Origin Stories: Singing Bowls

August 14th, 2020

As part of The Isbourne’s ongoing commitment to education we have created Origin Stories. A series that looks at different spiritual practices and tries to find where they originated from. We believe it is important to acknowledge the roots of the practices we enjoy today and to highlight how they may have changed as they are passed on through the ages and through different cultures.

Singing bowls, or sound bowls, have been a symbol of spirituality for some time. Ranging in size, the bowls are used in many different practices to encourage healing, to realign chakras and to create peace. They are seen as a large part of eastern spiritualism and healing practices. However, the origin of the singing bowl is not as clear cut as you might think, Where did they come from and how did they become so popular?

Singing bowls are used by striking the bowl and rubbing the rim with a wooden stick to increase the vibrations and produce a ‘singing’ sound.

You would be forgiven if you were to think singing bowls came from Tibet, as you will find many shops online claiming to sell ‘Authentic Tibetan Singing Bowls‘. This is sadly a worldwide misconception. According to Tricycle.org, when asked, a Geluk monk residing in North America couldn’t recall ever seeing singing bowls being used for spiritual practice in Tibet. Similarly, Tenzin Dheden of the Canada Tibet Committee wrote an article about the practice of sound bathing and using ‘Tibetan singing bowls’, claiming that there is really nothing Tibetan about them. In fact, there is a serious problem with how the western world has created a false narrative about Tibetan culture that is rooted in fantasy, simplifying thousands of years of complex history and tradition. According to Dheden, there are issues with westerners profiting from Tibetan culture that is causing deep hurt with Tibetan people. But if the singing bowl isn’t an ancient Tibetan tradition, where does it originate from?

The true origin of the singing bowl is extremely layered. The first mention of a Tibetan singing bowl comes from an album by American musicians Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings called Tibetan Bells from the 1970s. Wolff and Hennings created a series of albums using instruments from Eastern cultures to simulate the feeling of an LSD trip. The music was very floaty and bass heavy to induce a sort of relaxed, trance state and has been touted as the origin of the ‘deep relaxation’ genre that can be heard in spas and alternative shops the world over. One of the instruments Wolff and Hennings used in their music was described as a Tibetan Singing Bowl, however, there is cause to believe that the actual instrument was in fact a Rin but could have been sold to them as a Tibetan singing bowl or, seeing as their album was titled Tibetan Bells, may have been renamed to fit into their narrative. Rin is a class of bowl which have been used for centuries in Japanese religious and spiritual ceremony. The bowls sit on top of an ornate cushion and are struck using a wooden stick. The bowls come in all shapes and sizes and are used as an inverted bell.

Japanese Rin

Singing bowls are also found in Chinese history but, like Rin, are used as a bell. Called standing bells, the bowl-like bell would have been struck to make a ringing sound but they would not have been rubbed or made to ‘sing’. In fact, the singing bowl shape can be seen across many eastern cultures but almost always used as an inverted bell.

There are huge benefits to using singing bowls, but be careful not to wrongly associate them to a specific culture.

The ‘singing’ aspect of the bowls is a purely westernised method and the use of singing bowls for healing has no root in eastern history at all. A study by Hans Jenny into Cymatics in the 1960s looked at sound vibrations, frequencies and the role of acoustics in how music is played and enjoyed. This study has been attributed to the way in which western alternative medicine uses singing bowls for healing today. There is much to be said about the use of frequencies and vibrations for healing, with lots of studies concluding that tapping into different sound and energy frequencies can positively impact our mental and physical health. Using singing bowls is a wonderful way to achieve this.

So where do singing bowls originate from? American in the 1970s. The application of the singing bowl, anyway. But the origin of the bowl when used as a bell has many roots in different cultures and religions across the world. It is important that we use singing bowls from a place of awareness and do not falsely attach them to an ancient spiritual practice. As with all spiritual practices, awareness, kindness and openness is key.