Tibetan Singing Bowl History
An Interview with Lama Lobsang Leshe
As Interviewed by Rain Gray
Translation and Additional Commentary by
Lama Lobsang Molam
Previously published as: Tibetan Singing Bowls an Historical Perspective
Copyright © 1989 Randall E. Gray. All Rights Reserved.
No part of this document may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever
without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied
in critical articles and reviews.
From their lofty and magical homeland Tibetan singing bowls have traveled across the Himalayas, through valleys, and along ancient trade routes. Brought back to the west by jet-age travelers, these mysterious objects have aroused interest and curiosity about their origin and traditional usage. Their story, however, has laid hidden like the mysterious Himalayas, obscured by clouds.
Due to the communist Chinese military occupation of Tibet in the 1950's, and the subsequent, almost total, destruction of its monasteries (and 1.2 million Tibetan people, many of them monks and nuns, that perished during and after that time), the esoteric knowledge of the Tibetan singing bowls has all but disappeared. And although it has been more than seventeen years since Tibetan singing bowls and their incredible sounds were first introduced to the western world, little has been written about them.
This lack of information, along with my own fascination of Tibetan singing bowls, led to my research while traveling and living in the Himalayas over the past ten years. However, after eight years of searching, I found that none of the monks or lay people that I talked to knew much about the Tibetan singing bowls. Therefore, I turned to my Tibetan brother-in-law, Lama Lobsang Molam, and asked him for his help.
Lama Lobsang Molam, a Tibetan monk born in Lhasa, Tibet, was at that time living nearby at a small monastery in Swyambunath, Nepal. He assured me that he would try his best to find someone who could provide me with information. After several months of inquiries he arrived at my door one morning with exciting news. He had found an old monk who had the information which I had been searching for.
The following transcript is from a recorded interview with that monk, Lama Lobsang Leshe. The translation and additional comments were kindly provided by Lama Lobsang Molam. It is my hope that the publication of this information will answer some of the questions concerning the history and traditional uses of Tibetan singing bowls.
Santa Monica, California
Rain Gray: "I'm sitting in Kathmandu, Nepal. It's October 7, 1986. And I'm sitting with a friend of mine Lama Lobsang Molam, who is a monk at a monastery in Swyambu, Kathmandu, Nepal. And we're here to discuss the historical usage of singing bell bowls, and what we've been able to piece together after researching for eight years, and trying to discover what these things are. Lama Lobsang will be acting as translator because we have with us another monk who has knowledge of these singing bowls from Tibet, before the Chinese invaded Tibet. Lama Lobsang do you want to introduce yourself and our guest?"
Lama Lobsang Molam and Lama Lobsang Leshe
Lama Lobsang Molam: "Yes, he's Lama Lobsang Leshe. Actually he came to Nepal from Tibet, before 1959. In Tibet he was a monk at Drepung Monastery, the biggest gompa in Tibet. There are four major monasteries in Tibet. One is Drepung Losel Ling, one is Drepung Gomang, one is Ngapa Dartsang, one is Dayang. There's four. So, he comes from Drepung Losel Ling."
Lama Lobsang Leshe: "Actually the Tibetan government, Ganden Potang, is a. . . first Ganden Potang become Drepung Monastery. Fifth Dalai Lama footnote 1 he built it in Drepung, his first palace is in Drepung Monastery. So that singing bowl lives behind this palace, we call Kungar Awa, his throne, like a singing bowl house, you know."
LLM: "Someone says, one older than him, a monk, he said 'This singing bowl came from India side and before this present Buddha', we call Sange Wasong, 'is for begging bowl this is.' At that time this singing bowl was used for a begging bowl of that previous Buddha."
RG: "Does that mean Shakyamuni Buddha? Or a previous incarnation?"
LLM: "No, no, no, a previous incarnation, the third Buddha. This present Buddha is fourth one, isn't it. The third Buddha, Wasong. 2 At that time they are using that singing bowl for begging bowl, and all the Arhats and disciples were using singing bowls for begging bowls. This doctrine is Buddha Shakyamuni's doctrine. At the present time we don't use singing bowls for begging bowls, we're using begging bowls made of iron, you know, they are not singing bowls."
RG: "Only made of iron? Not bell metal?" 3
LLM: "Yes. So, he said that that bowl is in Drepung Monastery, Tibet. On July fifteenth many Tibetans visit that singing bowl, also whole Drepung Monastery, all people are coming and visiting and making offerings to hear the singing bowl."
RG: "So this is a relic that they bring out at this time of year to show to the people?"
LLL: "They say this is a relic that came from India and was used by the previous Buddha, so this is a very precious relic. So, that's why everybody wants to listen to that singing bowl, the singing, you know, sound. So, many people are making offerings to this singing bowl, and offering money to that singing bowl. So, he said that if someone has pure or not pure karma, you know, if someone has negative karma, their self they have to round, they have to play it with a stick. If someone has a lot of negative karma, this bowl won't give any sound. It gives sound but, not so nice, it's very small and not clear. If the person who rings it has pure karma, it gives a lot of singing and a big sound, wang, wang, wang, wang, like this. It gives a big sound. So their saying this is the story of . . . their saying like this. Even he saw, you know. So in Tibet they have three singing bowls only."
RG: "Three of these relic singing bowls?"
LLL: "Yes, relics. One is in Drepung Monastery. One is in Narthang. Narthang is a big printing place."
RG: "Where their publishing and printing the books, the sutras. Kanjur?"
LLL: "In the west side of Tibet. One is Sakya Monastery. Also, they have one conch, a big conch, [which] comes from natural earth, you know, naturally. So they say if they're listening to that singing, or that sound, one who hears this sound never goes to Narak. Because of this . . ."
RG: "Now what is Narak?"
LLL: "Narak is hell. Hell realm or lower realm. Never goes to a lower . . ."
RG: " . . . level of existence?"
RG: "Then on hearing this sound, what will it do to these people? They get some experience?"
LLL: "Yes, they have a lot of . . . each people they will get in each different sound. Also some very high being lamas coming to listen to this singing bowl, and really they, sound is giving teaching, you know, about broadness and emptiness, many different teachings . . . Four Noble Truth teachings. Each they wanted to have that teaching gives by . . ."
RG: "So their getting some transmission, a teaching, from the sound vibration of this bowl?"
RG: "So what are they doing, are they playing this bowl and meditating on this sound?"
LLL: "Yes. Also, Drepung Monastery has a lot of scholars there, many Geshes, many, many, thousands of Geshes there. Their listening to this singing bowl, older monks going to see and listening to singing bowl.4The monks are meditating on this sound. Because, actually this is . . . empty means . . . also singing bowl is empty. So, actually, all sound is giving each different teaching, you know. Singing bowl sound, or drum sound, or conch sound, or bell, or tingshaw, everything is giving sound is teaching like."
RG: "So, is this.. this sound can be compared to a mantra then? Would you say that?"
LLL: "Not exactly mantra. It's giving Voidness teaching."
RG: "Show him the inscription on this large bowl."
LLL: "Ganden Monastery has smaller than this. Smaller than this."
RG: "More round."
LLM: "Yes, more round."
RG: "Yes, I know that style. Once in a while you find that style, it's hard to find now. Here's a smaller one. Coming up more like this, and in the middle is a . . ."
RG: "What is the explanation for the fact that there are so many of these singing bowls? If from those three originals . . . do they think that a lot of other pieces were made following after those?"
RG: "There's been a lot of confusion in the West, because people have been trying to find out what these are for a number of years. And because of . . ."
LLM: "Actually, he said that now is many duplicates coming, and original is three in Tibet, he knows that. Now someone's making small, you know, for offering water 5, water set, still using for water offering set, not using for eating 6 , in Tibet side. Now in India and Nepal maybe their using, they don't know, and then so many duplicates coming they making. So now using for uh, maybe their cooking bowl, or . . ."
RG: "Because they don't know."
LLM: "Yes, they don't know. Actually this is only for sound. Now, he said that, in India during Buddha Shakyamuni's life time. Because big one, very big and for singing. When many monks have to make a puja, or meeting, or something, at that time at first they use a gong, for gonging. Boom, boom. Then all the monks are coming. If someone has 'god ear', I mean that Arhat has perfect ear. If they are far away, even they can listen."
RG: "So they have the ability to hear this sound at great distances."
LLM: "Yes. From far away they come to Buddha's place. Even sometime it's giving sound naturally, you know, maybe winds or . . ."
RG: "Some vibration."
LLM: "Yes, vibration. Big winds coming, it's giving sound. Actually it can be by Buddha, you know Buddha's action. He's . . . when he's meditating . . . his action, you know, giving to the sound."
RG: "Through his energy . . ."
LLM: " . . . energy, goes to this sound. Goes to singing bowl, or drum, and it's giving sound. And all gods, and higher beings, all the disciples can hear this giving teaching on this sound, meditation on this sound. So there, each different beings have different teachings by this sound. Yes, sometimes Buddhas don't give teachings by speech from mouth, you know, from heart, all energy goes to that singing things are giving sound. So those sounds are also Buddha's action or Buddha's energy giving teaching. Sometimes Buddhas don't act by physical body but he's giving by energy."
RG: "Transmission through other means."
LLM: "Transmission to other beings."
RG: "Now the Karmapa, when he was alive, heard a group of Westerners playing these singing bowls, they played for him. And the Karmapa himself, he said that this sound of the singing bowl is the sound of the Void 7. What do you think he meant by that?"
LLM: "Most people they don't know, just their listening for sound. Someone who has emptiness, meditation, samadhi, definitely they get teaching from those singing bowls."
RG: "So you think these singing bowls were made in eastern Tibet, near the Chinese border, what previously was the Chinese border?"
LLM: "Chinese border. Lama Leshe says that this quality is very top quality, many different jewels are inside, gold, silver, so many different jewels are mixed in this. Before they had one set of offering bowls, we call 'Mego Gutsag'. If we see like this nine heads, it's really very valuable."
RG: "And what would these heads be?"
LLM: "They say 'Mego Gutsag'. They had two factories there, one is in Jang and one is in Hor. Jang made its sign, nine head is the sign of Jang, from that factory. Hor has most . . . Hor their making so many beating marks, so that means it's made from Hor."
RG: "This nine head, this would be cut into the metal? How is it put in the metal? It's like the maker's sign, right?"
LLM: "No, no. If you look at it from the side it looks like nine, nine heads, one on top of the other. We can see them, very smooth. One have like this, one has like this. So nine is, we can see . . ."
RG: "Like on Padmasambhava's staff, how they have the three heads, one on top of the other."
LLM: "Yes, yes."
RG: "I noticed he was just looking at this bowl for something. He was looking to see if he could see anything there? He was looking at the bottom, examining the bottom very carefully. A lot of these bowls being very old and worn . . . the beating marks."
LLM: "Yes, beating marks. It definitely comes from Hor because of the beating marks."
RG: "So this was previously a famous metal working center before the Chinese invaded?"
LLM: "Famous before the Chinese invaded Tibet. Hor was famous. Nobody can reproduce this quality."
RG: "So do you think that this technique, who ever had the secret of making them, is now lost?"
LLM: "I think so. Very long time ago."
RG: "How old is he, Lama Lobsang Leshe, actually? Does he know approximately how old he is?"
RG: "Because in our inquiries, of trying to get this information on Tibetan singing bowls, originally we asked Ama-la, and she also . . . How old is Ama-la now?"
RG: "I've been trying to find out any information about these singing bowls for over eight years now. And inquiring here in Asia in many places, researching in books and libraries, in the great museums of the world . . ."
LLM: "When he was young, he had many teachers older than him, they said it, so he heard, you know. They had one set of seven singing bowls, nine headed, they call Jang. They said it's really valuable, and be careful, don't touch to child, you know. If they broke, it's very difficult to get. Because he said that at that time there's four kings ruling in Tibet side. After that they made Jang and Hor."
RG: "At this time I'm wondering what is the significance that this singing bowl and this sound is going to the West. Padmasambhava said that 'When the iron bird flies, the Dharma will be spread to the West.' So, I've been feeling for many years now that somehow this sound is important for the world because the sound is the sound of the Dharma. And it carries the Dharma, whether people realize it or not, because in my experience with many types of people, whether Buddhists or non-Buddhists, young people and very old people, everybody is attracted to this sound. And specifically, they can't exactly say why, but they like to hear this sound. So this is very appreciated in the Western world.
Now that the Dharma is becoming so strong in the Western world my intuitive feeling is that, somehow, this sound has some importance for the world today. That maybe in this time, it has been written that things will become more difficult, that one race of people will try to take over the world. And that the enlightened beings will then gather in this place Shambhala. I think there's kind of a connection to this sound and Shambhala. That's my feeling, I don't know. I think that somehow the ringing of these bells, of this sound, will somehow gather that positive energy, that force, you see, in order to fight back against those people who are trying to destroy the world."
RG: "If this is the sound of the Void, and the sound of the Dharma, then in ringing these bells this is bringing the force of the Dharma . . ."
LLM: "If somebody has seeds of Dharma, Westerner or Easterner, doesn't matter, you know . . ."
RG: "Then this will awaken that seed, this sound?"
LLM: "Yes, if so Dharma goes to the West, Guru Padmasambhava said that 'Dharma goes to West' means that definitely they have seeds. Of course, you know, all sentient beings have enlightened beings seeds, nature of Dharma, of Buddha, you know, really. So, before all teaching is Asia, most teachings in Asia. So, actually, yes, yes. Also, Buddha is not in the world now, this world. So many other worlds his presentation now, he's giving teaching. So, Buddha is not here, but his Dharma is here. So, singing bowl can give teaching to someone who has the seeds of Dharma. Each sentient being has many different natures, many different 'ears'. That's why, yes of course, singing bowl can give you Dharma. Really have that connection of that Buddha or Shambhala, same you know, really connection of singing bowl or those sounds connection to the Shambhala. Means singing bowl sound gives you teaching then you can go to Shambhala. That is really the connection.
Now Buddha is not here but singing bowl is. Someone who can play the singing bowl, really, immediately you can get Buddha's teaching. Then you can meditate on this teaching, or sound, with bell you can become enlightened. Singing bowl sound, and bell sound, and tingshaw sound is incredible really. Not like those ordinary sounds."
RG: "Yes, yes, that's what I've been feeling all along. Because the sounds of these instruments are unlike any other instrument in the world. Quite an incredible quality."
LLM: "That's why the bell, those singing bowls are . . . just ordinary people didn't make them you know, they come from Buddha's side. Someone who hears it ring, a formless being, or a form being, or . . . doesn't matter, you know. If you ring a bell, if you didn't get any teaching but other beings . . . in this house has many sentient beings also without form can hear it, the sound. And they can have teaching."
RG: "So it not only affects the person who's using it, but also it affects all of the surrounding area. And actually the sound carries very far even when we can't physically hear it."
LLM: "Yes. Also, when we play the tingshaw all spirits, hungry ghosts are coming, but we didn't see those beings. From thousands of kilometers away, they can hear this sound, coming saying 'Oh, something's there!' So, the sound is incredible."
RG: "So we can say that these things are tools, they are tools for transformation, to transform our ordinary being into a higher realm of the Buddha nature. We can say that?"
LLM: "Yes, we can say that. Also, you know outside of the Buddha someone without speech giving teaching, what is this you know? By action, body action8 only, they didn't speak, those Arhats you know. Buddha was not in the world time, Arhat is coming. They the Arhats giving teaching, but without sound, just showing body. Someone who has seeds they are, immediately they get teaching. So same, same way. If you are ringing the singing bowl, if you didn't get teaching, but someone get teaching. So, why we made those singing bowls, why we make a bells, and cymbals, drums, conch, why you know? Each things giving different teachings. Also conch gives you lot of big voice giving."
RG: "Big sound, powerful sound."
LLM: "Sound, you know, big sound. Conch sound is only for Dharma using, you know. For calling monks, or making pujas. So, we call that Dharmachakra, sound of conch, we say like this. Even Buddha Shakyamuni after his enlightenment, for 49 days he didn't give any teaching. He knows he's enlightened but sentient beings they didn't know he's enlightened. So, he's really sad, you know. He thought 'Now I better go to the forest, nobody knows my truth.' So the head of the gods, and king of the gods said: 'Please give teaching'. And he's giving conch, you know, and that means Dharmachakra. Also, he plays that a waaaaaa conch, giving sound that means Dharmachakra giving. That's why he's giving . . . otherwise he can give another or something you know. Because Dharmachakra . . . conch sound is Dharmachakra." 9
RG: "So, in the tradition of Buddhism even from the very beginning, from the first teaching of Buddha, there is that tradition of using sound in connection with teaching?"
LLM: "Yes. So he gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the first teaching. Also, if we play the singing bowl some Arhat is here, really they can have many teachings, emptiness and broadness, very deep teachings they're having. Of course. Actually, this sound wang, wang, wang, wang, wang, means emptiness, empty, empty, empty, empty. Emptiness teaching is the top of teaching, Buddha's essence. Essence of Buddha's teaching, yes, Buddha's teaching. Means . . . what does essence of Buddha's teaching mean? This is Emptiness teaching, top one. If one who has bodhicitta already, if you get bodhicitta already, but you didn't get Emptiness teaching, you never get enlightened, you'll never get enlightenment."
LLL: "Guru Urgyen Rinpoche says that one time coming his text, teachings, putting in the ground. One time coming, then one guy coming, one being's coming to take this . . ."
RG: "To rediscover this hidden text." 10
LLM: "Hidden text, means yes."
RG: "So in a way this could be a rediscovery of something that's been hidden for some years now. Because it seems that a lot of people that I've asked don't know about this."
LLM: "They don't know."
RG: "So maybe in this present age this is the time when this is right for this to be rediscovered."
LLM: "They don't know but if they are hearing this sound then they like it. Something happy, you know."
RG: "Yes, yes, there's an attraction there."
LLM: "Really. It's a very peaceful sound giving. That is, you know, Guru Rinpoche said already before."
RG: "So actually these are very precious things that we have to preserve very carefully."
LLM: "Yes. So singing bowl who discovered in West? Who? It's just natural. Tibet's time's coming. Otherwise who will discover singing bowls sound? Natural coming, even more and more now, increasing Dharma and all singing bowls sound, meditation, all goes to Dharma in West."
RG: "Very interesting. Well I'm hoping that at sometime somebody will find some of these hidden texts that will really tell us how to use this singing bowl, in the mean time we just kind of have to sit peacefully, sit quietly, and let our intuitive feelings tell us how to use them."
LLM: "Also, maybe after we go to Tibet, you go to Tibet side. Also one relic singing bowl is still there now."
RG: "Yes, I'd like to see that."
LLM: "Yes, you can see this and you can ask to those who are in charge of singing bowl. Also, most older monks they knows about singing bowls. This time, like me the young monks, they don't know. They say 'What is this?' you know."
RG: "Yes, that's why it's been so difficult to find this information."
1 Dalai Lama literally means "Ocean of Wisdom." He is the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is a God King, being the physical manifestation of Avalokitesvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig), God of Compassion. The present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyaltso, is the 14th incarnation.
2 According to the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, there have been many Buddhas in the past, and many more to come in the future. The next coming Buddha is known as "Maitreya". It is interesting to note that one translation of the name Maitreya is "harmonic resonance"!
3 According to Tibetan sources singing bowls are reputed to be made of an alloy consisting of (depending upon who one is talking to) five, seven, or nine different metals. Legends state that one of these metals is meteorite iron. It has been hypothesized that this use of meteorite iron may be one of the reasons why Tibetan bells have such amazing sounds. As the meteorites found in Tibet have traveled through a thinner layer of oxygen there would have been less burn-up of the meteorite iron, hence the meteorites found there may have a quality different than any others found in the world.
4 Before this interview, Lama Leshe stated that he had seen over four thousand monks at one time playing singing bell bowls during a religious ceremony at Drepung Monastery.
5 This refers to the Tibetan custom of offering water placed in seven bowls on the alter each morning. This is done both in monasteries and in homes, as each household has it's own alter. Although it is conceivable that small singing bowls could be used for water offerings, the traditional shape of water offering bowls is much different than that of any singing bowl.
6 While doing research throughout the Himalayas over the last nine years have also asked many Nepalese about the usage of singing bell bowls. A number of times the persons questioned have stated that these bowls were used as eating bowls. It seems that the Nepalese not knowing of the Tibetan traditional usage of the bowls, as instruments for producing sound, simple put them to use as utilitarian objects.
7 According to Henry Wolf. See album notes, TIBETAN BELLS II, by Henry Wolf and Nancy Hennings, (c) 1979, Pacific Arts Records.
8 This refers to the usage of hand and body gestures (Sanskrit: mudra) symbolic of different Dharma concepts. This is similar to using sign language.
9 Dharmachakra means "the wheel of the Law". This refers to the first teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha (see Four Noble Truths) at which time he put the wheel (chakra) of the law (Dharma) into motion.
10 Hidden texts are one of the eighteen types of hidden treasure (Tib. derma) which Padmasambhava is said to have hidden inside caves, mountains, etc. These texts contain valuable teachings and information which were hidden in order to preserve them for a future time when they would be needed.
Sanskrit and Tibetan Terms
Arhat- Historically one of the 500 persons who attained enlightenment by following the Buddhas teachings during his lifetime.
Bodhicitta- The mind of enlightenment.
Dharma- The teachings of the Buddha.
Drepung Monastery- One of the four great monasteries of the Gelukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Located in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, it was the largest monastic complex in Tibet, and in the world. It is said to have once housed over 10,000 monks.
Four Noble Truths- From the first teaching given by Shakyamuni Buddha after his enlightenment, at the Deer Park near present day Varanasi, India. They are:
All existence entails suffering (the Truth of Suffering).
Suffering is caused by ignorance, which gives rise to suffering, which gives rise to craving and illusion (the Truth of Cause).
There is an end to suffering, and this state of no suffering is called nirvana (the Truth of Extinction).
Nirvana is attained through the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path (the Truth of the Path).
Geshe- Literally "spiritual friend". A Tibetan monk who has attained the level equivalent to a Doctorate in Buddhist philosophy or Master of Metaphysics. To obtain this degree requires extensive study, usually taking more than twenty years.
Gompa- A Tibetan monastery.
Kanjur- One of the two sets of religious books of Tibetan Buddhism.
Karma- Universal law of cause and effect.
Karmapa- Head of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Lama- Generally used, here in the West, to designate a Tibetan monk. Literally "superior one".
Mantra- "Sound tool." A mystical formula of invocation or incantation essential in tantric practice.
Padmasambhava- 7th century Indian tantric master who traveled to Tibet spreading the Buddha's teachings, and through his miraculous powers converted the people to Buddhism.
Puja- Religious ritual.
Shakyamuni- Literally, "Sage of the Shakya Clan." The usual Buddhist name for the historical Buddha.
Shambhala- A mystical kingdom, believed by Tibetans, to exist hidden behind distant snow mountains north of the Himalayas. There, a line of enlightened kings is said to be guarding the highest wisdom for a time when all spiritual values in the world outside will be lost in war and destruction. Then, according to prophecy, a great king will come out of this sanctuary to defeat the forces of evil and establish a golden age.
Sutras- A scripture or book containing discourses of the Buddha, doctrines and aphorisms.
The Void (Sanskrit: Shunyata. Tibetan: Tong-pa-nyi)- The Buddhist conception of the ultimate nature of reality. Refers specifically to the lack of an inherently existent self in all phenomena and beings.
Tingshaw- A type of Tibetan bell, usually found in matched pairs with a leather thong or metal chain attached in-between. They look like small "flying saucers", are made of an alloy of many metals, and produce a brilliantly clear resonant tone when struck together on their edges. Traditionally used for making offerings to the "hungry ghosts" and in conjunction with the Bardo Thodol ("Liberation Through Hearing"), the Tibetan ceremony for the dead.
Copyright © 1989 Randall E. Gray. All Rights Reserved.