The Singing Bowls of Tibet

I first discovered the Bowls in 1971 when I already had a large collection of Eastern bells, bowls, gongs and cymbals. In 1970 I joined the White Eagle Lodge working as a spiritual healer, learning meditation, and in 1973 joining in the brotherhood work. During this time I began to seriously study the spiritual effects of my ancient temple instruments, using my psychic and spiritual gifts which I was born with, coming from a family with several generations of psychics, plus help from my ‘spirit’ friends and my own past-life memories.

          Listening to the singing bowls of Tibet is like taking a ‘sound- massage.’  There are so many disharmonious noises in our modern world compared to which the sublimely harmonious sound of a good singing bowl is as a real tonic! The ancient art of manufacturing one of these singing bowls centres upon creating a sound that resounds for a remarkably long time, with rich overtones which are arranged in such a way that an extremely long-drawn-out oscillation in the note can be heard: the sound swells and ebbs away again softly, like the great rhythm of the ocean, conveying the feeling that it is massaging or washing clean the listener’s soul. There is also the sense of a profound spiritual presence living in this world of ringing harmonic overtones. The very slow dying away of the sound takes the listener out of the actual sound itself to the limit of what is audible, finally awakening us to the inaudible sound within a silence of rare depth that can at the same time be profoundly felt. It is this ability of the bowls to permeate and hang in the ‘air’ with their spiritual vibration, long after their actual sound had ceased, that led to their being called ‘Singing’ bowls. The bowls can also be stroked with a wooden wand conveying the experience of an eternal Om sound gradually emerging from nothing, enfolding and enriching our auric field. Every singing bowl has its own individual personality, which means that it can never really be pressed into an exact conventional musical scale together with other bowls. Being essentially ritual instruments, they were never intended to be used in this way, although sometimes a ‘set’ of bowls were made. Yet another reason lies in their incredible array of overtones, making it difficult to hear a single pitch. However, we can place them in ‘families’; such as sets of Yin ,Yang  or Water bowls etc or we can find a combination of bowls that sound very well together.

When I first heard a Tibetan Singing Bowl in 1971 I knew nothing about them. There was simply the Sound. And what a Sound! Meditating and being with them for many years now, I offer something of what I’ve learnt in the words that follow.

          Strictly speaking the Tibetan Bowls are not bells but they are part of the wider bell family and so share the same traditional sacro-magical significance, as do bells and other metal instruments in ancient folklore.  A search for the earliest development of bells leads us to ancient China. The Chinese have used bells since their remotest civilisation for purposes profane and sacred. Wind-bells were hung from trees, homes and temples. Great and ancient temple bells are found throughout China, Thailand and Japan. Bells had supernatural powers, helped to grow crops, and were greatly prized. As bronze technology progressed, different shapes evolved and the goal of bell-makers became less the volume of the bell than its pitch and tone; its ability to produce a sound sweet, lingering and mysterious.

Their tone was considered the proper sound for affecting the supernatural. The ancient Chinese wrote about the tone qualities of their bells, and ascribed marvellous powers to them based on their theories of the essence of sound as a transcendental power. With their belief that sound was a manifestation of universal essence; they probably used them to help sustain Universal Harmony.

The actual shape of these Bowls closely resembles that of traditional Chinese and Japanese resting bells used in Buddhist temples in these same countries for centuries. It can also be said that such bowls are a kind of flanged Chladni plate. The work of Chladni was further developed around the middle of the 20th century by Hans Jenny in his work, which he called Cymatics. (See article under Articles).

All religions use sound even if only that of the human voice. Bells, conch shells, trumpets, oboes, cymbals and drums are used in the rituals of Hindu and Buddhist temples as a way of expressing the power of God and as an echo of anahata nada. Indian Philosophers speak of the importance of sound – Nada – as one of the controlling forces of the universe. (for more on NADA YOGA see article under Articles). The sound we hear in the material world – ahata nada – or struck sound, which is the product of vibrating objects, is only an echo of an ethereal unstruck sound – anahata nada – which suffuses the universe and charges it with esoteric power. The inaudible Sound is that which is uttered by the great spiritual Teachers and Avatars of the race. It is the Sound produced by the rhythm of the perfect lives embodying the Will of master souls, by Incarnations of the Spiritual Sun.  Most of the instruments used in Indian shrines have a richly resonant or penetrating quality, which calls to mind this unseen power of sound. Such Primal sounds link us to our Primary Nature, to the Essence of our Divine Primordial Nature.

The primeval music of Tibetan Buddhism can be understood only in the context of Tibetan-Buddhist esotericism, for it is intimately bound up with the history of this religion, and not just regarding its sound effects. Not a note of it is rooted in human feelings or in the human dimension at all. Rather it stems from the Shamanic and animistic aspects of the original Bon-religion of the Himalayas a belief that was integrated into the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. The mountainous inaccessibility of Tibet is one reason why the ancient power of this old tradition has been preserved. Here where loneliness and stillness reign as on the highest mountain peaks, where man’s conscious thinking has not covered up all deeper experience of the invisible world, a form of music could develop that is the perfect expression of elemental natural phenomena, and that builds a bridge over into the world of the spirits and the demons. The main deities of the Bonpos were originally those of the sky, the embodiments of space and light, and of infinity and purity.

Being mostly associated with the pre-Buddhist Bon faith, the bowls have more of an association with ‘psychic’ practises common to such shamanistic cultures, and therefore, we could say that the ‘psychic content’ of the bowls is more significant than the earthly sounds which they produce, incredible as these are. Living in a modern age of materialistic thinking, it is possible to simply be fascinated purely by the unique sounds produced by these remarkable bowls and so ignore their capacity for altering our inner psychic nature. The actual act of playing a bowl requires the utmost concentration if we are to avoid unpleasant sounds and if we are to surrender ourselves fully and enter into a state of at-one-ment with the bowl.

Tibetan Buddhism preserved its own characteristic forms of worship and ritual partly based on ancient Indian practises including the use of musical instruments both to call the monks to worship and as an integral part of the ceremony itself. In Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism there are two types of deity – those of the one type being merely the fearful aspects of the others, who are represented as full of goodness and mercy. In any case, the aggressive gods are in no way malicious beings, but rather the protectors of faith against the demons. The ting-shag correspond to the fearful deities. The music of Tibet thus has its spiritual basis in Buddhist cosmology and is concerned with supernatural levels of being.

In Chinese Acupuncture Metal represents the Divine! Peking in China is one of the places where certain of the bowls are known to have been made.

The more common ritual artefacts in Tibetan Buddhism are the Ting-Shag, which are small cymbals, and the Drilbu or Handbell. Ting-Shag come as a pair joined by a piece of leather, to be struck together. The sound of the Ting-shags is like a summons. It also cuts right across our thinking to bring us right into the here and now. Their ‘crystal tone’ seems to call every atom of our being to attention whilst also cleaning our aura. One of their traditional uses is in meditation, marking both the beginning and end. They also serve to bring us back to the centre of our meditation when our mind wanders. Sometimes they’re found as a single meditation cymbal most often with a bone striker attached by a chain. As we listen we can hear the Silence within all Sounds; the Silence of the Universal Presence which sustains our lives. Like sending Out the Light. Radiating throughout Space the Light of Primordial Being. Sending its Love-Rays to all – like the Sun.  But Purifying!

In Tibet itself, knowledge of the bowls is virtually lost. However, they were mostly associated with uses in ritual and ceremonial Magic. They were never intended as ‘musical instruments’ for playing tunes. Rather they were intended as aids for spiritual practises along the Path of Sacred Sound – NADA YOGA, and also with other religious or spiritual practises including healing, exorcism, meditation, trance states, certain Tantric practises, and other Shamanic activities. For this reason, they’re often charged with Spiritual Light. We can almost say that they are – the ‘Sound of Light.’  In fact, some of them do create very specific, pure ‘Colours’ upon the Astral plane.

(for more on NADA YOGA see article under Articles)

          The tones from the bowls balance the chakras, bring the subtle bodies into alignment, and create a balance between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. They can shatter accumulating negative energy within the chakras and the aura. They resonate with every cell in the body to release blockages and restore balance. They restore the circular flow of energy within the aura. The bowls and their unique tones have been used to restore blood pressure, correct asthma and emphysema, and even rebuild adrenal function after failure from steroid intake. They open and balance the meridians of the body and they improve the synapse response in the brain. They have been used with hyperactive children and they can stimulate the immune system.

          There is great care needed when choosing a bowl and also in how we use it! Some Bowls can be charged with very definite psycho-spiritual energies, possessing very powerful forces that, for the uninitiated, can prove difficult to control or use. Whilst it’s said that some lamas do use them, the bowls are generally associated with Bon, the name given to the ensemble of indigenous pre-Buddhist faith in Tibet, which were certainly involved with magical practises. Therefore some bowls will have been used for either black or White magic. The primary difference between these two forms of magic hinges on the single word coercion; where the will of the black magician seeks, for entirely selfish purposes, to dominate the will of another individual.

Therefore, our Fundamental Intention before working with these powerful instruments must be one of selfless service. Adopting the attitude that All beings may receive the beneficial effects of our action. Besides being the safest foundation for the Spiritual Path, or Journey of Initiation, this will also purify and protect us from harmful influences.

Certain bowls, alongside specific ways of using them, channel very powerful healing energies and this is another one of their traditional Shamanic uses. All healers strive to rise above their individual egos and all worldly thoughts in order for the higher healing energies from the Angels of Healing to pass through them to their patient helping to restore the Harmony.

We remember the Buddhist begging bowl where the monk accepts whatever food is offered. The Way of the Bowl requires Acceptance, Openness and complete Surrender to the Sound – becoming ONE with the sound. This is also similar to the Way of Tao. In such emptiness we come to inner silence, maybe even the ‘sound of the void.’

Within the total cycle of the year we find such a period of Silence or STILL NESS when we come to Winter. In the Stillness we hear the ‘Voice of the Silence.’ Through becoming very STILL we come in contact with a deep Inner SILENCE where the Voice of Truth is heard.

          How many sounds or notes can you hear when listening to any one bowl? In other words: Just how silent are you inside? How still are you Emotionally and Physically?  Are your thoughts silent and still? Or are there so many thoughts buzzing around inside your head that you haven’t enough silence to hear all of the sounds inside of the Bowl? Or to hear it’s gentle Voice speaking to you? We can meditate and concentrate upon the sound of the bowl in order to still those busy thoughts or those unsettled feelings.

There are two main types of bowls, which I call YIN & YANG. They actually look very different: – Yin Bowls have the same thickness up their walls to the rim; whilst Yang Bowls have a thick Lip. These represent the Two Great Principles of MALE / FEMALE. There are also 2 ways to play ALL bowls – that is striking them or stroking them. With both Beaters and Wands the general rule is: – the larger the Bowl, the wider the stick! Using different sized wands will also affect the sound of the bowl by bringing out one or other of its overtones. Not all bowls produce the full range of overtones which make Tibetan bowls so unique!.

I began compiling my set of singing bowls in 1971 and have sorted through over 4,500 bowls in order to assemble this unique collection of over 230. So far I have found 101 basic types of Singing Bowls and some 170 supplementary types: For instance: – Yin Bowls, Yang Bowls, Ululation Bowls, Whistling Bowls, Water Bowls, Yoga Bowls, Jump Bowls, Fountain Bowls, Lingam Bowls, Pulse Bowls, and Purification or Cleansing Bowls (that’s to say: space-cleansing or inner psychic cleansing – In Tibetan Tantric healing there are three types of ‘ghosts’; inner, secret, and outer) etc. However, we can say that individual Bowls fall into one of Three basic Categories of Bowls: linking with the three Buddha Bodies – and the three major divisions in Buddhism that of: – Hinayana / Mahayana / Vajrayana-Tantrayana. That’s to say: – Physical bowls – bowls which simply make a nice sound; Psychically charged bowls; and bowls dedicated to specific practices for the higher Tantric path.

The French orientalist and explorer Alexandra David-Neel who travelled for years in Tibet during the early part of this century, wrote in her book: ‘Tibet, Bandits, Priests & Demons.’ about a wonderful experience with sound.

Alexandra had entered a Bonpo monastery of Tesmon when one of her bearers wandered into the temple becoming very abusive. The Bonpo priest made a sound upon a ‘chang’ (a kind of cymbal) and the man ran out terrified, convinced that he was being chased by a ‘snake of fire.’ Even the other bearers saw ‘flashes of light.’ Alexandra spoke with the Bonpo about this and he said that he had cast a zoung (or spell), ‘The sound creates shapes and beings.’ he said.  “I am a ‘master of sound.’  Through sound I can kill what lives and bring back to life what is dead….” The next day, before parting, he said to her: –

“Sound is produced by all beings and all things, even those which appear to have no soul. Every being and thing has its own sound, but this sound changes depending upon the state of the being or thing producing the sound at any particular moment. How does that work? Everything is a collection of atoms which dance and produce sounds by their movements. It is said that in the beginning the wind created the gyatams, the basis of our world, by a spinning movement. This movement of the wind was melodious and it was this kind of sound that combined the form and the matter of the gyatam to form a whole. The first gyatams sang, and from them emerged shapes that, in turn, produced others through the power of the sound that they made. This applies not only to the past but is still true today. Every atom ceaselessly sings its song, constantly creating coarse and fine substances. And just as there are creative sounds, there are also destructive sounds which cause matter to disintegrate. Anyone who can produce both sounds can create and destroy at will. In fact, a doubthob who can produce the basic destructive sound which lies at the root of all destructive sounds, should be able to wipe out this world and all the worlds of the gods, up to the world of the mighty ‘Thirty-three’ of which the Buddhists speak.”

This priest was a ‘White’ Bon.

          Doubthob is a Siddha; someone who possesses supernatural powers.

          The metal which the bowls are made out of is a fusion of 7 metals linking with the 7 Spiritual Rays and with the ‘Music of the Spheres’, the Seven Planetary Rays (Gold, Silver, Mercury, Copper, Iron, Tin and Antimony and some also have meteorite added or in place of the iron). The manner in which the metals are combined is not known, for the originals are all handmade to a specific formula known only to the masters. Regular bells are made of bronze – a mixture of only copper & tin. Some Tibetan bowls are made at certain phases of the Moon, whilst yet others are created under special astrological conditions.

We can also find bowls where one metal predominates. Mostly this is either Gold or Silver. This then links the bowl to the planet of that metal. For instance, Silver would link it with the Moon. Then following the Astrological associations we find that the Moon rules the sign of Cancer; sign of the Mother; the Cardinal Water Sign. Water is used mainly for Cleaning and for Purification. The Moon has always been linked with Ritual and Magic. It’s also symbolic of the Great Mother; the Feminine Principle, whilst the Reflective qualities of the Moon represent the alignment of our ‘Personality Triad’ to the ‘Triad of our Individuality’; symbolically; the Union of the Moon with the Spiritual Sun.

There are markings on some Bowls: even Writing sometimes (for instance, one bowl of mine has written upon it in Tibetan the words: – “On the Surface of Sound”); There is nearly always a Circle inscribed within the centre of the bowl (although almost worn away sometimes); there can also be certain markings on the top of the rim, around the outside, and sometimes within circles in the centre of the bowl, being made with a ‘dot-within-the-circle’ punch – but it is doubtful that these are Tibetan, but more likely Indian. Their number often has significance. Markings on the outside just beneath the rim can also include parallel lines around the bowl; otherwise, a kind of ‘half-moon’ punch is used here, either as diagonal slashes in groupings of irregular numbers, or sometimes they are deliberately shaped to represent Lotus Petals.

The actual Colour of Tibetan Bowls is generally a silvery grey-green or sometimes golden. Their basic shape resembles that of a crescent moon, although the larger sizes generally become more bell-like. Bhutanese Bowls are often mistaken for Tibetan Bowls. These are shaped more like a saucepan, in other words they have a much flatter broad base. However, they are generally far easier to play than Tibetan Bowls. Bhutanese bowls resemble the shape of the Crystal bowls and like them they too can produce a very strong and focused sound.

As regards the cleaning of Bowls: – firstly, we cover the base of the bowl with a washing-up liquid, fill the bowl with boiling hot water and then place a piece of aluminium inside the bowl. Leave this overnight. Then, if necessary, we fill the bowl with a mixture of warm water and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Again leaving overnight. If necessary, as a final resort you can finish off by using brass wadding. With bowls containing a lot of silver, use silver polish or silver dip. For predominantly Gold bowls use jewellers rouge. You may also use fine papers for smoothing down around the rim of the bowl to remove file marks or other rough surfaces. This will then serve to improve the sound of the Bowl when stroking it with a wand. The easiest to get hold of is probably Wet Silicon Carbide Paper beginning with a grade of 220, then 400, then either finish with 600 or go on to 800 if you wish to. If you live in the USA you may find it easier to get hold of Crocus Paper (or Cloth).

A question I’m often asked is how to choose a Bowl. Some people prepare to select a bowl having considered either what kind of pitch they feel comfortable with (deep; medium or high); or how they’re going to use the bowl i.e. to attune a group before working together or perhaps a space-cleansing bowl/purification bowl (between clients if they’re counsellors, for instance); water bowl or ululation bowl if they’re musicians; how simple/complex they’d like the sound to be, how large, or even their price range. In my own case I had recalled several past lifetimes as a Tibetan and in 1971 I had asked my spirit teacher for an instrument to represent these. Just Two years later, a day before my 25th birthday, a yogi from Tibet contacted me saying he’d been asked to pass on an ancient twelfth century Tibetan Meditation cymbal. This was extremely powerful and although I’d been meditating, healing, and on the spiritual Path since 1964 it completely changed both my music and my life! More stories concerning how certain instruments have entered into my life are contained in the article Yoga of Sound.

Now we come to the question of how to hold the Bowls.  If you wish to enjoy the deep note of a bowl then rest it upon the open palm of your hand. Otherwise, hold it as you would a small bowl – upon the tips of your extended fingers. If it is a very small bowl then, again, you can either rest it upon your extended fingers or turning your hand as if to shake the hand of someone and forming a letter ‘O’, with your forefinger curled inside your thumb, rest the base of the bowl upon that circle. Always avoid touching the sides of the bowl. Try to restrict your contact to the base of the bowl only. If it is a water bowl then you will need to hold it in a special way again, whilst the same is true of Jump Bowls. After playing the Bowl of your choice for some minutes (or some other competent person playing it for you) stop it and then study how the sounding of the Bowl has changed you and your Auric energy-field.

          Always stroke the Bowl in a Clockwise direction. In this way we play it for the Benefit of all living beings. Begin by placing the wand on the bowl at the point directly in front of you.

Also, you will find that a different grip on the wand is necessary for some bowls, whilst others may demand a different pressure. A discordant clanging noise happens if you go too fast, apply the wrong pressure, or if you hold the wand too loose. We will always need to use the Co-ordination of both hands. Wands are made from a wide range of different woods, which are either light or heavy or a coarse to fine grain. Each type is suitable for particular Bowls or different effects. Excellent Yang bowls (or Yoga Bowls) produce two distinct tones or pitches. These need a thick stick (for the base tone) made of very dense wood (producing the higher tone). In such instances, finding the right wand, which continues to simultaneously sustain both pitches alongside of each other, can prove very difficult.

Photograph by Esther James 1989

           For some bowls we use different techniques: Ululation is one of these. This is a traditional technique, which involves placing the edge of the bowl against our open mouth. By changing the mouth cavity we alter the pitch of the bowl. It is said that the lama imagines this sound entering and travelling around his body so that when it comes out it is considered somewhat holier. There are two types of bowls (a) which are better struck and (b) those that work better stroked (as illustrated above). Placing a very specific amount of Water inside is another. But not ALL bowls can be used these ways! We should also look at the different beaters: – for large bowls we can use a soft gong mallet; or a hard felt beater, these coming in different sizes can be used right down to the smallest of bowls. In Japan and China leather-covered strikers are used. The other way is to stroke with a wooden wand or with larger bowls we can apply a unique technique using a special leather-covered wand. This brings out the Fundamental of the Bowl. There are also other extended techniques, including Bowing the Bowl.

            And so we come to the question of choosing a wand! The Bowl really does SING once the correct wand has been found. We can use many wands to produce the basic sound of the bowl but only one will produce the special singing sound, which is easily heard. There are two ways to play the Bowls: – We use a BEATER to strike the bowl and a WAND for stroking it. We need total concentration when stroking the bowl, paying attention to the correct rhythm, and this itself is a form of perfect meditation – of becoming ‘at-one’ with the Bowl and its Ancient Sound! Losing all sense of a separate ‘self’ in the wonderful absorbing sound-world of the Tibetan Singing Bowls! The sound itself seems to encircle and enfold us filling our several bodies with Divine Light.

The point of entry for these several bodies comes through the Chakra system. It is interesting that the Throat Chakra is associated with Hearing & Inner Listening. Therefore, simply playing any Bowl will automatically help to unfold our Throat Chakra to some extent. This chakra is associated with our Purification, Creativity, Simplicity, Humility, and also with spiritual Union. In unfolding it we learn to ‘Be Ourselves’ and to play our ‘part’ within the ‘Great Symphony of Life.’ This chakra is also associated with the Fifth Element of Space or Ether; which is found at the very centre of the Tibetan Mandala.

Some bowls are especially designed to help us unfold a specific chakra and so assist us in our spiritual evolution. Because we each follow different spiritual Paths, and are also at different stages, there is in Tibet no rigid system linking simply one tone, colour or whatever to one chakra. It is far subtler than that. BUT NOT ALL BOWLS ARE INTENDED FOR USE WITH CHAKRAS.   

          ONE WAY AHEAD for the spiritualisation of music lies in focusing upon what lives in any one single tone. This is where the unique qualities of the Tibetan Singing Bowls excel. Each Bowl makes one total OM sound making it easy for us to focus our entire attention upon the Soul quality we find in their individual sound-universe; the sense of Presence surfing their sound-waves. We ask ourselves: “What is the Bowl ‘saying’ to us?” We have to learn to follow the sound of the bowl to where it Lives. This is the YIN approach. In Essence all bowls when stroked with a wand, create a kind of Womb of Sound (open, simple, humble, innocent, and trusting) resonating with this child-like quality.

          Resonance is one of the fundamental Laws of Music. ‘Harmonic Resonance’ is one possible translation of ‘Maitreya’ – the name of the coming Buddha. The usual way to demonstrate this Law of resonance uses two tuning forks of the same pitch. We find that when one is struck the other begins to vibrate in sympathetic resonance! This is similar to what takes place within ourselves whilst a bowl is being played. The Bowls is one tuning fork and we become the other! For this reason, when we are unable to resonate in complete sympathy with any one bowl we will experience some form of discomfort whilst listening to that bowl.  

It has been found that most bowls vibrate within the range of 8 to 12 Hertz. This is also the range of what are called Alpha Brain Waves, which is a happy ‘coincidence’ because these are the very frequencies created by people in profound states of meditation or contemplation. It is obvious, therefore, that the bowls are valuable aids for meditation. Meditation takes many forms including concentration, contemplation, and the ancient path of Nada Yoga – the Path of the Inner Sound of which the bowls speak.

© Copyright 1997 by Frank Perry. All rights reserved.


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