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Singing Bowls, a Guide to Healing through Sound

2. Ancient Origins

Music without words means leaving behind the mind. And leaving behind the mind is meditation. Meditation returns you to the source. And the source of all is sound.

Ancient teachings proclaim that everything in our physical world, each structure or form, has a unique tone. This tone determines the nature and essence of that form. Access to this tone gives the power to change the form. Legends in Mexico and Peru tell of ancient people whose scientists could cleave massive blocks of stones with sound along precise harmonic lines. In addition, they would "resonate" the blocks into position. Thus the majestic and accurately constructed temples of Uxmal and Machu Pichu were built with songs of sound. The power of sound was further used within the temples to harmonically purify a person, bringing him to a higher spiritual level. Sound can also be deadly. It is known that the legendary "kiau" cry of the samurai warriors in medieval Japan could kill instantly.
Music and sound making instruments are as old as humanity and have always been used, especially by shamans, to promote healing. The bowl is one of the most primal and useful forms created by humans, so with the development of metallurgy it was natural to make metal bowls. After trial and error some would have been found to make beautiful sounds; sounds which had a particular effect on the mind of the listeners. Thus singing bowls were born.
That metal bowls can make beautiful sounds and be used as tools for meditation and healing is new to the Western mind. Very little is known about how the bowls were used in the past. Even in Tibet they were not that well known, and were kept and used secretly by the monks and lamas. This was changed by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951, which contributed to the gradual appearance of singing bowls on the western market in the 1960ís and 70ís. The destruction of monasteries and temples forced many monks to flee the country, taking with them what they could. Many of them, living in poverty in Northern India and Nepal, had to sell their belongings. Even the lamas in London, from whom Joska Soos obtained his excellent bowls, had to sell some of their possessions to survive. And so the singing bowls became known to the public.
Long hidden from most of the world, we now know these particular sound making bowls have existed for at least 4000 years. Evidence is found in the excavation (1938) of an old Bon temple dated at 2400 BC, in which two Singing Bowls were discovered. A spiritual advisor of the Dalai Lama traced the singing bowls back to a primitive and animistic sect related to the indigenous people of Nepal that was dedicated to fire worship. From there the bowls were carried across the silk route, and found their way into Tibet. The true origin of singing bowls remains uncertain, but use by the Bonpo practitioners of the Bon religion clearly implies ancient links.
When Buddhism reached Tibet in the eighth century it found a widely practiced and fully developed Bon tradition, animistic and shamanistic in nature. Buddhism tried to suppress Bon, but in the 10th or 11th century Bon organized itself formally along with Buddhism, insuring its survival. Similar to but definitely distinct from Buddhism, Bon, which stands for Truth and Reality, regards itself as a universal religion in the sense that its principles are true and valid for all of humanity. When we look at pre-Buddhist Bon we find religious practices comprising rituals, ceremonies, divination, offerings, sacrifices, exorcism, and plant medicine with priest-magicians performing magical operations to bring about the well-being of their clients, overcome hostile demonic powers, and eradicate causes of misfortune. As an animistic religion Bon does not differ from others anywhere else in the world, with dance, song, and sound as essential ingredients in their rituals. They have a typical class of priest-magicians trained in the secret use of mantras and songs enabling them to bring the physical world within their control and ensure the normal course of natural events. Despite their differences, Buddhism and Bon influenced each other. Bon took over some Buddhist practices and Buddhism incorporated some shamanic Bon rituals. The fact that singing bowls were made and used in Buddhist monasteries guaranteed the survival of these shamanic metal bowls.
The Lamas who used the bowls were masters of sound. They used them in secret and kept them exclusively for themselves; never mentioning the rituals or the bowls. In shamanic circles all knowledge about the power of sound, including the light beings painted by Joska Soos, has been carefully kept secret. Initiation in sound is the highest level of initiation; sound is such a powerful force. In religious and shamanic practices the use of sound is ancient and primal. All world traditions express the most fundamental energy underlying the manifestation of the universe in terms of sound. In the physical world humans participate in the expression of this fundamental energy with the use of their voice and musical instruments. Singing bowls have survived thousands of years as shamanic instruments, affirming their effectiveness in shamanic work.
To understand fully the use and effect of the singing bowls picture them in the world of shamanism. In the earliest human communities the service of a mediator between the world of myths and that of ordinary reality was required. To ancient man the existence of other worlds next to this one was a matter of fact. The physical world seemed to be ruled, vivified and structured by spirits, demons and gods. To reach these entities and the energies that embody them, man must somehow reach through the aperture between the worlds and contact that more causal level. A special person who, by his abilities to dream, to imagine, and to enter a state of trance, the shaman was able to participate in the creative forces behind the veil of the physical world. He could enter an altered state of consciousness and access the world of spirits. There he would enact a ritual of discovery, cure and salvation. By solving a problem on the spiritual plane, with its causal forces, a physical problem such as sickness, bad weather, or a dispute, would also be resolved. Each shaman uses his own techniques to enter the trace state, based on the teachings of his master and his own experience. The use of sound, through drumming, singing or other musical instruments, was frequently used because the power of sound is very effective. It easily brings the shaman into contact with spiritual dimensions, entering first his own spiritual self, then his unconscious, followed by the collective unconscious of humanity, and finally the realms of otherworldly beings.
Singing bowls are not just musical, sound producing objects. Sacred shamanic instruments, they have been crafted to effectively bring a hypnotic state of consciousness, a trance which opens the door to the inner world quickly and swiftly. At the same time they help restructure disharmonies on the non-physical causal level, promoting healing on the physical plane.

copyright 2001 by Dirk Gillabel