The Sound of Sacred Space

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Singing bowls can make beautiful music and sanctify your personal space


The humble brass bowl. Ideally suited to its purpose of serving tea, soup, water or food.  Large ones can be used as basins or even bathtubs.  But when is a bowl not a bowl? When it is made for the primary purpose of creating sound when struck and is classified more correctly as a standing bell.  Tibetan singing bowls (rin gongs) or Himalayan bowls (suzu gongs) are bells that are not inverted and hung or attached to a handle.  A singing bowl sits on a surface, and when struck (gently) or its rim is vibrated by a padded mallet, produces sound.

This sound – the pure, clear continuous harmonic tone – especially from the ongoing friction of the mallet encircling the rim of the bowl, has become eponymous with Western perception and participation in many of the disciplines of Eastern spirituality.  There are few if any mentions in traditional Eastern spiritual texts of singing bowls, but historians believe that their use goes back to the Himalayas as far as the 10th to 12th century AD.

dsc06475Singing bowls are now used worldwide for a multitude of purposes – to start or end sessions of yoga, Reiki or other modalities, for relaxation, personal well-being and as a musical instrument in their own right.  Historically, singing bowls have been made throughout Asia; we are most familiar with bowls exported from Nepal and Tibet, but bowls are also commercially produced in China, Japan, Korea and India.

Winnipeg musician Glen Hoban  “knows bowls.” He owns hundreds of musical instruments – panpipes, Indian flutes, various drums, a clarinet, violin, glockenspiel, several harps and both an upright and concert grand piano.  He also owns hundreds of singing bowls.

When Glen was introduced to his first singing bowl, his thought was “nice note – but what about the other 88?” He subsequently found himself at Global Connections, intending to buy a hand drum, but found himself coming home with six singing bowls – each tuned to a different tone. As an accomplished pianist with a passion for both classical compositions and ragtime music, Glen began to acquire singing bowls in bulk, hoping to create a full range “keyboard of bowls” to enhance his own personal music creation.

Buying in bulk is risky, because, like Forrest Gump’s famous box of chocolates, you are never sure what you are going to get.  Bulk buying of 10, 20 or more bowls at a time ensures a better price from one of the importing vendors, but not all bowls are created equal.  Quality varies, as does condition, and both affect the purity of the tone the singing bowl produces.

Most singing bowls have one or two distinct voices when struck or activated by friction around the rim.  Glen has one bowl that can produce six distinct tones, depending on where and how it is struck or rubbed by a mallet.  The purity of tone depends greatly upon how it has been manufactured.  There are many “antique” or “said-to-be-antique” bowls on the market, but proving origin is challenging for old bowls.  A dealer may know the village where the bowl originates or was said to be manufactured, but the provenance of these bowls can be suspect.

There are many contemporary singing bowl manufacturers throughout Asia who produce bowls either in the traditional handmade process or in a more commercial manufacturing facility to feed the Western demand for this Eastern spiritual artifact.  Traditionally, bowls were hand-hammered. And some bowls are still made that way.  A more modern method of sand casting is done either on a small scale, with more traditional methods, or en masse, with machine lathing as the final step in the process.

Singing bowls can be plain or decorated with religious iconography and spiritual motifs and symbols; the older singing bowls of reputed antiquity are often less elaborately decorated and may show signs of wear, pitting and an uneven patina.

dsc00083_levels_thumbThey are all beautiful to Glen Hoban’s eyes and ears – especially so if they produce pure, bright tones that he can use to enhance his musical explorations and spiritual practice.  But paradoxically, he is both running out of space and wanting to acquire more.  He has started to sell bowls that don’t attune to his desired “singing bowl” orchestra, to obtain both the funds and space for more suitable singing bowls.  He believes that there is a perfect singing bowl for everyone. And given that singing bowls can be found in so many spaces – from yoga studios to churches to private homes –  he just may be right.

Glen is also planning to host some “Singing Bowl Evenings,” opening his home to both experiential singing bowl meditations and his own performances.  Glen is no stranger to public performance.  You may recognize him as the man who plays a pan-flute as wide as his chest while walking around Winnipeg.  Glen has also played panpipe at seniors homes, memorials and public Pagan spiritual gatherings in local parks. And he sings in the Rainbow Harmony Choir.

At one time in history, Western European culture moved to the sound of the Church bells – marking the hours for prayer, measuring the passing of days.  Hearing church bells ringing out now happens so rarely it catches us off guard.  Singing bowls allow each of us to have a Sacred Bell at hand for our own marking of Sacred Space, of quiet times for prayer, meditation or restorative physical practice.  Portable, personal, sacred sound – the humble and holy singing bowl – fits in a backpack or purse, allowing us to take the Sacred Sound of Harmonic Creation with us into a busy world, where we can purify and sanctify our personal space, and share the Sacred Sound with all those who can hear it.

Watch a fascinating video of Nepalese craftsmen making singing bowls using traditional techniques:


Susan bio picSusan Hurrell sees the Sacred in strange and wonderful places in popular culture.  Fascinated by new spiritual movements, she is a contributing editor to The Aquarian.


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