the mara of conceit in accordance with the Vajrayana Tradition; The Four Activities or karmas; The Four Purified Elements; air, fire, water, earth, and The Four Joys; joy, supreme joy, the joy of cessation and innate joy.  At the end, the tips are shaped like a four-faceted jewel which represent Mount Meru as the center of both the outer world and inner world.  The symmetry of the dorje, with both sides the same, represents the unity of relative and absolute truth.


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