If you practice mediation with a group, more than likely someone there strikes a bell to signal the start and end of each mediation period. I don’t know if there’s any other way people do it, although one time we used an empty wine glass and a fork to signal the start and end because we didn’t have a bell.
In the Soto Zen style, we hit a bell three times to start zazen and once to end it. If we’re doing a couple of periods of zazen in a row, we do a period of slow walking meditation called “kinhin” in between the two zazen periods. Kinhin is done to give everyone a chance to stretch their legs and shake off any sleepiness between zazen periods. If we’re doing a session like that with zazen, kinhin, and then more zazen, we ring the bell like this:
three rings to start zazen
two rings to end zazen and start kinhin
one ring to end kinhin
three rings to start zazen again
one ring to end zazen
Believe it or not, the Soto temples in Japan have a term for each set of rings. The three rings to start zazen is called “shijosho” (止静鐘), the two rings to end zazen and begin kinhin is called “kinhinsho” (経行鐘), the ring to end kinhin is called “chukaisho” (抽解鐘), and the ring to end zazen is called “houzensho” (放禅鐘). I don’t know if there’s an “official” English translation for those terms, but here’s the way I translate them:
In the first one, shijosho (止静鐘), the three rings at the start, the first character “shi” (止), means “stop” or “cease”, the second character “jo” (静) means “silence” or “calm”, and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime”. So it means something like the “stopping silence bell”, or the “stop silence bell”, or maybe even the “cease, silence bell”. When I first saw this one I thought it must be the name for the one ring to end zazen, but actually it’s the one to start. (Maybe it’s a koan?)
The translation for the second one, kinhinsho (経行鐘), the two rings to start kinhin, is easy. The first two characters “kin-hin” (経行) mean, you guessed it, kinhin, and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime”, same as in shijosho. So it means the “kinhin bell” or the “slow walking bell”.
In the third one, chukaisho (抽解鐘), the single ring to end kinhin, the first character “chu” (抽) means “withdraw” or “pull out”, the second character “kai” (解) means “separate” or “solve”, and the third character is “sho” (鐘) which again means “bell” or “chime”. So you can translate “chukaisho” as the “(let’s all) withdraw and separate bell” or even the “withdraw and solve bell”.
Houzensho (放禅鐘), the single ring to end zazen, translates like this: the first character “hou” (放) means “release”, “liberate” or “set free”, the second character “zen” (禅) means “meditation” (bet you knew that), and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime” like before. So you can translate “houzensho” as the “release from meditation bell” or maybe something a bit more poetic like the “liberating mediation bell” (which might make a good name for the bell to start zazen, but let’s not get into that).
I’m not sure how useful this information will ever be, but at least if someone asks you sometime when the stopping silence bell or the liberation meditation bell is, you’ll know what they’re talking about. Just remember which is first.