O N one of the hills overlooking the blue sky's mirror of Lake Biwa, stands the ancient monastery of Miidera which was founded over twelve hundred 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 writing so commonly found on Japanese bells, and though its surface is covered with scratches it was once as brilliant as a mirror. This wonderful old bell is visited by thousands of people from all parts of Japan who come to wonder at it, for it has a great story to tell.
Over two thousand years ago, say the priests, it hung in a temple in India which Buddha himself built. After his death it got into the possession of the Dragon King, who gave it to the hero, Toda. He however was not able to remove it, so he presented it to the monks at Miidera. With great labor it was brought to the hilltop and hung in this belfry where it rang out every morning and evening, filling the lake and hillsides with sweet melody. Its surface was as smooth and shiny as a looking-glass.
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 foolish priests believed that if a woman should enter the door, an evil spirit, also, would slip in at the same time. This was why they made such a severe rule.
But this only made a pretty woman in Kioto want to see it the more. Hearing of the polished face of the bell, this famous beauty resolved to ascend the hill to dress her hair and powder her face in the mirror-like surface. She chose an hour when she knew the priests would be too busy at study of the sacred books to notice her, then 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 largeness 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 big Benkei was a monk, belonging to another monastery, he was possessed of a mighty desire to steal this bell. So one night he went over to Miidera hill, cautiously crept up to the belfry and unhooked the bell from the great iron link which held it. How to get the heavy thing 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 being sixteen feet round, it was too big for him to grasp and hold despite his own huge strength. 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 like a pair of scales.
The next difficulty was to balance it, for he had nothing but his paper lantern to hang on the other end of the beam to balance the bell. It was a prodigiously hard task to carry his burden six or seven miles. It was "trying to balance a bronze bell with a paper lantern," for Benkei's feat has passed into a proverb.
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 his own monastery.
Then all his fellow priests 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.
So 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 priests mounted the platform and seized the rope that held a 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 wood 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 ba-a-ck to-o M-i-i-de-ra-ra-a-a-a!"
"Just listen to that!" 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. 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 our service. Now strike," said he, signaling to the bell-pullers.
Again the young men mounted the platform, drew back the log with a lusty pull and let fly.
"Miidera! 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! I want to go back to M-ii-de-ra!"
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 the mountain, he set it down, and giving it a kick rolled it down the valley toward Miidera, and left it there. Then the Miidera priests found it and 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.