We actually know extremely little regarding the Singing Bowls of Tibet. We find nothing concerning these specific instruments in books dealing with the ritual music of Tibet. Although ‘Begging Bowls’ are mentioned as being part of the practitioner’s belongings, these are said to be made of iron or steel. Sacrificial Bowls adorning the Buddhist altars, whilst often possessing a pleasing sound, are likewise of a different shape to the ‘singing bowls.’ From the scores of recordings which have become increasingly available featuring Tibetan Buddhist Ritual Music, we find no recorded appearances or mention of the ‘singing bowls.’ Furthermore, travellers in the Himalayas find few or no answers to their questions concerning the origin, history or the traditional uses of the bowls within the context of spiritual discipline. The questioning of visiting lamas or peoples of Tibet very seldom improves upon this situation.
According toGroves: “The study of Tibetan music is important for several reasons: it establishes Tibetan ritual music as having a major independent Asian musical style; it shows that various genres perpetuate archaic Central Asian features; it enables us to recognise modes of the traditional music of many classes before these become further hybridised or disappear.” First-hand material has become increasingly available since 1959 enabling one to form a reasonable picture of Tibetan music.
As we begin our exploration of this subject let us consider the background of Tibet:
Isolated by high altitudes, a severe climate and formidable mountain ranges, Tibet has developed a very original civilisation and music culture. Its population of about 1.7 million represents a blend of archaic whites and fully evolved mongoloids and goes back to the Central Asian Ch’iang tribes who were herders in the 1st millennium BC. Hence the ancient way of life is one of nomadic pastoralism. Economically Tibet belongs to a belt of cattle-raising cultures, stretching from Central Asia through Arabia into Africa. Agriculture is also found in the valleys of the south and southeast.
In the prehistoric age the religion of Tibet was Shamanism of the northern and Central Asian type. From this, in primitive times, developed Bon (the native religion), forms of which survive today. Tibet became a dominant military power in Central Asia in the 8th century during the first historical period, which was that of the early kings (7th – 10th century). From northern India it gradually adopted Mahayana Buddhism intermixed with Tantrism. During the rule of king Srong-btsan-sgam-po (c627-49 – Srongtsen Gampo) the Indian Gupta alphabet was adapted to Tibetan (a Tibeto-Burman language). This made possible the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, primarily through translation from Indian sources during the 7th to 13th centuries. The indigenous religion, however, remained strong. The Middle Ages saw a reworking of Indian Tantric Buddhism, which, blended with Bon, created highly syncretistic forms. An essentially independent Tibetan culture was created, based on a feudal theocracy, and its arts acquired distinctive forms and styles.
Tibet is not confined culturally and musically to modern political Tibet. The broader area of ethnic Tibet also includes to the east, parts of the Chinese provinces of Szechwuan, Kansu and Yunnan; to the west, the now Indian regions of Ladakh, Lahul and Spiti; to the south, Bhutan, Sikkim, parts of northern Nepal, the Sherpa and Tamang regions of eastern Nepal and the extreme north-west of Assam.
Music is very important in the lives of all Tibetan peoples and has been stressed alike in religion, education and entertainment as well as in everyday life. The monks make music for the Buddha and their divinities; the minstrels delight and instruct their patrons; the people sing to lighten their work and enrich their leisure. Such different contexts have created different musical forms. In most of them dance is a close partner of music, as is also drama in ritual and in education.
There are still many Bon-po (adherents of Bon), especially in the east of Tibet. Bon is usually considered as the ensemble of pre-Buddhist beliefs of the Tibetans and it embodies a vast mass of ritual practices bearing on exorcism, divination and the appeasement of wrathful divinities as well as elaborate teachings guiding the individual to full spiritual realisation. That places Bon among the great mystico-philosophical systems of the world, despite the relatively small number of its adherents.
The Bonpos do not recognise the authority of the Buddha Sakyamuni, the historical figure who lived two and a half thousand years ago and to whom we owe the teachings of Buddhism. They trace the source of their doctrine to Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, who for them is the real “Buddha”, the enlightened one.
Shenrab visited Tibet at a time when the Tibetans practised ritual sacrifices. Shenrab quelled the local demons and imparted instructions on the performance of rituals using offering cakes in the shapes of the sacrificial animals that led to Tibetans abandoning animal sacrifices. On the whole, he found the land unprepared to receive the five Ways ‘of the fruit’ of the higher Bon teachings, so he taught the four Ways ‘of cause.’ In these practices the emphasis is on reinforcing relationships with the guardian spirits and the natural environment, exorcising demons, and eliminating negativities. He also taught practices of purification by fumigation and lustral sprinkling and introduced prayer flags as a way of reinforcing fortune and positive energy.
He came from a country to the west of Tibet called Tazig (sTag-gzig) – a place identified with the ancient Persian Empire – and brought Bon to Zhang – zhung, a region which comprised the north-west of Tibet and the area of Mount Kailas. From there the doctrine of Bon was introduced to Tibet and the sacred texts were translated from the language of Zhang-zhung into Tibetan.
The oldest Bonpo historical documents date from the X and X1 centuries and the oral tradition goes back to an earlier age but in the X1V century a reformation took place that brought Bon closer to the general lines of Tibetan Buddhism so that its monastic forms have been largely assimilated by Tantric Buddhism, though there are also many practices suggestive of the Shamanism of Central and northern Asia and of the music of their hunting societies.
Bon share with Buddhism some fundamental doctrinal tenets such as the concepts of “impermanence” and of the “empty nature” of the phenomenal world as well as the idea of the existence of a transcendental state, “enlightenment”, to be attained through meditational experience, ritual practices and scholastic study. Bon has also borrowed many features from Buddhism, for example, of its ‘nine ways’ of realisation, the seventh is ‘the way of pure sound.’
Nevertheless, they conserve a strong sense of independence and it may be their insistence in maintaining a clearly separate identity while accepting new influences without rejecting old traditions that has allowed them to build a syncretic religion.
A very important category of ritual comprises the propitiation of various divinities, protectors of the Bon doctrine. These divinities were usually old mountain gods or forces of nature that have been symbolically subdued and put to the service of religion. Often the origin of such a type of chant is rooted in legend and refers to visitations had by a venerated figure of the lineage of transmissions of the religious teachings. Kailas rises in the Ngari region of Western Tibet, one of the highest, loneliest and most desolate places on the planet. Except for a few small bands of nomadic herders the empty plains are crossed only by the wind. Ordinary standards would judge it a bleak, barren wasteland, but, like much of Tibet, the region seems to rise above common judgement. What is barren elsewhere becomes luminous here.
Confronted with such space and silence man feels superfluous, out of place. The land dominates him, he does not control it, and in its immensity he senses the presence of larger, unseen forces. Ancient Tibetans knew their country was inhabited by invisible legions of gods, demons and spirits. They ruled earth, air and water, guarded mountain passes and river fords, dwelt in the hearth of every home and the ridgepole of every tent.
Towering above all these were the mountain gods, the centres of Tibet’s ancient folk religion. A holy peak was a mighty lord: it embodied a region’s ‘soul’ and protected those dwelling in its shadow. Tibet’s first king was said to have descended from heaven onto a mountaintop in response to the prayers of the people; and when their reign was over it was from a mountaintop that the early kings returned into the sky, following a silver cord linking earth and heaven.
From these beliefs the Shamanistic religion known as Bon developed in the remote Shang-Shung kingdom of Western Tibet. The soul-mountain of Shang-Shung was an ice-capped pyramid called Kang Tise – later known in the West by its Hindi name, Kailas. Another title was Yungdruk Gu Tseg, the ‘Nine-Storey Swastika Mountain.’ To Bonpo, as to Hindus, the swastika was an ancient symbol of power.
Dzogchen is common to both Bon and Nyingmapa Buddhism and these two spiritual traditions also have in common a ninefold division of their Ways or modes of religious observance. Dzogchen literally means ‘perfection,’ ‘accomplishment,’ or ‘fulfilment’ (rdzogs) that is ‘complete’ or ‘great’ (chen). Although Dzogchen is the ‘single great sphere,’ for convenience it is described as having the three aspects of base, path and fruit: ‘base’ because the ground of Dzogchen is the primordial state of the individual; ‘path’ because Dzogchen is the supreme direct and immediate path to realisation; ‘fruit’ because Dzogchen is the consummation of enlightenment, liberation from the cycle of illusory samsaric transmigration in one single lifetime.
Whereas, as well as practises of Buddhist origin, the nine Ways of the Bonpos comprehend the entire compass of indigenous Tibetan customs and religious beliefs and practices, including medical science, astrology and cosmology, sortilege and prediction, appeasement and exorcism of powerful evil spirits and ghosts, rites for prosperity and tantric rites of destruction of enemies, ransom and guidance of the dead, moral discipline for lay and monastic practitioners, Tantric practices and rites, hagiography, and the highest spiritual path of Dzogchen. In this respect Bon may be said to be the true religion of Tibet, embracing both autochthonous and imported religious observances.
Nowadays the Bon seek to restore ceremonial practices almost forgotten in their country. They intend to make better known the musical aspects of a ritual tradition that has remained largely unknown to the western world and ignored by the Tibetans themselves. A tradition, which nevertheless is representative of the native elements of Tibetan religion.
In ritual music, both instrumental music and chanting are employed. In the course of its long history Bon appears to have used flutes and trumpets made of human thighbones. However, the phyed-rnga (single-headed drum) and the gshang (‘flat bell’ – with rim turned inwards; separate beater (horn); used in both Bon and Buddhist religions)); both traditionally of Tibetan origin, have become chief instruments. When the Bon priest plays his drum he is thought of, according to the old legends, as mounted upon a flying steed, especially a horse or deer, the domesticated animals of earth (which are considered the middle level of the Bon universe). The steed carries the priest into the heavens or highest level (i.e. brings him religious ecstasy), where he may communicate with the heavenly spirits (eagle or sun-bird, and dragon or thunder-bird).
The Buddhist liturgy. Buddhism in Tibet is a form of Mahayana, syncretised through an early blend with Tantrism in India and with Bon in Tibet. Its monastic system, with Tibetan everywhere the liturgical language, has existed not only throughout the whole region of ethnic Tibet, but also in Mongolia, Buryat Siberia, the Caucasus, Manchuria, and parts of China and Turkistan (Sinkiang). In this religion, music, both vocal and instrumental, has always been an important way to spiritual enlightenment; it prepares the mind to receive truth, which alone can take man beyond wrong knowledge and the consequent sufferings of life, and, ultimately, beyond the inevitable circle of death and rebirth which these are said to entail. The music at once reflects the formless transcendent truth and the transitory world of forms considered indivisible from it. It exists on many levels, helpful alike to meditation, devotional communication, and the cultivation of special insights and powers.
The music of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery alternates between the loud orchestra with its complex texture and the soft, restrained, unison chanting, creating the sense of passing from time to the timeless, from melody to sounds-in-one, from sound to silence. It is the tonal expression for going beyond the world of names and forms to the Formless, which Buddhists hold to be the nature of the ultimate reality.
Tibetan Buddhism condenses all the modes of human experience into its ceremonials and meditative imagery. The visual arts embrace the visual realm, music and sonic implements the sound realm. The medium of sound is the air, which we know most intimately as our personal breath by which we live and utter, and through which we intuit frequencies of vibration. Chanting, trumpet and flute-like playing, drumming and bells all focus sound; and the shapes of musical performance focus varied patterns of sound. The aim is to experience the Whole via sonic unity, identified in Kashmiri doctrines transmitted to Tibet as Nadabindu, sound-seed, or Spandu, primal vibration.
Ornate trumpets are formed from conch shells commonly used in ceremonies the world over, and ancient Indian emblems for the Primal Sound. Tibetan vocal chanting and the sound of massive metal trumpets match their deep resonant roar. Tibetans experience the power of the wind directly and harness its energy as sound in a variety of ways. Trumpets are one. The smaller have a strident sound. The huge copper and brass conical ones give a deep, shuddering roar audible for miles. Trumpets are used to call on and warn the spirits of ceremonials. Monastic chanting is done in a deep vocal register to reach the spiritual foundations of the world. The double – skull drum, another old Indian emblem of cosmic vibration, is played by a rotary flipping movement that makes its tethered bead strike alternately each of the skins. Its two sides symbolise the dual nature of reality: the conventional reality and the ultimate. The Bell with a vajra handle, yet another symbol of the Primal Sound, can also be used as a sonic focus for meditation by rubbing its rim gently and continuously with a stick, so producing a sustained, small ringing hum. The bell represents both the doctrine beyond hearing, and emptiness, the vajra the compassionate means to benefit others.
From their lofty and magical homeland Tibetan Singing Bowls have travelled across the Himalayas, through valleys, and along ancient trade routes. Brought back to the West by jet-age travellers these mysterious objects have aroused interest and curiosity about their origin, and their traditional usage. Their story, however, like the mysterious Himalayas, has lain hidden, obscured by clouds.
The Tibetan hand bell, or Drilbu, is basically of one design and is recognised anywhere, whereas the Singing Bowls have a greater diversity of shapes and forms. Variations in their design produce different sounds and combinations of these various designs produce yet further variances. Yet other Bowls may bear similar appearances in form and yet produce different acoustical phenomena. It is possible to identify 45 such basic differences in Bowl designs with a further 23 varieties of Bowls possessing other significant psycho-acoustical features. That’s at least 68 types of Singing Bowl compared to one type of Tibetan (Hand) Bell.
Due to the Communist Chinese military occupation of Tibet in the 1950’s, and the subsequent, almost total, destruction of its monasteries, the esoteric knowledge of the Tibetan singing bowls has all but disappeared. And although it has been more than 25 years since Tibetan singing bowls and their incredible sounds were first introduced to the Western world, little has been written about them.
Many people have deliberately travelled through the Himalayas in an endeavour to discover something about the bowls only to return no wiser than when they left. Randall “Rain” Gray travelled and lived in the Himalayan region for 10 years spending over 8 years before finding any single individual, either monk or lay-person, who could tell him anything at all concerning these instruments. He then turned to his Tibetan brother-in-law, Lama Lobsang Molam, and asked him for his help.
Lama Lobsang Molam a Tibetan monk born in Lhassa, Tibet, was at that time living at a small monastery in Swyambunath, Kathmandu, Nepal. He assured Rain Gray that he would try his best to find someone who could provide him with some information. After several months of enquiries he arrived at Gray’s door one morning with exciting news. He had found an old monk who had the information which Gray had been searching for. That monk was Lama Thupten Lobsang Leche who was around 70 years old at the time of Gray’s interview in October 1986. Lama Thupten Lobsang Leche came from Drepung Losel Ling Monastery, the largest Gompa (Monastery) in Tibet having moved from Nepal to Tibet before 1959. Drepung is one of the four great monasteries of the Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was said to have housed over 40,000 monks.
Here is an extract from his accounts given in his booklet TIBETAN SINGING BOWLS: A Historical Perspective.
Lama Lobsang Leche: “Fifth Dalai Lama he built it in Drepung, his first palace is in Drepung Monastery. So that singing bowl lives behind this palace, we call Kungar Awa, his throne, like a ‘singing bowl House, you know.'”
Lama Lobsang Molam: “Someone says, one older than him, (a) monk, he said ‘This singing bowl comes from India side and before this previous Buddha’, we call Sange Wasong, ‘is for begging bowl this is.’ That time this singing bowl is used for begging bowl of that previous Buddha.”
According to the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, there have been many Buddhas in the past, and many more to come in the future. The next coming Buddha is known as “Maitreya”. It is interesting to note that one translation of the name Maitreya is “harmonic resonance”!
(footnote: Randall Grey)
LLM: “Yea. So, he said that that bowl is in Drepung Monastery, Tibet. July fifteenth time many Tibetans visit that singing bowl, also whole Drepung Monastery, all people coming, visiting and offering. . .”
R.G.: “Three of these relic singing bowls?”
LLL: “Yea, relics. One is (in) Drepung Monastery, one (in) Narthang. Narthang is big printing place.”
R.G.: “Where their publishing and printing the books, the sutras. Kanjur?”
LLL,: “West side of Tibet. One is Sakya (Monastery). Also they have one conch, big conch, comes from natural earth, you know, naturally. So they say if their listening that singing, or that sound, if who is hearing this sound never goes to Narak (hell). Because of this. . . “
R.G.: “Then on hearing this sound, what will it do to these people? They get some experience?”
LLL: “Yea, they have a lot of…each people they will get in each different sound. Also some very high being lamas coming to listen this singing bowl, and really they, sound is giving teaching, you know, about broadness and emptiness, many different (teachings)…Four Noble Truth teachings. Each they wanted to have that teaching gives by…” . . . .
LLM: “…energy, goes to this sound. Goes to singing bowl, or drum, and is giving sound. And all gods, and higher beings, all the disciples can hear this giving teaching on this sound, meditation on this sound. So there, each different beings have different teachings by this sound. Yea, sometimes Buddha’s don’t give (teachings) by speech from mouth, you know, from heart, all energy goes to that singing things are giving sound. So those sounds are also Buddha’s action or Buddha’s energy giving teaching. Sometimes Buddha’s don’t act by physical body, but he’s giving energy.”
R.G.: “Transmission through other means.”
LLM: “Transmission to other beings.”
R.G.: “Now the Karmapa, while he was alive, heard a group of Westerners playing these singing bowls, they played for him. And the Karmapa himself, he said that this sound of the singing bowl is the sound of the Void. What do you think he meant by that?”
LLM: “Most people they don’t know, just their listening for sound. Someone who has emptiness, meditation, samadi, definitely they get teaching from those singing bowls.”
Before the interview, Lama Leche stated that he had seen over four thousand monks playing Tibetan singing bowls during a religious ceremony at Drepung Monastery. He also said that when he was a child the monks had a set of seven singing bowls that were considered very rare, valuable, and difficult to replace (i.e. no longer made).
You can read the entire article on Rain’s own site: – Bodhisattva
It is understood that the bowls were made at Derge on the far eastern border with China and also at Megu Kutsa. They had two factories there, one is in Jang and one is in Hor. Those made at Hor have very many beating marks. The technique for making them was lost a long time ago. According to Tibetan sources, singing bowls are reputed to be made of an alloy consisting of (depending upon who one is talking to) five, seven, or nine different metals. Legends state that one of these metals is meteorite iron. It has been hypothesised that this use of meteorite iron may be one of the reasons why Tibetan bowls have such amazing sounds. Also, as the meteorites found in Tibet have travelled through a thinner layer of oxygen, there may have been less burn-up of the meteorite iron. Hence the meteorites found there may have a quality different than other meteorites found at lower altitudes in other parts of the world.
However, given that so much is lost concerning these instruments all that we can now do is to sit peacefully and allow our intuitive feelings and our Higher Self to unfold the Divine Truth of the Void (the Buddhist conception of the ultimate nature of reality. Refers specifically to the lack of an inherently existent self in all phenomena and beings) whilst listening to this unique and ancient sound world of the singing bowls of Tibet.
For instance, the conch produces a very loud sound and is only used for Dharma; calling monks or for making puja and for this reason the sound of the conch is called Dharmachakra. (Dharmachakra means the Wheel of the Law).
Speaking to me over the ‘phone in around 1982, an old friend of mine, the Tibetologist Dr Alain Presencer, informed me that “the spiritual adviser to H.H. the Dalai Lama researched the singing bowls and supplied the following information: – The bowls have been found to be linked with ‘Fire Worship.’ They are very old and come from a very early period of Tibetan History. They were kept in lamaseries. They would worship the tones but didn’t know what they were for. They seem to have originated from a very remote sect close to Bon – a primitive and animistic sect dedicated to Fire and Fire worship believed to be related or otherwise connected to the indigenous peoples of Nepal called the Newars. They were then used in meditation and also for astral travelling. The sound was experienced as moving from the bowl right around the world and then returning back into the bowl. Meditation with this, if possible, meant that one could likewise travel around the world. The bowls came across the silk route into Tibet and were then used for food and begging. Some Tibetans got into the sounds.”
In a letter from author John Blofeld in December of 1968 to another friend of mine, Mr Hector Benson, who owns four Tibetan Bowls, it is stated that “Metal objects of high quality were made for the Lhassa people in Nepal, in Derge (a place in the Tibetan part of China proper) and, above all, Peking. It seems clear enough that the bowl really came from Tibet, although China and Japan are the place where musical bowls are commonly used in rites. It follows that the bowl (of a kind not usually used in Tibetan rites) could perhaps be a Chinese one sent to Tibet with a lot of specially designed Tibetan-style objects. I have a very cheap Bangkok made Chinese-style brass musical bowl which produces several notes and several kinds of vibrations according to how and where it is struck. I should say that most of them, even the cheap, ordinary ones, do produce an effect that is conducive to entering certain holy states of mind – that is what they are for.”
In a letter from Tom Dummer of ‘Urgyenpa Chos Ling’ to Ralph White, a friend of mine, we find: – “Lama Yeshe Dorje from Dharamsala is a Ngag-pa, otherwise known as a tantric yogi. I asked him about the “singing-bowls” and their significance in Tibetan Buddhism. He was rather inclined to dismiss the importance of them saying that yes, people do have them, but he had come across them very little even when he was in Tibet. Moreover, he thought they were rather of Chinese origin, rather than purely Tibetan…….. he obviously thought that the music of the “singing-bowls” was not integral to our spiritual practice.”
I, myself, have received several ancient very sacred Tibetan ritual instruments directly from Tibet demonstrating their familiarity with these powerful tools of transformation and magical ritual. For instance, to give just 2 examples: a twelfth century Meditation Cymbal passed on by a visiting yogi from Tibet; yet another was an extremely rare and very old Talking Bowl from the Tibetan Master Dilgo Kyenste Rinpoche.
Finally, the question as to whether or not these bowls were originally singing bowls can be answered by the story of Joska Soos, a Hungarian shaman friend of mine whom I had the joy of meeting in the early 1980’s, whose experience seems to prove that they are, in fact, the originals. In the early 1980’s he went to a lama monastery in England for an extended retreat. The lamas he met listened to him, studied his horoscope, and advised him that he should become involved with sound if he wished to accelerate his spiritual development.
‘They took me to a small room and there were the bowls. I listened to them. Afterwards they presented me with some bowls. I did not have to go on retreat. I merely had to intensify my path, immersing myself in the sounds. I did this very attentively, without forcing myself. Slowly it came to me, the whole universe opened up. Amongst the lamas themselves, these bowls are only used in secret rituals by those who are acknowledged masters in sound. They have learned to sing the ritual songs and play the ritual instruments correctly. They use the singing bowls in secret and only for themselves, not in public, and not even for the other monks. It is strictly forbidden to talk about the rituals or the singing bowls themselves. This is because a knowledge of sound carries with it great power. It allows one to travel without moving. It is possible to come into contact with planets and their spirits, with the subterranean kingdom of Agartha and with Shambhala, the earthly centre of the Immortals. If you ask a lama with a singing bowl in his hands, whether or not it is true that they are used for psychic, psychological and physical purposes, he will smile and reply; ‘Perhaps.'”
In Asia, the use of sounding objects is very old. For example, the Chinese Emperors had the right to the most beautiful ‘ringing stones’ – hard stones, such as jade, which produces a ringing sound when they are struck. The first great Emperors reigned from about 221 BC. There are records of a Bronze Age culture in China around 2,205 BC. Such finds show only that bronze articles were made that long ago, but until even older objects are found, it is impossible to say how much further back in history bronze was being worked. It is clear that by the 6th century BC the Chinese were far advanced in the manufacture of metal alloys and in the working of metals, from which they made perfectly tuned bells. It is difficult to say how many of these bells were made before that time, but certainly a bell-like object was excavated in 1983 from 2,000 B.C. at Taosi (Shanxi). This allows some 600 years of development to pass before the creation of the astonishing set of 65 bells of Marquis Yi. To produce a tuned bell that weighs more than one hundred pounds, also a bell that can produce two different pure tones, depending on where it is struck, demonstrates acoustical knowledge superior to ours today. The study of sound and the effects of vibrations was so advanced that in the 5th century BC so called ‘fountain bowls’ were made from that time. These are bronze bowls with very specific shapes and dimensions. When such a bowl is filled with the correct amount of water, and the handles attached to the two sides of the bowl are rubbed in a special way with the palm of the hands, a fountain of water rises up, and a humming sound is produced. Inscribed upon the inside bottom of the bowl are often four fishes and their mouths are open and from these four points four small fountains of water arise eventually forming a fountain which experts can raise to a metre high! There is also a certain rare type of Tibetan singing bowl designed to create similar effects and these are called ‘Fountain Bowls’ or sometimes referred to as ‘Star Bowls’ (because of the ‘star-shapes’ which form upon the surface of the water as it is struck in a special way).
The singing sound of various metal alloys has been extensively used in the many different gongs found in Asia. The discovery that metal objects produce sounds was made all over the world, and certainly small, metal, skull-shaped bowls were known around 1,100 BC.
In the mid-1980’s I met my Shamanic friend Ngakpa Chogyam who then owned three Tibetan singing bowls, which he had received from one of his Tibetan ‘Root Teachers’ of the White Lineage of Ngakpas, who had used them in connection with healing. This would seem to indicate that the bowls also appear in such little known Lineages within Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Let us explore this possibility: –
The Direct Path flourished in Tibet among the hermits, wandering chodpas, and among nomadic encampments of Practitioners in isolated valleys and in the mountain caves where Naljorpas, like Milarepa, spent years in isolation. There are many astonishing lineages, little known outside Tibet, and one such is the Ngakpa Tradition. Many people think of Tibet in terms of monks and nuns in their monasteries, but there were other Practitioners who lived in different ways. The Ngakpa Lineage is a house-holding Lineage and although some Ngakpas lived in isolation or as wanderers, many were family men and women who lived in nomadic encampments or in small communities among ordinary people. The word Ngakpa means: ‘Awareness-Spell Person’, but it could also be translated more colloquially as Sorcerer, Magician, Witch or Wizard; but these words can have disturbing connotations to some of us. Maybe the terms ‘Tantric Shaman’ or ‘Shamanic Lama’ come closest to the meaning. A Shaman is someone who works among people, who helps them with their problems as a healer, counsellor, exorcist, advisor, teacher and spiritual guide.
The Ngakpas, unlike the monks and nuns, have uncut hair symbolising “Transformation” rather than “Renunciation.” “Renunciation” is symbolised by shaving the head. The Sutric Path deals with Renunciation at an external level and strict rules of behaviour are adhered to in order to govern Internal Evolution. The Tantric Path deals with the Transformation of our Energies – there is nothing to be renounced, every aspect of our Being is dynamically linked to our Enlightened Nature, and can be Transformed. Tantra sees all situations as workable: our anger, fear – whatever, are all means of Realisation. If we focus on the sensation (rather than the conceptual scaffolding) of our emotions as the subject of our meditation – we Realise the Empty Nature of the Energy of our emotion and find ourselves free from distorted constraints. Anger becomes Clarity, arrogance becomes Equanimity/ Equality, grasping becomes Compassion, paranoia becomes Self-Accomplishing Activity, and wilful stupidity becomes All-Encompassing Intelligence.
This Ancient Tradition has had many realised Women and is free of the heavy-handed Patriarchal Teacher-pupil relationships that characterise some of the other, more authoritarian male-dominated paths with their rejection of the Earth and our Bodily Being in the World. The Mother Essence-Lineage of Kuntazangmo (The Limitless Space of Being) is not a rejection of where we are, but a full acceptance of the Self-Liberated Nature of Everything just as it is. We are not trying to escape from the Vibrant Earthiness of our World as if it exemplified our ‘unenlightened condition’, but to realise the Interrelatedness of Everything. This is obviously an approach of any time and any place, a Path of Integration. We can both be in the World and of the World, – but Totally in it and of it at Every Instant: Enlightened Mind is divisionless.
The Zen of Tibet is the Heritage of the 80 Ch’an Masters who were a dynamic strand in the Early Spread of Buddhism in Tibet. We have used the word ‘Zen’ because it has virtually become a word that everyone understands in one way or another. Everyone knows that it has something to do with Spontaneity – with a vigorous humour that pushes your nose hard against the Brilliant Reality of what you are. We probably all know that Zen specialises in ridiculing the bureaucratic stuffiness of the logical mind – it’s the breath of fresh air that comes with Being Here and Now. Ch’an is the Chinese word, from which Zen is derived, but in Tibet they have their own word for it, but we shan’t be worrying about that, it’s a word only a Tibetan Buddhist historian would know. We are more interested in communication and in presenting a View that has some Real Meaning than in getting too involved in academic niceties: we’ll stick to Zen, the word we all know.
Only the Ancient (Nyingmapa) School has maintained this Tradition as it is expressed in its emphasis on Shi-ne meditation (silent sitting). Shi-ne is however, basic to all Schools of Buddhism and indeed to all systems of Personal Evolution or Awareness – development. The Cherokee Indians call it ‘listening’ and the Japanese call it ‘Za-Zen’, but whatever it’s called, it’s about stilling our continual internal dialogue – the mental gossip that gets between us and Direct Perception of anything.
‘Unlearning’ the habit of compulsive attachment to thought and standing ‘logic on its head’ doesn’t mean that there’s no place for intelligent reasoning in our lives. It means that the reach and range of ‘reasoning-mind’ is quite small – although it’s capable of astonishing feats, it cannot give us access to all the answers. There are unimaginable vistas of Experience beyond the reasoning-mind that must be Experienced Directly or missed completely.
The Clarity that Spontaneously arises from the Discovery of Space within our Practice of Shi-ne shows that loosening our attachment to the thought process enables us to Experience thought itself more intimately because we have more Space in which to See thought – we See it in its Authentic Spatial context and appreciate its real Qualities. We become Transparent to ourselves and our motivation becomes simpler – more appropriate – a Natural Compassion arises that doesn’t need to be forced or fabricated. We get a Real Taste of Freedom.
A famous explanation that originates from the Zen tradition of Tibet is that: ‘It doesn’t matter whether we’re attached to black clouds or white clouds – they both block out the sun!’ To put it another way: it doesn’t matter whether we’re attached to ‘bad’ thoughts or ‘good’ thoughts – they both obscure the Natural Brilliance of Mind. Words such as these are of course anathema to the confirmed moralists of conventionalist religious hierarchies who have always had the right-wing tendency to see human beings as innately bad and in need of rules, morals and laws. The non-hierarchic View is that the only internal rule is Awareness and the only external rule is Kindness. This is the main reason why Paths such as this, and such as the Dzogchen System have never been mainstream. Such Paths are intrinsically Anarchic, taking the individual to be basically Good, Whole or Complete – having their intrinsic Enlightenment within them – from Beginninglessness. Such paths nurture the Freedom and Responsibility of individuals and so are incredibly adaptable.
16/11/1996. Slight re-write of Glasgow T/S 25/4/01
© Copyright 1996 by Frank Perry. All rights reserved.
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