The Tibetan singing bowl originated in the pre-Buddhist, shamanic Bon Po culture of the Himalayas - often called "Tibetan" singing bowls, they are actually made in Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Tibet. They are ‘resting bells' and, as such, part of the Bell family, which culture seems to date back to a Bronze Age in China some 4,000 years ago, which, at its peak, extended geographically as far as Burma and Indochina. However, Chinese and Japanese resting bells are made in a very different manner.
Some sources state that the tibetan singing bowls are made from the seven sacred metals, corresponding to the sacred seven planets: gold (Sun), silver (moon), mercury (Mercury), copper (Venus), iron (Mars), tin (Jupiter), antimony (Saturn), yet others that a selection from a total of nine metals was used (the seven plus nickel and zinc) and yet another comprising twelve metals. Legend goes on to say that the iron was sometimes replaced by meteorite found on Himalayan mountaintops, metal from the heavens, or that meteorite was added also.
Unlike some of the other more familiar Tibetan sound-producing devices, whose use is well documented in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, there is absolutely nothing written about the tibetan singing bowls, even though they have been found in both monasteries and private homes. The sound resonating from these tibetan singing bowls is pure and very powerful in centring the mind and body. The Tibetans, when questioned about the use of the bowls, are vague, saying that the bowls are simply vessels for food – as indeed they have
mostly become. However, I do find it hard to imagine that a bowl made of 7 metals including gold and silver, which can vibrate up to seven individual and simultaneous tones, each at its own consistent frequency, and can sustain such a rich vibration for literally minutes, was intended simply as a container for grain. And, again, certain bowls are designed with a very thick ‘lip' (or rim), and this would be totally unnecessary were it intended simply for containing food, but is very significant for the sound qualities that it produces! Some accounts actually state that it is forbidden, even within the monasteries, to talk about the bowls and that the highest lamas used them in secret rituals to travel to other dimensions and other realms. The legends say further that the secrets of sound yield so much power that they must be kept hidden. It is also true that this path of sound (Nada Yoga) is not for everyone, including monks.
Whatever their original intended purpose, it is a happy coincidence for us that many of them resonate with certain altered brain states. It has been found that among the wave patterns of different tibetan singing bowls there is a measurable wave pattern that is equivalent to the alpha waves and/or theta waves produced by the brain. In such altered states we can become less aware of our physical body; have ‘visual' experiences; experience ‘travelling' to other dimensions; and even commune with E.T.'s or spirit guides. These tibetan bowls instil a sense of very deep relaxation and the experience of "inner space opening up". Whilst even the act of listening to the sound of a singing bowl stops one's internal dialogue, making the bowls an excellent tool for meditation, centring, and inducing shamanic trance states. The actual act of playing a tibrtan singing bowl is a meditation in itself. Whilst playing bowls we can rise up into communion with the divine realm through entering into the mystical world of the muse of sound. Suitable tibeten singing bowls are used by sound healers to tone and balance the various energy bodies.
However, there is also a huge range of tibetan singing bowls – I have discovered 45 types so far. These consist of changes in their shape and construction producing a variety of different (psycho)-acoustic effects.
The very first, primary division places bowls into one of two families – Yin or Yang. Nonetheless, both ‘families' of bowls can be played both ways: the yang and the yin way – although each type produces its own very distinctive sound.
It must also be said that the bowls fall into three categories regarding their sonic qualities. Amongst the highest category, certain ancient bowls are truly sacred and attuned to very specific energies, or they are otherwise designed to embody quite definite psycho-acoustic properties. However, not everyone is able to divine such subtle aspects.
And the tibetan singing bowls can even be used to make music, albeit music of a quite different ethic than our Western ears have grown accustomed to. The singing bowls' multi-tonal properties, rich overtones, their refusal to be contained within a musical ‘scale,' and otherworldly sound challenge our very conceptions of music whilst also providing us with an opportunity to simply Play and thereby enter into the world of the Child of the Heart.
There are two basic ways of playing a tibetan singing bowl: you can either strike it with a mallet (there are a variety of these) for percussive, pulsating tones; or you can rub around the edge with a wooden ‘wand' for a sustained effect (in a way similar to that of rubbing a finger around the edge of a wine glass). With both mallets and ‘wands' the basic ‘rule-of-thumb' is that the larger the bowl - then the larger the wand/mallet.
Resting the tibetan singing bowl upon the palm of your hand will usually enable you to appreciate the experience to a greater depth than placing the bowl on a pad or sandbag on a tabletop when using the mallet. Using the wand, we mostly find that, by just resting the tibetan singing bowl in the palm of the hand, the lower sounds will be accentuated, while dampening the bowl by bringing your fingers up lightly around the bowl will decrease the lower sounds and accentuate the higher frequencies, however, too high up and the sound disappears!
The pressure that you use to apply the wand onto the rim of the tibetan singing bowl will affect the sounds the bowl produces, as also will the speed with which you rotate the wand. It's also true that the wood from which the wand is made makes a tremendous difference to the sound produced by the bowl. Too much or too little pressure, or the wrong speed, will cause a nasty ‘rattling' sound that most people dislike - and a common complaint from novitiates.