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Singing Bowls, a Guide to Healing through Sound

3. A Divine Craft

The Tao is like an empty bowl,
Which in being used can never be filled up.
Fathomless, it seems to be the origin of all things.
It blunts all sharp edges,
It unties all tangles,
It harmonizes all lights,
It unites the world into one whole.
Hidden in the deeps,
Yet it seems to exist forever.
I do not know whose child it is;
It seems to be the common ancestor of all,
The father of all things.

Lao Tzu, in the TaoTeh Ching


When metals were first discovered in the veins of the earth primitive man made them into tools. The ancients felt a deep connection with metals and the earth that led to the creation of charms, ornaments, and vessels to be used in rituals and celebrations. To them certain metals had correspondences with man's inner organs, a tradition kept alive by Chinese medicine. These metals affect not only the body, they also influence manís consciousness, soul and spirit.
Bells have been made in almost every culture in history. The most ancient Chinese bells are more than 3000 years old. The art of designing and casting bells reached its peak in ancient China during the western Zou (1122-771 B.C.) and eastern Zou (770-249 B.C.) dynasties. It is likely the art of making singing bowls paralleled bell making since they are similar musical instruments. Tibetan monks and lamas also make and use classically shaped hand bells, and would have had an interest in the technology of their casting as well.
Bell metal has always been bronze, a fusion of copper and tin in various proportions. Pure copper or any other elementary metal by itself does not produce good tonal quality. Often a small amount of lead, zinc, or even iron is present in order to produce particular sound qualities. The composition of the alloy and its state of hardness varies according to properties desired for the bell. Copper is hardened by tin, making the bell both rigid and capable of giving and springing back, all essential to ringing. Bells of brass (copper and zinc) have a poor sound because they lack the strength of bronze.
Almost nothing is known about the craft of making singing bowls during the time before the Chinese invaders destroyed the Tibetan monasteries and temples. Lama Lobsang Molam said the secret of making the singing bowls was lost a "very long time ago". At the same time others say they are still being made in India and Nepal. Although some importers and shopkeepers are purposely vague about how or where they have bought their singing bowls, some clearly state that old, antique bowls are no longer available. Joska Soos was told by the lamas in London that singing bowls were made at four Tibetan monasteries. According to lama Lobsang Molam the Jang and Hor monasteries near the Chinese border produced especially good quality bowls.
There is evidence that new bowls are being produced in Nepal and India. Some are hammered, others are machine made, while a combination of both methods also occurs. The thicker, yellowish, polished singing bowls are made in the eastern Indian state of Manipur, a well known center of handicrafts and metallurgy. The darker looking singing bowls are made all over Nepal, largely produced by Tibetan refugees in small family workshops. The largest production of singing bowls is across the river from Kathmandu in Pathan, the metallurgy capital of Nepal, where the tradition of making of metal ware, coins and metal art dates back 1500-2000 years.
The basic process is not complicated. After it is mixed, the molten alloy is poured onto a flat stone and left to cool as a round metal plate. This plate is beaten with hammer blows into the bowl shape. Each bowl is different from any other, as the precise amounts of metals, their relative proportions, the thickness of the plate, the size of resulting bowl, and the hammering itself all vary in the process of its making. Therefore no two bowls have exactly the same combination of sounds. Two bowls may at first sound similar, but each actually has a unique combination of the fundamental tone plus partials.
Most singing bowls have a typical bowl shape. Some have straight high walls, others are more saucer shaped. There are rare and unusual bowls with a short, thick, solid metal stem attached to the bottom, to hold the bowl. Joska Soos has one of these with an almost completely flat bottom. Occasionally a cast bowl will turn up. The sound lacks the richness and complexity of hammered bowls. Some of these are possibly made of brass alone, judging from the poor sound quality. The metal of a true singing bowl is under tension due to the hammering process. Do not be fooled by the superficially nice sound of a cast bowl, it can never match up to the real thing.
According to tradition, singing bowls are made of seven metals. In reality not all bowls have all seven. In accordance with the seven visible planets the seven metals are: lead for Saturn, tin for Jupiter, iron for Mars, copper for Venus, mercury for Mercury, silver for the Moon, and gold for the Sun. According to Joska Soos, a little piece of meteorite is added to the alloy to make a connection with the cosmos since as it travels through the cosmos it gathers its vibrations.
The seven metals correspond to the seven planets and the inner energies of man. In esoteric teachings, in both the East and the West, the seven visible planets are perceived as outer symbols of higher forces working within our solar system and on Earth. As a sacred number seven is the manifestation of creative principles. It is 3 plus 4, spirit and matter, the Trinity in relation the world made up of the four elements. As sacred instruments, with the seven traditional metals used in their making, singing bowls are made with the intention of creating harmony and resonance with the inner aspects as manifested by the organs in man, and the outer aspects as expressed through the planets.
As the organs of our solar system the planets and their cyclic rhythms influence the physical organs of man and his psyche. Mercury induces the rhythm of mundane thoughts and communication. Venus stimulates love. Mars activates desires and passions, while Jupiter brings feelings of devotion. Saturn is the Lord of higher thoughts and the crystallization of consciousness. The Sun both synthesizes and is the source of inner light. The Moon reflects this light and elicits emotions. A separate eighth aspect is often mentioned in esoteric teachings. In alchemy it is antimony, the eighth metal. The eighth spiritual sphere of the Gnostics is the Ogdoad, above and separate from the seven lower spheres which pertain to the seven planets. The Ogdoad refers to a divine realm where man is in unity with the cosmos. The addition of meteorite in the singing bowls is significant as it provides this very link with the cosmos.
Joska Soos explains that each metal has seven sound vibrations. A singing bowl made of seven metals then has forty nine different sounds. Trying to distinguish them helps to expand one's consciousness. Even though some bowls are not made with seven metals, it is still a valuable and rewarding experience to listen to all the different sounds. According to who you ask the number of metals used is five, seven, nine or even twelve, and meteorite is not always mentioned.
Some people believe singing bowls were made for no other reason than eating. The seven or even five metals could not possibly make an appetizing or healthy food container and are not necessary to make a functional cooking pot. Singing bowls often have thinner bases than walls. This gives a good sound, but would be a disadvantage in cooking, leading to burnt food on the bottom. If singing bowls were made and used only for eating, they would be handled a lot, increasing the risk of breakage. It is better to use a cheap clay pot or wooden bowl for oneís dinner. If it breaks it can easily be replaced. Singing bowls can and do crack and break if dropped or struck too hard because the hammered metal is under tension.
From the limited knowledge we have about singing bowls we do know they were considered to be sacred instruments and used as such. As with all sacred and ritual tools, working with singing bowls is working with a flow of energy expressed as life energy, healing energy, or spiritual energy. The Tibetan lamas told Joska Soos that certain bowls had been filled for some time with the bones of dead lamas to transfer the high energy of spiritually evolved lamas into the bowls. These charged up bowls would then be much more powerful when played. Lama Lobsang Molam tells of a sacred singing bowl from India which is believed to have been used by the third Buddha, Wasong. It has become a sacred religious relic and is housed in Kungar Awa, a special building behind Drepung monastery in the capital Lhasa. On July 15th Tibetans visit and make offerings to this bowl. If a person with negative karma rubs it with a stick, it gives either a bad sound or no sound at all. A person with positive karma will produce a strong and pleasant sound.
Some surprising results emerged when I had my singing bowls dowsed with a pendulum by a psychic. No information was given beforehand, in order to not influence him. He dated the bowls I had purchased from Joska Soos (who bought them from the Tibetan monks in London) correctly as having been made before 1950. Of these the oldest dated 1869; the others dated from 1925, 1936, 1940. A small bowl purchased during a shamanic workshop (see next chapter) dates from 1937. All the others came from commercial importers who bought them in Nepal and India, and were dowsed to date after 1970. This supports the theory that most of the singing bowls available in shops are recently made. On occasion an old bowl may show up in a shipment, but most of the more recent bowls are made in Nepal by Buddhists and non-Buddhists for the sole purpose of selling them. In my dowsing session an exception to this was one supposedly made by Buddhist monks in 1977 for the altar of their temple. It has seven metals. Of the four older bowls the oldest one (1869) was not made by Buddhists, but by Bons for magic and healing, to be used in combination with a dorje, and in secret. The number of metals in each bowl varied widely, with only three bowls actually containing the full seven metals. The rest had two to five metals, and none of them appeared to contain meteorite.

copyright 2001 by Dirk Gillabel