In September of 2014, science-and-technology news outlets reported on a discovery that supposedly had the potential to revolutionize the field of solar energy. While doing PhD research at the University of Cambridge, a physicist by the name of Niraj Lal developed a new way to design solar panel cells that increased their ability to absorb light and covert it into electricity dramatically . This alone was good news, but the hook of the story was more specific. For Lal’s breakthrough was inspired not only by recent developments in the world of physics, but also by something ancient and ‘spiritual’: the Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl.
Lal had experimented with playing a variety of metal singing bowls – i.e. with making them ‘sing’ by striking their sides and then running a padded pestle or mallet around their rim to produce a sustained ringing sound. As he explained in his 2012 PhD thesis, such musical experiments helped him realize that, if properly arranged, tiny, resonating singing bowl-shaped solar cells could do with light what their larger cousins did with sound, and therefore maximize light-energy conversion. (Well, actually what he said was more like this:
“This thesis explores the use of plasmonic nanovoids for enhancing the efficiency of thin-film solar cells. Devices are fabricated inside plasmonically resonant nanostructures, demonstrating a new class of plasmonic photovoltaics. Novel cell geometries are developed for both organic and amorphous silicon solar cell materials…A four-fold enhancement of overall power conversion efficiency is observed in organic nanovoid solar cells compared to flat solar cells. The efficiency enhancement is shown to be primarily due to strong localised plasmon resonances of the nanovoid geometry, with close agreement observed between experiment and theoretical simulations. Ultrathin amorphous silicon solar cells are fabricated on both nanovoids and randomly textured silver substrates. Angle-resolved reflectance and computational simulations highlight the importance of the spacer layer separating the absorbing and plasmonic materials. A 20% enhancement of cell efficiency is observed for nanovoid solar cells compared to flat, but with careful optimisation of the spacer layer, randomly textured silver allows for an even greater enhancement of up to 50% by controlling the coupling to optical modes within the device.”
…but you get the idea).
That modern nano-‘photo-voltaic’ technology could meet the ancient, ritual technology of Tibetan Buddhism and be enhanced in the encounter captured commentators’ fancy. One website devoted to news about meditation and alternative health wondered how Lal had first been exposed to Tibetan singing bowls, and whether he himself practiced any form of meditation or spirituality. While Lal does not elaborate on either of these questions in his thesis, he does note that singing bowls are “used by monks in the mountains of Nepal and Tibet as an aid to meditation.” He gives no references for these points, but if reporting on his work is anything to go by, the claim that metallic bowls have been used by Tibetan Buddhist monastics for centuries as musical instruments and ritual tools would seem to be widely accepted and generally known. To be sure, metal bowls and strikers of all shapes and sizes grace Tibetan refugee stalls, curio shops and New Age boutiques the world over. Here in McLeod Ganj, India, the Tibetan capital-in-exile, you can’t swing a prayer wheel without hitting a singing bowl for sale. A significant industry exists around the power of the bowls, and singing bowl sound healing masters today provide treatments, offer workshops, record CDs, and conduct live performances in countries all over the world. The association of resonant bowls with spirituality, and with Tibetan and/or Buddhist spirituality in particular, would seem to be firmly established.
As it turns out though, singing bowls’ supposed antiquity and Tibetan-ness is rather contentious. Academic consensus is that the ‘Tibetan’ singing bowl is a thoroughly modern and Western invention, and that singing bowls are really not Tibetan at all. Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate this (to return to my earlier Dad joke) is by noting that while there is indeed a Tibetan term for both standing and hand-held prayer wheels (maNi ‘khor lo/lag ‘khor) no specific term for ‘singing bowl’ exists in Tibetan. Standing or ‘resting’ bells – unsuspended bells that face upwards and which lack an interior clapper – exist throughout Buddhist Asia and have often served as temple gongs and as devices for marking the break between sessions in ritual or meditative activities (the Tibetan ritual bell or dril bu, a fixture of tantric Buddhist rites, often serves a similiar function). Tibetans have made various kinds of bowls (phor pa) for centuries, which they have used for storage, eating and drinking, and as containers for offerings on altars. Tibetans also make use of a number of traditional musical instruments for both religious and recreational purposes, and in both monastic and non-monastic ritual contexts the chanting of prayers and mantras is accompanied by the chiming, clashing, blasting, and beating of a vast array of specially-designed ritual instruments. Yet, as historian of Tibet Tsering Shakya has confirmed in no uncertain terms, there remains no credible historical evidence for Tibetans ever having used ‘resonating’ metallic bowls in any way that resembles how they are employed by self-avowed sound and ‘vibrational’ healers today.
So where does the idea of singing bowls’ Tibetan-ness come from then? Singing bowls don’t even get a mention in either Donald Lopez or Peter Bishop’s classic treatments of Tibet in the Western imagination. The bowls do however appear in Martin Brauen’s comprehensive survey of Western fantasies about Tibet, ‘Dreamworld Tibet/Western Illusions’ (2004). In contrast to the meticulous detail with which Brauen traces the origins of a host of other fantastical things connected to Tibet though, his comments on singing bowls are surprisingly brief and vague:
“A special category of such Dharma products is constituted by the allegedly Tibetan ‘singing’ bowls’, which have nothing to do with Tibet. They are metal bowls from North India or Nepal, originally food bowls, which have a beautiful tone, but are no more sacred objects than Western crystal glasses are musical instruments – despite the beautiful tone one can elicit from them by proper treatment.”
Some pages later, in a caption under a picture of some singing bowls, Brauen re-iterates that the bowls are neither ‘Tibetan’ nor ‘ritual’ in origin and proposes that their beautiful tone “was recognized one day by a clever businessman” and that it is since then – whenever then was – that “the bowls have been marketed as Tibetan ritual objects.” Overall, while scholars seem sure that Tibetan singing bowls are ‘made up’ no one seems to be able to account for exactly how the association between Himalayan serving dishes and super special spirituality actually happened. The history of the singing bowl as a commodity and sacred object has yet to be written. While researchers have studied the unique acoustic qualities of singing bowls and designed digital algorythms modelled on these and professional counsellors and therapists have investigated the bowls’ effectiveness as aids for inducing relaxation and ‘mindfulness’, little academic research has been conducted on the social lives of these objects, and the myriad ways in which a wide variety of alternative health and spirituality practitioners are making use of them.
In the interests of encouraging further and fuller inquiry, I will offer some preliminary reflections in this post. How has the idea that the singing bowl comprises some kind of ‘secret technology’ developed, how has it been justified and elaborated? What can a magic dinner dish teach us about the role of (im)materiality in religious practice, or the relative importance of ‘traditional knowledge’ and experience in practitioners’ lives? Virtually every instructional guide on singing bowls I have come across claims for the bowls an ancient and (to at least a certain extent) Tibetan or Himalayan origin. There is a discernible pattern in much of this literature. Authors are faced with a central conundrum or dissonance. On the one hand, they know that Tibetans (and other intermediaries like Nepalis) are making these bowls and selling them along with padded mallets to foreigners as musical instruments. On the other hand, it’s also quite clear to most authors that Tibetans’ relationship to the bowls as cultural objects is different from their own.
One can often observe this dynamic unfolding in real-time. Recently, for example, I happened to be loafing in a Tibetan curio store in McLeod Ganj when an elderly tourist from what may have been Spain walked in. The partially-dreadlocked, partially-shaved haired, shawl-laden woman picked up a large singing bowl from the assortment on display and addressed the middle-aged Tibetan refugee lady who was processing customers that day. “This bowl, what chakra is it? What chakra is this bowl for?” asked the tourist in English, with some difficulty. The Tibetan shop assistant squinted at her. Having only limited English herself, she turned to a young Tibetan who was in the store at the time and said in Tibetan, “What did she say?”. “She asked which ‘chakra’ this bowl is,” the younger mediator said, saying the word ‘chakra’ in English. “I don’t know about that! Tell her it’s good quality, it’s made from many different metals, that’s what they say.” The young Tibetan relayed this and demonstrated playing the bowl as the Spanish woman deliberated. After some discussion about prices, the tourist declared that she would come back later. After she had left I went to the clerk and asked her in Tibetan, “What was that woman saying, about ‘chakras’? These bowls, how must one use them? Tibetans don’t normally use them, do they?”. “I don’t know,” the woman said, “I don’t know about all that.” “Maybe it’s something to do with white-people religion,” I volunteered. She merely shrugged.
Singing bowl enthusiasts typically state that the bowls are shrouded in secrecy. It is not uncommon for them to acknowledge that (as is in fact the case) no written records exist for the bowls’ use and that Tibetans deny doing anything with metal bowls other than putting stuff in or eating out of them. Authors often recount how they have tried – sometimes for years – to elicit further information about the bowls’ history and use from Tibetans. Tibetans’ silence or disavowals of knowledge are interpreted in three typical ways: 1) the Tibetans to which the author spoke were not privy to the deepest secrets of their own culture, and therefore unable or unqualified to speak 2) These Tibetans had forgot or lost the secret knowledge of which the bowls are a part or 3) These Tibetans are hiding something, guarding their knowledge from prying outsiders or for fear of persecution by ‘orthodox’ Buddhist authorities. The bowls’ physical ubiquity, their self-evident ordinariness thus contrasts with the depth and opaqueness of the secret histories and science that they are supposed to embody. Singing bowl enthusiasts seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that singing bowls’ resonant properties are incidental. The absence of credible information or proof of the bowls’ use in Tibet only goes to confirm for them the incredible secrecy and integrity of the ancient oral tradition that they insist lies behind the bowls’ mundane exterior.
The idea of the ‘secret’ and esoteric is thus a crucial component in the mythic histories and charisma that has been built up around the bowls. Sound therapist Kathleen Humphries’ work exemplifies this pattern. She acknowledges that singing bowls are not mentioned in any written scriptural or historical source, and notes that historical and contemporary evidence points to them being used as dining utensils and for offerings. Yet the odd fact that singing bowls aren’t used in ‘official Buddhist rituals’ only seems to convince Humphries of their original association with healing and consciousness-alteration. Relying on popular conceptions of ‘shamanism’ as a kind of pan-human, ur-religion, Humphries accepts fellow practitioner Jansen’s claim that there existed an ancient lineage of metal-working shamans who passed the secrets of their sound-based spirituality down through the centuries. For Humphries the silence and apparent ignorance of the native must point to more profound, even dangerous truths:
“…If these bowls were actually created by travelling metal smiths or by the shamans themselves, and they were secretly used in monasteries, there must be reasons for individuals to keep quiet about their shaman uses of the bowls; it is no wonder that many times when asked about these singing bowls, everyone answers with ‘I don’t know’ or simply describes them as mere eating bowls…[I]t is not unnatural for the individuals to deny owning singingbowls because this automatically ties them to shamanistic rituals. Nevertheless, many people own singing bowls in the Himalayas and secretly use them in their rituals. A common reason given for people owning these bowls is that they are simply dishes used for display in the household. It may be of [sic] that these bowls are not used in official Buddhist rituals because they simply do not want to be categorized as participating in a shaman practice. Thus, there can be several reasons as to why singing bowls are not created in the original technique for the past forty years. If the bowls were actually produced to serve the purpose of an eating dish, then they would have been replaced by China and other materials that are easier to clean than metal. If the bowls were originally produced for the purpose of sacrificial dishes, then they are not produced the same today due to the Chinese invasion of Tibet. With the destruction of many monasteries in Tibet, the demand for sacrificial dishes has come to a halt. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that singing bowls were indeed created for the sole purpose of usage in shamanistic rituals.”
Practitioners also commonly appeal to the bowls’ innate, material properties as proof of their undeniable connection to an ancient and advanced secret science. The ‘beautiful tones’ Brauen describes could not be incidental – only something intended to be used for sacred purposes (something intelligently designed, if you will) could produce such pure and profound sounds or effects. The idea of a lost sound-based technology and its connection to material culture has received elaborate treatment in amateur, psychic archeologist and speculative historian Andrew Collins’ work. In his ‘Gods of Eden’, Collins proposes that Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts of the ‘Sons of God’ inter-breeding with the ‘Daughters of Man’ to produce an ancient race of hybrid angel-human giants (cf. Gen. 6:4) refer to literal historical events involving a physical race of advanced beings who Collins credits with building virtually all of the great stone monuments of the ancient world. This mysterious, pale-skinned, snake-eyed, god-like civilization did this, Collins explains, through a now largely lost sonic technology, by means of which they were able to levitate and dematerialize heavy stone blocks. Collins suggests that this science of sound was briefly resurrected and unsuccessfully popularized by largely discredited American inventor John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837-1898) who claimed to have discovered a new ‘etheric’, ‘harmonic’ or ‘vibratory’ force with which he could power various devices.
In addition to drawing on Keely’s legacy and mythological anecdotes from around the ancient world, Collins also cites two separate eye-witness accounts from a Swedish and Austrian traveler who are supposed to have watched Tibetan monks in pre-occupation Tibet use sound and harmonic resonance to levitate objects. The text from which Collins cites, a book by Swedish airplane designer Henry Kjellson published in 1961 is rich in detail – the account from the Swede Dr Jarl, who supposedly witnessed a whole assembly of drumming and trumpet-playing monks levitate a large stone block from a meadow to the top of a cliff 250 meters high, is replete with specific numbers and measurements, and is accompanied by various precise diagrams drawn by Kjellson. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that either Jarl or the Austrian explorer Linauer ever existed, and some of the details Kjellson reproduces – such as the fact that Dr Jarl travelled to Tibet at the behest of a high-ranking lama whom he had befriended when they studied together at Oxford in the 1930s – are impossible, since the first Tibetan to ever enroll at Oxford did so only in 1963. Nevertheless, Collins attempts (unsuccessfully) to levitate and/or dissolve stone himself by copying the details left behind by Kjellson and Keely. Somewhat ironically, he makes use of singing bowls in his experiments, despite the fact that the bowls are not mentioned in either of Kjellson’s (probably fictional) reports.
The idea that Tibetans may have actually possessed some secret science of sound is also present in the work of the somewhat more credible (and at least actually historically existant) French-Belgian anarchist-feminist-opera-singing-esotericist-explorer Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969). Although David-Neel was initially influenced by Theosophical (mis)representations of Tibet, she nonetheless did actually travel to and live in various parts of Tibet and the Buddhist Himalayas for varying periods between 1912 and 1946, during which time she received instruction in esoteric Buddhism from a number of actual lamas. In her book ‘Tibetan Journey’ (republished as ‘Tibet: Bandits, Priests and Demons’) David-Neel devotes several pages to an incident that took place during a visit to a Bonpo temple in the province of Kham, Eastern Tibet. This anecdote is frequently mentioned by singing bowl enthusiasts today, and has helped promote the idea that singing bowls’ esoteric technology can be traced back to Tibet’s supposedly shamanistic pre-Buddhist religion Bön.
In an episode that David-Neel calls ‘the mystery of the shang’, she describes how, drawn by the sounds of drumming, she walked in on two Bönpo lamas conducting a rite in a dimly-lit temple. Several of her porters had also wandered into the building, and one of these proceeds to accidentally knock over a low table which he fails to see in the half-light. The crash of the table and the porter’s cursing disturbs the officiants, and one of the two lamas demands very shortly (and impolitely) that the offendor leave. The porter, who David-Neel describes as a low-order ‘skeptic’ who had been influenced by Nationalist Chinese-style secularism, resents being spoken to in this way and refuses to go. When the lama insists that he not come near the magical diagram or mandala (dkyil ‘khor) over which he and his colleague are praying, the porter begins to yell at the priest and dismiss his rituals as nonsense. The porter grows more and more angry, but when he attempts to rush forward to attack the lama and destroy his offerings, the lama seizes a nearby shang (gshang, a kind of Bönpo flat ritual bell) and shakes it vigorously. David-Neel explains what happens next:
“An extraordinary sound, made of a thousand unloosed cries, filled the hall with a surge of tumultous vibrations and pierced through my brain. The scoffing peasant gave a cry. I saw him recoil violently, with his arms outstretched before him, as if to thrust back some terrifying apparition.
“Go away,” the lama repeated again.
The other men hastened to their comrade’s aid, and they all left the temple in a great state of agitation.
Dung! Dung! continued the placid drum, quietly marking time for the soft chanting of the Bonpo, who once more sat in front of the kyilkhor.”
Perplexed, David-Neel follows the men outside and quizzes them about what happened. The villainous porter, shaken, claims that ‘a serpent of fire’ had come out of the shang when the lama shook it. His companions, though they saw no such apparition, claim to have seen lights flash from the instrument. David-Neel for her part denies having seen anything and claims the porter must have been dreaming, but since she still felt something peculiar, she goes back inside to the lama and asks him about what happened. The lama ultimately explains that the shang sounded to her and appeared to the others as it did because of the ‘power of the zungs (magic word)’ that he had skilfully chanted while shaking it. In this, and a future conversation, he briefly schools David-Neel in Bönpo cosmology and theories of sound and reality. “Sound produces forms and beings, sound animates them,” he tells her. Describing himself as a ‘master of sound’, he demonstrates his power of magical sonic projection once more by producing a stunningly harmonious sound for David-Neel with his shang. “By sound I can kill that which lives and restore to life that which is dead,” he says. He explains that, all things, inanimate or animate, have a signature, albeit changing sound. Being ‘aggregates of atoms (rdul phra)’ that ‘dance’ all things are capable of emitting sounds. He describes how matter was created through the sound emitted by the primordial ‘wind’ that formed the whirling, singing crossed-dorjes or swastikas (rgya gram) that are the primordial basis of all form. A saint with power (grub thob) can therefore manipulate the subtle and gross forms that arise through sound, by means of sound, for both creative and destructive ends.
While scholars have by now problematized Bon’s conflation with ‘shamanism’ David-Neel’s anecdote lends substance to practitioners’ claims that singing bowls’ sonic technologies are both pre-Buddhist and potentially dubious to Buddhist orthodoxy (it is true after all that Tibetan Buddhists have periodically demonized Bön). Tibetans themselves have sometimes stereotyped Bönpos as skilled, if disreputable sorcerors, and various esoteric ruminations on the nature of sound do exist in Bönpo tradition, much of which parallels similar ideas found in Tibetan Buddhism. As historian of Tibet Dan Martin notes, there is a long-standing association between sound and the Buddha’s teachings, and prominent Tibetan religious authorities such as Je Tsongkhapa and Drakpa Gyeltsen have written treatises on the theological significance of the Tibetan tantric bell (dril bu), whose shape and sound alike signify the Emptiness that rests at the heart of all phenomena. And yet – a shang, a dril bu or a rkang gling are not a singing bowl. So how did this specific shape and sound become so associated with Tibet and powerful, secret knowledge?
Robert Beer, a scholar of Tibetan music and iconography, supplies a useful, more visually-based clue for understanding singing bowls’ emergence. Discussing the iconographic conventions used in Tibetan religious art for depicting sensory offerings (nyer spyod) involving sound, he observes that when gongs are depicted:
“…they are represented as a pair of symmetrical bell metal bowls, with two metal striking sticks placed within them, and cloth rings underneath their bases to sustain their resonance when struck. The Chinese gong (lo) and the Mongolian gong (dudaram) were probably the prototypes of these symbols, which began to appear in later Tibetan art. In the modern mythology of the New Age spiritual movment these gongs have come to be known as ‘Tibetan singing bowls’, and many fantastic tales of occult power have been grafted onto their recent history and innovative techniques of playing. Brass or bronze bowls first began to appear on Tibetan refugee stalls during the 1970’s, but these objects were actually the eating or offering bowls of these impoverished refugees. Over the last few decades, these Tibetan singing bowls have been widely manufactured for the tourist markets of India and Nepal, but stories of their employment in ancient Tibet as mystical musical instruments are a modern myth.”
It’s thus possible that using metallic Himalayan bowls as musical instruments for broadly ‘spiritual’ purposes originated as recently as the late 60s or early 70s. In 1969 two American musicians by the name of Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings travelled to Nepal, where they interacted with Tibetan refugees and studied with lamas from the Kagyu lineage living in exile. During this time the two became fascinated by traditional Tibetan musical instruments, and began experimenting with playing them in both traditional and non-traditional ways. In 1972 in London they released the first of what would become a series of albums that show-cased their efforts. ‘Tibetan Bells’ featured seven supposedly entirely electronically un-altered tracks that combined the sound of Tibetan dril bu, gongs (rgya rnga) and ting shag (finger cymbals) with tones produced by striking and rubbing metal bowls. Track names like ‘Khumbu Ice-Fall’ (the opening track, listen here), ‘White Light’, ‘Rainbow Light’, ‘Clear Light’ and ‘Wrathful Deity’ directly referenced features of the Himalayas and Tibetan religions.
Amazon.com’s review for the CD-medium digital remastering of the original record, notes that the album “has a quiet & atmospherically psychedelic quality due to the oscillations & extended reverberations of the bells, which would fit in perfectly to a science fiction movie (the music has similarities to the ending sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey).” Reviewer John Diliberto, observing that Tibetan Bells was the “deep chill ambient album of its time” picks up on this theme of the trippy, cosmic and in-human. Sounds conspire together to “orchestrate crystalline echoes of the mind”, tunes, melodies, and vocals are replaced by a “shimmering aurora borealis of sound that’s diaphonous and reverberant, like windows opening up into an altered state of sound.” “Deep gongs call out from a hidden abyss”. If this was indeed (as is apparently the case) the first time that the world was hearing a professional recording of ‘Tibetan’ singing bowls, by all accounts they sounded less like something from another country, and more like something from another planet. In my last post I wrote about Tibetan aliens and sex magic. If these reviews are anything to go by, if Tibetan aliens had a soundtrack it would apparently have to be Tibetan Bells. Music critics at Billboard were equally taken by the album’s unearthly quality. Using language worthy of any sex magic alien cult, reviewers gushed:
“Seminal recording…seemingly emerges out of thin air, untouched by human hands but descended from the heavens. Vital Reissue!”
Amazon.com credits Wolff and Hennings’ album with launching what is now known as ‘new age’ music, what the writer glosses as “the soundscape of a re-invented consciousness.” Crucially then, Tibet (or at least the version of it embodied in the unusual sound of the ‘Tibetan bells’ ) is present at the very birth of the New Age genre, is made to play midwife to the sound-track of ‘spaced out’ East-meets-West fusion. More research is needed to understand how Wolff and Hennings came up with the idea to use Himalayan bowls in this way. It is possible that others were experimenting with making bowls sing before them, something that only further research with surviving members of the original generation of predominantly white Tibetan Buddhist converts and travelers in Nepal – affectionately remembered as the ‘freaks’ – can unconver (it’s doubtful whether interviewing older Tibetan refugees about their memories of the tourist trade pre-1970s would shed much light on this question – many exile Tibetans probably had – and often still have – only the dimmest idea about what Western tourists were doing with the artifacts they sold them). Wolff and Hennings may well have had experience with standing-bells from other Asian contexts (they may have even played the Chinese or Mongolian bowl-gongs Beer mentions). Before the 1970s, Tibetan Buddhism had a very limited institutional or popular presence in the United States. Zen Buddhism however, was far more widespread and established, and it’s thus possible that Wolff and Hennings may have applied the principles of Japanese standing bells they had come across in America to Himalayan bowls they discovered in Nepal.
Wolff and Hennings later performed their music for the previous and 16th Karmapa, a reincarnate lama who is the highest religious authority in the Karma Kagyu lineage. The duo were aware that what they were playing was not traditional, but presented it to their guru anyway as a personal, musical offering. The Karmapa is reported to have said that their music sounded like the ‘music of the Void’, a statement that recalls the classic Buddhist treatments of the relationship between sound and emptiness mentioned above. In the curiously circular way in which these things tend to operate, the Karmapa’s statement is now often mentioned by singing bowl enthusiasts as evidence for the bowls’ profound connections to Tibetan Buddhism and higher truths. But what are the implications of thinking of the ‘cosmic’ tones of singing bowls as ‘the music of Tibet’?
Before Wolff and Hennings debuted the bowls, extant professional recordings of ‘Tibetan music’ were of Tibetan folk music, both lay and monastic. The sound of the bowls, apparently hitherto unheard of, was an open field that took on Tibetan-ness by association, but that was at once both singular and generic enough that it seemed to float free of clear historical or geographical co-ordinates. As with the Tibetan aliens of my last post, the ‘cosmic’ sound of the singing bowl could point to a universalism that transcended specific traditions or cultures – and by extension the priorities or claims of native Tibetans. Wolff and Hennings gesture towards this theme of transcendence and universalism, of Tibet as a bridge to the infinite, in the name for the fourth track on the album ‘From the Roof of the World You Can See Forever’.
As Darinda Congdon notes in her thesis on ‘brand’ Tibet in the New Age music industry in the U.S., sounds like those of singing bowls that reference “New Age representations of Tibet have become a symbol representing Tibet as a whole in America.” This point was brought dramatically home when Miley Cyrus released her fifth studio album for free on Soundcloud at the end of August this year. The album ‘Miley and her Dead Petz’, a minimally produced collaboration with the Flaming Lips, included an interlude track called ‘Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz’. The track lasts for just over two minutes and features Cyrus crooning wordlessly over a backdrop of vibrating singing bowls. The song quickly came to the attention of Tibetans. Choetso Amnyetsang, an exile Tibetan living in America, responded critically to the song on the blog Tibetan Feminist Collective, in a post titled ‘Privileged White Girl Problemzzz’. In her post, Amnyetsang slams Miley for yet another display of insensitive and self-indulgent cultural appropriation:
“Regardless of the significance of and meaning of the singing bowl (which is used in many cultures and often as an object for meditation), the fact that she put “Tibetan” as part of the song title is in itself annoying and unnecessary. That, along with casually referring to it as “bowlzzz’ (oh Miley, how many weed references will we get from you?) is literally the cause of my nightmarish migraines. Some of you may ask, so what?Why can’t she enjoy this part of Tibetan culture? The answer is simply that as a white girl who has used black culture as a prop for her music, she is now also profiting from her appropriation and distortion of Tibetan culture. Salt on a fresh wound, you could say.”
While the sound and use of singing bowls may already be over-determined as an index of white, American privilege (check out this snowy peak whiteness NPR feature if you still don’t believe me), Miley’s appropriation of ‘brand’ Tibet to lend a more spiritual, introspective or psychedelic feel to her album is both predictable and insulting. Amnyetsang continues:
“The truth is I don’t owe anyone an explanation on why it’s not ok to appropriate my culture. As a Tibetan woman, I want my culture to be respected, which I don’t think should be considered too much to ask for. Asking for basic respect towards my culture and community shouldn’t even be necessary and derided as overly sensitive. I am the daughter of refugees who escaped Tibet with absolutely nothing and risked everything to be free from the forces of colonialism and imperialism. My ancestors literally gave their lives to save their families and preserve their cultural legacy without fear of persecution. So, please excuse me if you think I’m being too dramatic about not wanting Miley to use my cultural heritage as another superficial prop to make a tasteless weed joke for her own profit.”
Another exile Tibetan blogger, the anonymous ‘Angry Tibetan Girl’ weighed in too, to note that singing bowls “were never a Tibetan thing” but were “an invention by Newari merchants” intended to be sold to ‘fascinated’ white orientalists. “Now Tibetans sell’m too, orientalism sucks, its slathered on us without our choice, but who said we can’t gain a little from it”? Whatever the origins of singing bowls, they have become an everyday and significant part of the landscape of the Tibetan diaspora. Exile Tibetans may not play or project exactly the same meanings onto the bowls as foreigners but they grow up today surrounded by the bowls, see their parents making, buying and selling them, associate them with offering bowls that are replenished daily on family shrines, and come to perceive them as one item of many from among the rich and sometimes obscure assortment of specialist Tibetan cultural objects that have now become charismatic commodities in an often livelihood-sustaining economy built on foreign curiosity.
Around the same time that the singing bowl industry was taking off, and more bowls with more elaborate painted and engraved Buddhist icons and mantras were emerging in South Asian markets, Austrian anthropologist and practitioner of Hindu tantra Agehananda Bharati coined a term that is useful for understanding singing bowls’ status today. To make sense of the existence and popularity of modern, ‘Western’ forms of yoga in India, Bharati pointed to what he called a ‘pizza effect’. Here, cultural phenomena that are initially from one place get transformed or embraced in another only to be re-imported back to their source-culture or context. Bharati based his term on a particular reading of the modern pizza: Italian immigrants to the United States re-invent a low-status or banal food from their homeland, thereby imbuing it with an appealing, ethnic charisma. This culinary novelty is then re-imported to Italy where it is incorporated and potentially embellished even further so as to seem more ‘authentic’ (chefs in Rome swear ‘the original real Italian pizza’ always used a thin base and lots of rosemary etc). As the pizza analogy demonstrates, these sorts of complicated cross-fertilizations and ‘hermeneutic feedback loops’ as Stephen Jenkins has put it, are potentially endless. While five hundred years ago Indian yoga may have been more about corpse-ash and skull-cups than about Lulu Lemon and coconut water, and while today’s ‘ancient yoga’ may have been a more modern construction forged through collaborations between Indian holy men, nationalists, and ‘fascinated’ colonialists, it remains that native Indians today are selling yoga back to the West, and practicing it themselves.
Likewise, today, both Nepalis and Tibetans are positioning themselves as expert singing bowl healers and players in their dealings with foreigners. Some years ago, I was invited by a friend to attend a public singing bowl healing session conducted at the Denver Botanical Gardens. A white American couple dressed in white conducted the performance, which involved us all lying on the floor, shoes off, eyes closed in a dimly lit conference room, listening to about an hour’s worth of live, carefully orchestrated tones sounded from a raised circular platform in the middle of the room. Afterwards, I asked the two how they had become master singing bowl healers. To my surprise they told me they had learned from a third-generation Nepali sound healer from Kathmandu called Shree Krishna Shahi. The blend of the new and ancient in Shree Krishna’s story is interesting. The not all that old man acknowledges that he was the first to start using the bowls in Kathmandu, but claims for himself a far older lineage at the same time. Claiming to have been taught the ancient secrets of the bowls from his adoptive Tibetan grandfather Tashi Lama, a monk who came to Nepal from Tibet in the early 80’s, Shree Krishna now comes regularly to Boulder, Colorado to conduct workshops with foreigners. Shree Krishna’s innovation is thus tied to an older, uninterrupted genealogy whose home remains in Tibet. In Cardiff, Wales, a Tibetan exile lama by the name of Topgyal Lobsang also plays the bowls for healing. Lama Lobsang (who also achieved some fame for rescuing a mentally-ill teenager who had run away from home in Germany) says on his website that in addition to offering counselling, Buddhist teachings, ceremonies, and blessings he practices Tibetan sound healing “with my singing bowls, just as others have for centuries”. His description of this therapy is in line with much sound healing discourse today, invoking as it does ‘vibration’ ‘bio-feedback’ ‘relaxation’, the ‘balancing of chakras’ and being ‘at one with the universe’.
Lama Lobsang appears to have incorporated the playing of singing bowls into entirely ‘official’ Buddhist rituals without sharing any of Humphries’ anxieties about the dangers of flaunting heterodox shamanism. Sound healers today, whether ‘native’ or otherwise, are studying Indo-Tibetan meditative traditions and combining these with the bowls, just as Buddhist converts Wolff and Hennings did as students of the 16th Karmapa decades ago. The bowls’ veneer of ordinariness and lack of elaboration from most Tibetans puts the onus on practitioners to improvise, to fill the bowls’ void of indigenous meaning with all manner of significance. If the bowls were once containers for rice and water, they have now become containers for various syncretisms, for resonating hermeneutic feedback loops that are both hypnotizing and difficult to pin down. As veteran sound healer Frank Perry demonstrates, there are more than enough existing and verifiable esoteric traditions involving sound mysticism from around the world that can, if one wishes, structure and legitimate the use of the bowls for ritual and meditation (the intellectual history and evolution of the idea of ‘vibration’ in both mainstream and ‘occult’ science alone would require at least a whole book to cover).
On one level, the bowls’ materiality has become important, has been fetishized by sound healers. Each bowl has its own ‘frequency’ and accumulated psychic history. Practitioners have become connoisseurs, travelling across the world to find authentic antique bowls, which they infer must have originally been made for sacred sound healing purposes unlike modern ‘knock offs’. Bowls with different combinations of metals are associated with different chakras, planets, elements and energies. And yet despite this focus on the concrete quality of the bowl itself, sound healing is nonetheless a largely intuitive, more felt-than-seen exercise. Healers learn to listen minutely to different bowls and tones, develop subtle associations between sounds, feelings, colours, smells, and non-human agents like spirits, guides, aliens, gods and angels. This intituitive ‘tuning in’ involves new regimes of attention and sensory discipline that beg for closer ethnographic investigation.
With singing bowls, the equivalent of a common wine glass has become a lost and holy Grail, a floating signifier that can accomodate any number of referents. At the same time, the ‘fascination of Orientalists’ has in part helped to transform a household object into a charged metonymn for Tibetan cultural and national identity, and a lucrative commodity that ultimately puts food on poor refugees’ tables. Through the singing bowl, strange and ‘spiritual’ sounds have come to be linked in intimate and difficult-to-disentangle ways with ‘brand’ Tibet. The commodification of Tibetan culture by privileged outsiders enmeshes marginalized Tibetan refugees in transnational economies that offer both pain and possibility. The ambivalence of this kind of commodification came to light again recently in a parallel case to Miley and her ‘bowlzzz’. The casting of actress Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient’ One’ in Marvel’s upcoming film adaptation of the 1950’s comic ‘Dr Strange’ (starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange) also generated debate among Tibetans who were following these developments.
In the comic series, a rich white American surgeon’s career is destroyed after his hands are damaged in an accident. He searches exhaustively for a cure, and ultimately lands up in Tibet, where he meets an old sage – The Ancient One – who heals him and tutors him in the occult arts. It turns out that the Ancient One is a kind of cosmic protector who uses magic to protect the world from destruction at the hands of dark forces from other dimensions, and the unsuspecting New Yorker must take up his mantle. He does so, thereby becoming the super-hero Dr Strange. While some Tibetans expressed excitement that a Tibetan character would be appearing in such a big film, others criticized the casting of a white person for the role. Pointing to the under-representation of Asians in major Hollywood roles, and to Hollywood’s long history of ‘yellow-face’, they demanded in a petition that the character be recast. Still, other Tibetans questioned the value in claiming the ‘Ancient One’ at all. As Tenzing Thabke reflected in a Facebook post:
“I guess I probably don’t disagree with this line of attack entirely, but I hardly think that replacing Tilda Swinton with a Tibetan would count as a win for anyone involved given the role’s heavily orientalized origin in the Blavatskeyian-theosophical fancy of the mahatmas in the Himalayas, indeed it would probably only serve to further confuse what is already the quagmire of the western reception/conception of Tibetan & the Tibetans. Let the dusty orientalism in the Western comic mythos/canon be, I say, leave well enough alone in this case and let the Hollywood corporations serve up their reiteration of old orientalist tropes in new new age lights to the Marvel publics, which seems to include everyone these days…Hopefully that gives us some time to work on the more pressing issues, but at the very least we’ll be able to sit in theaters with our noses in the air as Tilda Swinton and Bumblesnuff do their thing/stuff.”
As Tibetans continue to discuss the potential meanings and consequences of these sorts of cultural commodification pizza-effect-meets-cultural-appropriation scenarios, singing bowl enthusiasts continue to strongly resist acknowledging their own ‘off-label’ use of the bowls. As an anthropologist, rather than throw down some gauntlet and declare that singing bowls are or aren’t Tibetan, I would much rather focus on the complicated social and political lives of these deceptively mundane/deceptively sacred objects. If the anthropological literature on religious movements has taught us anything it’s that cognitive dissonance need not spell disillusionment and cosmological collapse. Rather, cognitive dissonance, epistemic ‘murk’, and excess themselves spur reformulation, and promote innovation, religious creativity, and change. Which totally feels like a vibe anthropologists can get into.