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9ways

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Singing Bowls - Separating Truth from Myth


“We have come to an age where it is very hard to know which is truth
and which is deceit”  - Bangambiki Habyarimana

When we survey the sound instruments used in today’s Sound Therapy practices or sacred sound programs no one instrument has overwhelming myth associated with them as the Himalayan Singing Bowls. What I am primarily focused on here, is what are they ‘actually’. Sure, many of us in the Sound Therapy community have experienced them with profound awareness. They have become a very popular instrument in the therapeutic art of Sound for many.

My journey into the world of Singing Bowls began in 1973 long before the term ‘sound healing’ became popular, and probably before many of you reading this were born. At that time, there was only about a half a dozen westerners involved with Singing Bowls, the most notable being Frank Perry of the UK. But I do not want to leave out the contributions in the early years of Nancy Hennings, Henry Wolff, Karma Moffatt, and Dr. Alain Presenser in bringing awareness about them.

I have now spent over 4 decades exploring them, including living in Nepal and running field studies on the ground in the Himalayas. I know or have at least met, nearly everyone involved in the ‘trade’ of Singing Bowls in Nepal, and some in India as well. The range of this exploration includes hundreds of interviews with the monastic community, watching them being made, witnessing healing rituals using them by shamans and Bönpo medical Lamas, surveying collections both Eastern and Western, and more. I think it would be ‘fair’ to say I’ve done some true work in this area.

With all do respect to everyone involved, from people playing them, selling them, using them in a Sound Therapy practice, teaching about them, etc. I want to offer some of my thoughts on what they are, and are not, from my research. They are not made from a sacred 7 planetary alloy which proliferates the internet and some books. This information seems to have arisen originally out of a treatise written by Olympiodorus an Egyptian, written in Greek. Who by the way, never traveled to the Himalayas that we know of, nor does he mention ‘anything’ about Tibet or Asia at all in his writings. The 7 metals (as well as the 7 flowers, the 7 perfumes, etc) is something tossed about in Mid-eastern alchemy circles (and appears in other European alchemy writings), also unrelated to Asia, that has become part of the ’story’. One only needs to reference ‘De Re Metallica’ by Georgius Agricola (1556AD) to understand how this information proliferated early thoughts regarding planetary/metal relationships in the West. Singing Bowls are bronze, 98-99% bronze with up to 14 trace elements making up that other 1-2%. I know this from numerous metallurgical analysis’s and from watching them add the raw material to the ‘ghuli pot’ in the Himalayas firsthand. The process that is used today is more refined than say a few hundred years ago. Copper and Tin were in a unrefined form (containing many trace minerals) in the past, and the Himalayas contain at least 3 forms of Copper, in which one is far more resonant than the others. It is known among academics that have studied this, and is confirmed in at least 2 Tibetan texts, that drinking cups, plates, and cooking pots made from a metal alloy similar to what a Singing Bowl is made of, has certain medical properties and ‘metaphysical potential.’ I remember a short interview I conducted with Ter Ellingson, PhD professor of Music, Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion and South Asian Studies at the University of Washington over twenty years ago. He was conducting field research in Nepal at around the same time I was in the early 1970’s. He recalls seeing Singing Bowls being used in the early beer (chang) stalls in Kathmandu, but never for anything else. I remember thinking that the esteemed professor sees them as an interesting beer stein. But there are hundreds of different types and styles of them, used by the Himalayan cultures even today. I’ve seen them being used in medicine, astrology, divination, and in rare cases within the dZogchen school for meditation. Many of the uses you see for them in the West, is simply western in design and not eastern at all. My research suggests that they originated around the Himalayas, and quite possibly in the Zagros Mountains (a theory I am now exploring). Evidence suggests that the metal-smiths of the northern Kunlun mountains (Kham) could have been involved in the early production as well. Keep in mind that 3 things are very important in their production outside of expertise - raw material. You need access to Copper, Tin, and wood to make charcoal for the furnace. Just for the record, Tibet has very little Tin reserves. The Tibetan Bönpo scholar Samten G. Karmay in conversation with me, agrees that the bowls did not originate in Tibet, and most likely in around Assam. Near Assam, to the east and north, was a Kingdom known as Jang. In early historical texts this area was known as the Land of Women, and in Scythian history, they once battled an entire army composed of women in armor. So we know that there was an advanced metal culture in this area of the world. But the primary area for Singing Bowls is Nepal (India is second) and the surrounding Himalayan area historically.

I want to point out, that the culture of the Singing Bowls stretches from Afghanistan to Burma primarily, but Vietnam has a type of Singing Bowl, and small groups of metal making communities exist in Ladakh, Kashmir, the Kushan Valley in Iran for example. Bowls similar to the Singing Bowl exist in China, Korea, and Japan, and Singing Bowls have been unearthed in archaeological digs in Cambodia and Vietnam. Today when you visit Nepal, they are everywhere and everyone claims to be involved in some way with them, even monasteries are selling them and claiming some form of connection to them. You visit UNESCO cultural sites and find ‘experts’ claiming that they are from a singing bowl lineage or they were trained in Tibet. This is all just nonsense, a selling tactic in a very poor country, it’s just business. But finding authentic sources (which do exist) versus dubious sources (overwhelming) in Nepal can be quite challenging for newcomers.

The ’stories’ about Singing Bowls are too numerous to count, with ‘possibly’ maybe 1% having some semblance of truth to it. The authentic stories as well as the ‘folktales’ are far more interesting and entertaining than a lot of the fiction that permeates the web, including the pseudoscience. Westerners are the most guilty, but the Nepalese do nothing to refute these fictional accounts because they have families to feed. In the early 1970’s I visited over 100 monasteries in Nepal (living for a time at 3,867 meters at a Nyingma Gompa near Mt. Everest) and found no Singing Bowls, there was not one shop selling them in Kathmandu at that time, today there’s probably 1,000 shops selling them throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Over the past decade, economic issues in Nepal has made it difficult to import raw material’s, henceforth the majority of Singing Bowls found in the Nepalese marketplace today, are made in India and brought to Nepal.

This is a subject that I could talk about for days, and there are so many aspects to them that are of great interest to the Sound Therapy community. But this nonsense about them being Tibetan, or made of some secret alloy of 7 planets, monks chanting as they are made, or each hammer mark represents 108 recited mantras; whale bowls, dolphin bowls, moon bowls, lotus bowls, water bowls, void bowls, mani bowls,  etc., is purely western in design (to sell them or explain them, the Nepalese have now adopted these words) stretching from the pretentious to falsification to deception. You can either be part of this information cycle or not. But I really believe that people want to be more focused on truth than myth.

In summary, a Singing Bowl is made from Bronze, and is technically a bell because there is ‘less’ internal movement in the metal in the middle, rather than the edge (exception is Feng Gongs); so in theory they are a standing bell. Singing bowls however, find a general use as a resting Gong in Temples throughout Asia. They did not solely originate in Tibet, and evidence suggests very few were actually made in Tibet; so a Tibetan Singing Bowl only denotes a name, and not a country of origination. Their use as a sound therapy tool originated in the West, which has been adopted in the Himalayan regions in order to sell them to uninformed buyers. Did the Himalayan region use them for other purposes than tableware? Research and personal observation in numerous field studies in Nepal conducted over 4 decades, found many uses in the areas of divination, astrology, medicine rituals and application, ceremonies by shamans, Nagpa priests, and a small number of Lamas within the Bön and Nyingma traditions. They were not made in monasteries by monks or Lamas, but by metal-smiths in the ‘blacksmith’ castes of the Himalayas. Inscriptions found on Singing Bowls, are not mantras, but generally a family name in most cases. Are they useful in Sound Therapy, yes in many cases and more so by people trained, and educated in Music or Sound Therapy.

The only book that I will recommend on this subject is Himalayan Sound Revelations by Frank Perry

For additional reference see: page 240 in Dreamworld Tibet: Western Illusions by Martin Brauen
For additional insight refer to: Tibet Chic: Myth, Marketing, Spirituality and Politics in Musical Representations of Tibet in the United States by Darinda Congdon

© 2016 Mitch Nur, PhD
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RichG

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Reply with quote  #2 
Hi Mitch, thanks for the article!

To clarify one point:
Bronze, and I'm guessing the bronze used to make these bowls, is approximately 77-78% copper and 22-23% tin, correct?

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Craig S

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Reply with quote  #3 
A wonderful and informative article Mitch! You could of course extend the subject further and go into the snobbery that is often attached by some singing bowl collectors and sound workers.....the "mine's older than yours" scenario seems to be a common one. Ultimately of course one must always remember that when choosing a bowl for sound work it is one's sympathetic resonance to its unique sound that denotes whether it is good bowl, not it's looks or the perpetuated mythology behind it. Many thanks Mitch.
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Gongtopia

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Reply with quote  #4 
But, but, I have a bowl that is from Atlantis and was used by the high priests. The guy who sold it to me guaranteed that in writing! [rolleyes]
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9ways

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Rich: Basically in that ratio of copper and tin, yes.
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9ways

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Craig and Michael: There has been a bit of snobbery regarding these instruments over the years, and it's because not everyone has a bowl from the High Priests of Atlantis.I think we could place some blame for the snobbery on the resellers and human nature itself. For years the resellers kept the mystery story alive and the Nepalese did nothing contradict it because it was good for business in a very poor land. So in some sense, permission was given to say anything and everything.
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RichG

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Reply with quote  #7 

Hi Mitch,
In the article you said:
"Research and personal observation in numerous field studies in Nepal conducted over 4 decades,
found many uses in the areas of divination, astrology, medicine rituals and application, ceremonies by shamans,...."

Would it be a stretch to consider "medicine rituals and application, ceremonies by shamans" as using them in
a form of sound healing/therapy? Particularly the "medicine application"?

And regarding the ceremonies by shamans, were they used by the shamans as a 'sound portal' to altered states
of consciousness, or in other words as a vehicle to enter alpha and theta states?


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BenjaminSavage

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Is it correct to say that when one enters a non-ordinary state that that is an alpha or theta brain-wave state? I do not have enough of an understanding of the science of brainwaves to know that all the modalities of consciousness shifts are brain-wave related or even limited to the brain. I theorize from my own experience that there are  other parts of our person that may be responsible for consciousness shifts, such as the heart organ, and other cells and glands in the body, not to mention the invisible and indescribable parts of our persons, and the seeming infinitude of tethers and forces that work with and through each individual..

Is there more going on then just wave changes in the brain? Do we even have answers for this? Is it important to pin down a Newtonian compartmentalized answer? Why so?

In Western culture we seem to be fixated largely on the goo in our skulls, and forget the rest of our body, and being, and if all things are integrated at a certain level, can we really give a truthful response that slices off the rest of the system?

When one enters into a state of consciousness where one can see visions, go to other realities that are more real feeling than this reality, get downloads of information, communicate with entities, see geometric structures that underlie reality, connect with "the one" consciousness, meld with voids, lose sense of ego, place, time, etc... Are these just a brain-wave state shift?

I consistently have clients, and even a large number of first-time-gong-meditators, that have these sorts of experiences in the presence of the gong's vibrations. Some people have no meditative experience, no new age, indigenous science (Shamanic), or Eastern spiritual tradition information, experience or conditioning or context to relate from, Yet they still can "travel". They, of course, want some context and explanation for these revelatory experiences, and I wonder how responsible it is to give them certain terminology such as brain-wave states as a singular context.

I think it is important to not spread misinformation. And I want to make sure that the information I personally spread is as truthful as possible. I have close friends that are scientists, and they impress upon me the importance in their field of only spreading information that is provable truth (as far as science knows at that moment) and defining that as such, and also clarifying that things may be theories or guesses, or real, but yet undefined or tested in science...

Please illuminate me on all that you know on this matter.

© 2016 Benjamin Savage
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RichG

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Reply with quote  #9 

Benjamin,

At the moment, it's a bit beyond my time constraints to illuminate you on ALL that I know on this matter!  [cool] [wink]

However, I will say that yes, absolutely there is a lot more going on than simply "changing brain wave states", and that the heart has much to contribute (read Stephen Harrod Buhner's books), as well as other aspects of our system etc.... and the great vast infinitude of being etc... but for efficacy and efficiency of my question I believe it was sufficient to word it as I did.

A more focused, clearer, deeper, calmer, 'tuned in' attention is associated with alpha waves in the brain. The 'waking dream state' and/or the 'shamanic visionary state' are closely associated with theta waves in the brain. I don't take this as a reductionist 'scientific' view that simply changing the wave state creates the visions, insights, new awarenesses etc...however there is an apparent direct relationship there. To view what I said as indicating such a reductionist perspective would be your own interpretation and not what I meant. Nor am I particularly overly occupied with the 'goo in our skulls' as the only significant center of cognitive existence - but it is a significant piece of the whole picture, certainly as an information processing center.

It is my experience and belief that when I (we) enter into shamanic visionary states of consciousness through sound and music, where theta waves expand or predominate, that we are then in a state where we are able to tune in to information and awareness that is not local to space or time - i.e., not just "all in our heads". Kind of akin to a radio receiver tuning into radio signals originating from distances near and far. The brain wave states are indicative of the realms we might be tuning into, but are not the sum and total and creator of what we may find or experience in those realms. (And I say "might be" because, like a radio receiver, we can adjust it to the KHz range or the MHz etc, but still miss the actual station signals!)

It should be noted also that we always have beta, alpha, theta and delta waves going on in our brains. When we associate with one of these states, those particular waves are seen to increase or predominate but it is my understanding that never does it become exclusively only one range of brainwave activity (except maybe under some sort of extreme conditions?).


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RichG

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Reply with quote  #10 
PS - Also worth noting that adept shamans are capable of being in heightened alpha and theta states while also engaged in "beta world" activity. Accomplished meditators can also have increased alpha while simultaneously engaged in beta activity. I'm pretty sure I am capable of both, though I've never been hooked up to the machinery to prove it. However, don't try to carry on a conversation with me when I am in those states!

(I also don't wish to veer too far off topic, sorry, Mitch!)

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BenjaminSavage

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Reply with quote  #11 
Thank you Rich Goodhart for elaborating!

(I was not intending to imply that you personally were going for a scientific reductionist approach, nor that you personally are solely fixated on the "goo in our skulls," just speaking of some of the perspectives I encounter with the public at large.)

© 2016 Benjamin Savage
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Reply with quote  #12 
Good article, Mitch. What earns Frank's book the sole endorsement? Reading it now... Getting a lot of Hmms...
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Interesting article here. Joseph and I have discussed this earlier, and I got the impression that he is a serious guy about this stuff. He has other interesting info and opinions on his website.

http://www.himalayanbowls.com/singing-bowls-information/?p=58

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Reply with quote  #14 
Well said, thank you for this article. I think sometimes the myth helps people to come to sound healing that wouldn't ordinarily think about it but some debunking is good. a lot of people are getting robbed with fake bowls.
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Reply with quote  #15 
Great article Mitch, keep them coming please.

In my own short experience with the bowls, beyond what they are made of and where they originate from, I have heard many different stories within the singing and striking of the bowls themselves. To know the truth in a bowl I would recommend that we do not only look outside the bowl but also look inside the bowl beyond it's physical characteristics and it mythical association. I always tell my students at the end of class to go home and experience the teachings on their own, I instruct them not to believe or accept a word I say, but instead take the practice into their own private sacred space and bring it alive themselves.

My first bowl was purchased from a Tibetan refugee living outside the Namdroling Monastery in South India. This humble little man told me of the magic powers within the small little (Indian) bowl. Before that day I had never heard the sound of a singing bowl before. As I stood there alone with this shop clerk, on my last day in a foreign land of chaos and mystery, something shifted in my consciousness and I entered into a heightened state of perception. The colors became brighter, the sounds became sharper... well you know how these stories go. When I arrived home I decided to begin teaching Yoga so that I could share the sound of this bowl with others. I had practiced Yoga for 15 years up to this point with no intention to be a teacher but I figured it would be the easiest way to introduce my little bowl to the public. Needless to say it was a hit and as time went on I learned about bowls and listened to different types from all over and before I knew it my little bowl didn't sound so good anymore. In my mission to find that perfect bowl with the perfect sound I had accumulated a collection of 50 bowls over the next 5 years. Big ones, small ones, high ones, low ones, machine made, handmade, and even some made of crystal. My sense of hearing increased in sensitivity so much than at one point nothing sounded good, nothing sounded right. Nothing made me feel the way that little bowl from India being played by the Tibetan old man made me feel. And so I sold all my bowls to start over and figure out what happened.  And just recently it hit me, it wasn't the bowl, it wasn't the origin of the bowl or the metals used in the bowl. It was all timing and karma. My age, my emotional state, my intention for purchasing the bowl, and my good luck all factored into the healing effect that this little bowl had on me at that exact time.

My education on the science and history of the bowls is what changed the sound of that bowl. My ego and the thoughts that I accepted as truth have created the friction in between the sound of the bowls and my mind. Now I am working on clearing out that "stuff" and getting back to the open minded innocent listener I was when this all started. I am grateful for all the science and the myth busting but I personally see more potential for healing in the west through the fairy tales and myths. Now that I know the truth I can never teach that the bowls are made of the 7 planetary metals, I can never call them Tibetan singing bowls, and I can not guarantee they cure cancer, but at the same time if someone comes to me for healing and is excited because they have heard of a 7 metal bowl from Tibet that can cure their cancer you can bet your ass I am not going to give them a history lesson. I am going to give them care and love and use their excitement about healing to cure their disease.

If you made it this far thank you for reading and I am so grateful that there is this forum available finally.
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