The use of singing bowls goes far back into history. It is said that the first uses of the sounds of metal bowls for the purpose of the transformation of consciousness were by the original followers of the Buddha 2,500 years ago. Before the teachings of the Buddha were brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava in the 700’s the craft of making exquisite objects from precious and semi-precious metals was well established in Tibet. The first practitioners using the sounds from metals in Tibet were the indigenous Bön whose practices permeate modern Tibetan Buddhism and provide some of its distinct flavor.
In old Tibet singing bowls were used in ceremonial practices and as a medium for receiving teachings. Based on accounts of early travelers in Tibet it would appear that monasteries would have hundreds or even thousands of singing bowls that would be brought out for grand ceremonies. Sometimes the singing bowls would be rung in such a way as to sound like a tune or music to the observer, other times not.
Stories about the use of singing bowls in actual practice are virtually non-existent, that is you are hard pressed to find any written teachings using singing bowls. This would indicate that most teaching lineages in Tibet did not have use singing bowls or they were reserved for private transmissions, enpowerments and initiations.
Special Singing Bowls
While many singing bowls served dual purposes some were made for specific practices. Medicine bowls are large flat bottomed bowls that were used by monks to lay out a mandala of herbs for use by the sick. It could take a long time to lay out the mandala and then the bowl would be placed on the body of the person for whom the herbs were meant. Then the bowl would be rung, sometimes only once, to potentate and actualize the medicine and to enhance the person’s receptivity. These bowls are rare and very expensive. One kind of bowl that is still available are lingam bowls. These bowls come with a raised area in the center signifying the male principle. Often these bowls were altar pieces and extremely well-preserved examples hundreds of years old still surface from time to time.
Truly Ancient Singing Bowls
In old Tibet there was a solid tradition of retaining objects and relics for many centuries. Unlike Europe, China and the Middle East Tibet had a long history of relative peace where institutions, monasteries, could accumulate and protect precious objects. Tibet was never subjected to the kind of financial stress that would result in the wholesale melting of precious objects for bullion nor was there a religious reformation that necessitated the destruction of the previous belief system’s touchstones. In 1950 there were likely ancient singing bowls in Tibet, some over a thousand years old, that had been in continuous use in inner and secret practice. What these singing bowls looked like and where they have gone is one of those mysteries that comes to mind sometimes when I hold a really special bowl.