SHAMBHALA SOUND SINGING BOWLS
OLD AND RARE
Michael Askill individually selects old and rare bowls from amongst hundreds during days of intensive listening sessions in Nepal. His connections include a family who have been sourcing and trading singing bowls from throughout the Himalayan region for generations.
See a few examples here:
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Shambhala Sound new singing bowls are sourced directly from a workshop in the Kathmandu valley whole artisans continue the centuries old tradition of making hand hammered bowls.
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between sound and silence - 8 singing bowl meditations
performed by michael askill
THOUGHTS ON SINGING BOWLS by Michael Askill
why singing bowls?
"Look upon a bowl without seeing the sides or the material. In a few moments - become aware!"
I have been curious about singing bowls for as long as I can remember. It was not until about 8 years ago that I became a serious collector and researcher. Whenever I toured as a musician to countries such as Japan, Taiwan, China and Korea - I would visit Buddhist temples to see the bowls, bells and gongs. When I began to investigate Tibetan Buddhism I expected to see singing bowls in a temple setting. But while the bell and dorje are used regularly in various aspects of Tibetan Buddhist practice, there was no sign of singing bowls. And yet, singing bowls seem to have some natural affinity with Tibetan Buddhism - it is common to see Tibetan Buddhist images of Shakyamuni Buddha holding an alms bowl - and they do appear in the Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Northern India and Nepal. Perhaps they have been traded from the Kathmandu valley's Patan or Bhaktapur into Tibet and been used as a meditation tool, but there is no certainty. Bowls have been gifted and traded in Nepal for hundreds of years and Nepalese craftsmen have long been experts at metal forging. It is still common to eat from metal plates in Nepal and I have seen food stored in some of the larger bowls. The metal formula is said to transfer beneficial minerals to the food and perhaps the metal discourages weevils and insects. But it is also a fact that many old bowls have markings such as the dot within the circle - the Hindus call the dot the bindu, the male energy within the cosmic womb-circle. Downward triangles are also common - in Tantric Buddhism, a reference to the source of all things, in Hinduism the female Yoni symbol. So it would be unusual for these markings to appear on something that was meant just storing food. The alms bowl has long associations with images of Shakyamuni Buddha and with the Buddhist notion of emptiness. Sound itself is a lesson in detachment - it can be heard but not owned and soon disappears into silence.
singing bowl qualities
A good singing bowl should have a balance of male (low) and female (high) qualities.
The sound should have an all-encompassing effect, even when heard from a distant.
Ideally there should be a steady singing tone when rubbed with the suede-covered stick and an easily accessible secondary high singing tone when more pressure is applied or when rubbed with a wooden stick.
Generally speaking, the thicker the bowl the higher the pitch. For each diameter of bowl there tends to be an ideal thickness for the best combination of qualities described above.
In the larger bowls these seem to occur in the bowls known as Jambati (a softly rounded bowl), while in medium sized bowls these occur in the bowls known as Thadobati (bowls with a flat bottom and straight sides). Other bowl varieties include Manipuri (shallow, half-moon shape), Copraybati (usually thin and very rounded) and Ultabati (deep bowls with an out-turned edge).
pyscho-acoustic and therapeutic properties
Singing bowls are inherently beautiful objects - but the nature of their sound and its attraction is partly a mystery. Bells are as important in Hinduism and Buddhism as they are in Christian religions - 'The secret of the continual ringing of the bell practiced by churches at all times, even now, is that it is not only a bell to call people, it is to tune them up to their tone. It was to suggest, "There is a tone going on in you, get yourself tuned to it!"' (Pir Hazrat Inayat Khan) Singing bowls are a portable form of these bells, but the sound of a singing bowl can be warm, mysterious and evocative. The fact that a bowl can be held in the hand and the vibrations transmitted through the body make them a special and intimate companion. They can be used directly on different parts of the body, either for relaxation, as a preparation for healing or as a tool to enhance the meridians and chakra points found throughout the body.
Bowls, as a general rule, contain two pre-dominantly audible tones (and often more), often described as the male and female tones. The lower male tone is the lower singing tone produced by rubbing with a suede covered stick. Applying more pressure or rubbing with a wooden stick will usually produce the higher female tone. Striking with a suitable stick will produce a balanced combination of these two tones along with other overtones - a soft stick will accentuate the lower tones of the bowl, while a harder stick will accentuate the higher tones. Generally these two tones are tritones - interesting to note that at one point in Western musical history, the tritone was considered the work of the devil!
It is the complexity of the good singing bowl's overtones that make them a potential tool for healing. Some say that the body has the knowledge to draw the vibrations that are useful for it at a particular time, while others believe that particular frequencies relate to particular organs and chakras.
An interesting parallel with recent research is the singing bowl's pulsing sound, as opposed to a pure straight sine wave tone that is generated electronically. The pulsing effect is due to irregularities in the bowl's construction due to hand hammering and uneven thicknesses around the edge of the bowl. The slight discrepancies in pitch cause an effect similar to binaural beats that are now used to shift the brain from beta wave activity into slower alpha, theta and delta wave activity - the kinds of wave activity the brain enters during relaxation, meditation and dream states.
listening to singing bowls
Listening to singing bowls is different to listening to music that is created using scales (western or non-western) to create melodies and harmonies. Singing bowls are not created to be 'in-tune' with the notes of any prescribed scale and they are not made to be played in a band or ensemble. (Having said that, a bowl can accidentally be 'in-tune' with a note of a particular scale, but may display strong overtones that make it sound 'out-of-tune').
When listening to bowls being played live or on a recording, try to turn off the habitual tendency to listen for melodies or combination of tones that sound 'happy' or 'sad'. Inevitably this might happen because of our long conditioning to the western musical concepts of major and minor ('happy' and 'sad'). Instead try to listen for the combinations of sounds within each bowl and the pulsing or fluttering of the sound. Close your eyes (the visual sense draws too much brain energy!) and internally 'watch' the sounds. Bowl sounds last a long time, so it is a good practice to try to be aware of a single bowl sound's long disappearance into silence or into the ambient sounds that surround us - traffic, birds, voices etc. You will become more aware that we are always surrounded by some kind of sound, but as you listen and internally 'watch' the bowl sound disappear into the distance, there is a moment of great potential - the moment between sound and silence. This 'between' moment is described in many Buddhist texts - it can also be the moment between breathing in and breathing out, the moment between thoughts or the moment between wakeful awareness and sleep.
Hearing is a profoundly important aspect of Buddhist teaching. Here is a quote related to hearing from the Surangama Sutra:
”The faculty of hearing, beyond creation
And annihilation, truly is permanent.
Even when isolated thoughts in a dream arise,
Though the thinking process stops, hearing does not end,
For the faculty of hearing is beyond
All thought, beyond both mind and body.”
Visualise the sound of bowls as gently pulsing, warm and inviting lights. Hear a single bowl sound as a round pebble dropped into a pool of infinite silence. A second bowl sound and it's overtones will gently 'interfere' with the first bowl's sound and create additional pulses and flutters - immerse yourself in these gentle waves of sound. When two or more bowls combine and disperse leaving the sound of a single bowl - the effect can be like gliding through gentle turbulence into a clear blue sky.
old or new?
The 'voice' of each bowl is different. The voice of a newly manufactured bowl often seems metallic and hollow compared to the voice of a beautiful old bowl that is velvety, warm and wise.
There are new bowls being made in Nepal and also India. In my experience, some of the hand-beaten bowls made in Nepal are of a very high quality - perhaps in time they will become sought-after bowls. Recycling of old and broken bowls into the new ones is common and adds to the complexity of the alloy and provides a link to the past.
There are factory-made, cast bowls that are made specifically for the tourist market and these are most obvious by their different types of oxidation and by the application of Buddhist mantras and symbols. They have no particular sound interest or complexity and though it might be claimed that a particular bowl of this type relates to a certain chakra - it means nothing.
It seems that old bowls tend to respond more easily to rubbing, perhaps due to the soft, worn edges of the bowl and the maturity/aging of the formula that was used. Older bowls also tend to have a warmer and longer sustaining tone. They have their own personality and history and sometimes a warm patina. The hammering marks have been worn smooth and any markings might also have been softened. In cases where the bowl has been neglected and has become oxidised and dirty, serious cleaning and polishing is an option - but should be done carefully so as not to damage the metal or remove some of the bowls inherent qualities. Old bowls often respond to this with a liberated sound and the revealing of some hidden details in the markings.
Michael Askill (copyright2009)
(Shiva to his consort Devi - from the Vigyam Bhairava and Sochanda Tantra - transcribed by Paul Reps)