3. A Divine Craft
The Tao is like an empty bowl,
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
It harmonizes all lights,
It unites the world into one
Hidden in the deeps,
Yet it seems to exist forever.
not know whose child it is;
It seems to be the common ancestor of
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 man’s 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.
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
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.
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
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 one’s
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