In Buddhist practice, singing bowls are used as a support for meditation, trance induction and prayer. For example, Chinese Buddhists use the singing bowl to accompany the wooden fish during chanting, striking it when a particular phrase in a sutra, mantra or hymn is sung. In Japan and Vietnam, singing bowls are similarly used during chanting and may also mark the passage of time or signal a change in activity.
The use of singing bowls in Tibet is the subject of much debate and many stories. Some people say they were used for meditation while others say they were magical tools for transformation of self and of matter. However, neither theory is supported by reference to any Tibetan religious sources and indeed there is no evidence that Tibetans ever employed bowls in a religious context for anything other than receptacle purposes.
Little is known in western scholarship regarding Himalayan singing bowls. It is likely they were used in rituals, having a specific function. The oral and written traditions from the Himalayan region are vast and largely unknown in the west. To date, no specific texts have been found discussing the use of singing bowls in depth, but according to Joseph Feinstein of Himalayan Bowls (2006), paintings and statues dating from several centuries ago depict singing bowls in detail. Singing bowls from at least the 10th-12th century are found in private collections. The tradition may date significantly earlier since bronze has been used to construct musical instruments since ancient times. Bronze bells from Asia have been discovered as early as the 8th-10th century BCE (Feinstein, 2006).
Singing bowls are played by the friction of rubbing a wooden, plastic, or leather wrapped mallet or stick around the rim of the bowl to produce overtones and a continuous 'singing' sound. High quality singing bowls produce a complex chord of harmonic overtones. Singing bowls may also be played by striking with a soft mallet or stick (supplied) to produce a warm bell tone.
Singing bowls are unique because they are multiphonic instruments, producing multiple harmonic overtones at the same time. The overtones are a result of using an alloy consisting of multiple metals, each producing its own overtone. New bowls can also produce multiple harmonic overtones if they are high quality bronze, but many are made from a simpler alloy and produce only a principal tone and one harmonic overtone.
While it is generally believed that the traditional manufacturing techniques are lost, there are new hand-hammered bowls being produced in the centuries old tradition. The difference is the quality of the alloy and the aging process itself. The tone improves as they age.
Singing bowls are widely used as an aid to meditation and as a tool for trance induction. They are also used in yoga, music therapy, sound healing, religious services, performance and for personal enjoyment.