The personal journey behind Best Singing Bowls ~ Ryan Sarnataro
In 1957 when I turned 6, my next door neighbor gave me a collection of well worn silver “Mercury” dimes and thence started my love affair with old metal objects. Looking at a lot of old coins gave me a fine eye for detail and trained me in the importance of small distinctions. By the time I was in my mid teens I was doing numismatic assessments of collections worth thousands of dollars. For this kind of work I needed broad historical knowledge of US coinage and the ability to ascertain state of preservation to objective standards.
The same general skill set, attention to detail, and ability to assess raw materials to objective standards, apply to the search for singing bowls in the Himalayas. In addition there is an interesting parallel between old Himalayan singing bowls today and the pocket change of the 60’s which I explore a bit in the coins and bowls section.
I have been an aficionado of ringing sounds for my whole adult life. There is just something in tones that enchants me and I have spent many a happy hour filling my home with sound. Before I discovered singing bowls I had all kinds of bells including an Arcosanti clay thunker and complete early set of Joe Conniff’s massive triangular welded steel bells. However, once I got turned on to Tibetan singing bowls and meditation sound bowls my standards for sound moved to a whole other level.
Richard Karma Moffet introduced me to Tibetan singing bowls in the early 1980’s. We were neighbors in San Francisco and hung out sometimes. In addition to being an incredible artist and talented musician, Richard worked with Dorje Lama, one of the first Tibetans to come to the West. Dorje Lama opened what was probably the first Tibet shop in the US. My first experience of sampling different Tibetan singing bowls was being around while Richard would unwrap shipments of artifacts carried over the Himalayas by Tibetan refugees in his living room. Karma’s Tibetan Bells album introduced thousands of people to singing bowls and his concerts were (and still are) quite popular. Back in the 80s Karma was always tinkering with his singing bowl arrangement and I started buying bowls that no longer fit in his performance set.
So my first singing bowls, the ones I’ve been ringing for decades, were personally used by Karma Moffett as performance pieces. These are the meditation sound bowls that trained my ear and set my personal standards.
I first went to Tibet in the 90’s. I was amazed to find no antique singing bowls to be found despite spending a month in the country looking and asking. In Nepal, though, I had better luck and was able to find some good old singing bowls in both shops and on the street. It was there I got the opportunity to ring hundreds of singing bowls at a time and pick the one or three I liked.
As a collector I was only buying the ones I needed to round out my set and passed up some great singing bowls. Still I came home with a heavy suitcase and great new sounds for the house.
I didn’t go back to Nepal for a few years and expanded my collection by buying high end singing bowls from different dealers here in the US. Since singing bowls were my hobby and things Tibetan an interest I’d always ring singing bowls in shops or wherever I came across them.
The Changing Marketplace
It was rare I’d come across a really nice singing bowl in a shop but up till a couple of years ago the bowls were always either old ones or obviously newly minted ones. In the last few years I’ve seen prices rise, old singing bowls vanish and better made (but mediocre sounding) “antique finished” new singing bowls being sold as the real thing.
It dawned on me that a window was closing and if I were ever to put together the set of my dreams I’d better go back to the Himalayas with finding the best singing bowls as my primary purpose.
As part of preparation for my trip I sought out knowledgeable individuals and rang Tibetan singing bowls from private collections. I was confident in my ear but wanted to expand my objective knowledge base. I went out to Pennsylvania to spend time with Mitch Nur who is probably the person in the US most deeply steeped in esoteric knowledge about ancient singing bowls.
I’d suggest a visit to his website if you are interested in a perspective on singing bowls from someone who was using them in Nepal in the very early days.
Somewhere in the process of preparation for my journey the idea of developing a small business selling singing bowls unwrapped itself. Friends were saying, “hey get me a couple of singing bowls while you’re there”. Putting up a website did not seem such a daunting task (innocent me!)
Other tasks weren’t so daunting. Shipping and customs would be required, but that was easy since I have lots of import export experience. After all I was planning on buying a lot more than would fit in a suitcase. The ease of the internet as a way of connecting with people I don’t know who’re interested in profound sounds made actually launching a business doable in my spare time.
Properly fortified with knowledge and experience, helped along by the various contacts I’d made over the years in the US and Nepal I headed off to the Himalayas. In Nepal I got an opportunity to see the scene from the ground level. The singing bowl situation on the street in Nepal reflected what I’d seen in the US.
Most singing bowls in the shops and markets were new and the few old ones you’d see didn’t have high quality sound. I got the chance to go to a factory where new meditation sound bowls were being made, good quality ones, but even the best of these lacked the life and sparkle of great old singing bowls.
Like a lot of things in this part of the world, one must go below the surface to find the best. My contacts both old and new and maybe my good karma got me access to treasure troves of old singing bowls.
I’d had the fantastic opportunity to ring thousands of singing bowls culled from tens of thousands and bring back only the best singing bowls. Well I was hooked. Fortunately lots of people appreciated what I had to offer – so year after year it is back to the Himalayas!
My Special Skill – Deep Hearing
One of the most important qualities that sets Best Singing Bowls apart from other sellers of singing bowls is my ability to finely distinguish sound quality. This capacity may be partially genetic as my father, a professional musician, had perfect pitch. My very long history with singing bowls and the extremely high quality of the singing bowls I’ve tuned my ears to are also an important factor. In Nepal I was told by probably the foremost singing bowl master that he had met only one other person who was capable of choosing singing bowls with the degree of sensitivity and accuracy that I have. The singing bowls I present to you have all been selected by me on the ground in the long arc of the Himalayan foothills from the Pakistani border in the West to Nepal in the East. The bowls I decide to bring home to America are culled from the literally tens of thousands of good quality singing bowls I get to play on each buying trip. They reflect both my “great ear”, long experience and taste.
When the idea of making a website for singing bowls was just a faraway dream I thought about what to call my business and came up with the name “profound sounds”. After all – it’s about the sound and the sounds are profound! Well the realities of the internet intruded and that name was unavailable so I went for “Profound Himalayan Sounds”. After some time in the search engine wilderness I realized I needed a somewhat more accessible name, like something with “singing bowl” in it. It was suggested people also search for “the best” – and, after all, I do try to sell the best!
For nostalgia’s sake here is my old website header: It is a photo of my first commercial shipment, bowls all stacked up gently. Front and center is my favorite Manipuri, polished to perfection by Karma Moffett himself back in the early 1980s.