The pizza effect
November 1, 2015 2:24 AM   Subscribe

Tripping On Good Vibrations : Cultural Commodification and Tibetan Singing Bowls
posted by marijn (29 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow. That was fascinating and I confess that I bought a 'Tibetan' singing bowl. This article explores so many levels of cultural appropriation.
posted by biggreenplant at 3:15 AM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


The Sandra Bullock caption mid-article is gold.

I am so loving this partly because several people I know have such bowls and went on about their ritual sacredness and costliness, and I am a horrid person, but the profiteering off tourists is always funny.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:32 AM on November 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


Cool, I've always liked these bowls but had no love for the woo story that goes along with them.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 4:24 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nonsense! Everybody knows that singing bowls are authentically Tibetan in the same way that tartan is authentically Scottish! (.pdf)



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).


If I met this sentence in a bar, I would buy it a drink and awkwardly hit on it.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:47 AM on November 1, 2015 [37 favorites]


That was super interesting. Thanks for posting.
posted by Jalliah at 5:18 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Back in bowl!.
posted by bentley at 5:25 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I also didn't know that the connection of these bowls to old Tibetan practice is so tenuous. I found the tone of the article a bit difficult. The author seems like someone who is really struggling with issues of inter-cultural dialogue himself, as exemplified by this interchange:

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.
posted by iotic at 8:15 AM on November 1, 2015


iotic: I read that as condescending sarcasm (condescending toward the tourist, that is).
posted by idiopath at 8:50 AM on November 1, 2015


So did I. But here's the thing: he's taking the tourist to task for having preconceptions about the bowl's meaning in Tibetan culture, and expecting the shopkeeper to be a representative of all things Tibetan - but then he does much the same thing himself (although with a different slant). And the "white-people religion" question does seem a bit odd, coming from a white anthropologist (checking his profile, the author looks like he could at least pass as white, whatever his ethnicity is). Is he trying to second guess her perceptions? I guess I felt he was seemed a bit more proud of speaking Tibetan than listening in Tibetan, at this point.

However, I shouldn't judge. I struggle with issues of inter-cultural dialogue myself, also as a white man. And I've certainly done this sort of thing before myself - projecting my own take on issues onto someone I perceive to be a member of an ethnicity effected by cultural imperialism. However, it's a very interesting article - I just would rather it had a touch more in the way of direct quotes from those perceived to be affected by the cultural issues, and was a little more forgiving towards the perceived wrongdoers. It really is a complex area and we do all make mistakes.
posted by iotic at 9:14 AM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Nice article - thanks!

Without getting into sticky issues of appropriation and authenticity, I broadly agree with his concluding paragraph:

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.

The most interesting thing to me is recognizing the origin of the singing bowl as coming from the western psychedelic movement - that westerners recognized something in the standing bowl that resonated with that movement and built upon it and incorporated the singing bowl into an emerging western aesthetic. I imagine this is done partly because of the 'tibetan' narrative incorporated into it, but also because the quality of the sound itself fed into changing concepts of sensory stimuli.
posted by ianhattwick at 10:43 AM on November 1, 2015


His article Secrets of the Sex Magic Space Lamas Revealed! is pretty good, too.
posted by valkane at 11:10 AM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Wasn't expecting to see Mme Blavatsky pop up here, but maybe I should have!
posted by en forme de poire at 11:40 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


From the caption of the album cover:
the great Buddhist pilgrimage site of Boudhanath (bya rung kha shor) stupa floats free against a backdrop of outer space, while a weird-looking ship sails along ‘far out’ Saturn’s rings
The "weird looking ship" is clearly a junk. It seems weird to dismiss it, particularly when it's presence is perhaps the oddest thing about the cover. You can at least see Saturn from Boudhanath.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:38 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Secrets of the Sex Magic Space Lamas

I think I had that on the Commodore 64.
posted by acb at 1:18 PM on November 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


And the "white-people religion" question does seem a bit odd, coming from a white anthropologist (checking his profile, the author looks like he could at least pass as white, whatever his ethnicity is). Is he trying to second guess her perceptions?

It can be hard to get someone from another culture to offer critical comments to you about your own culture. I don't know if it's considered good anthropological practice to try to say something to break the ice and reassure the person that your comfortable talking critically about "white-people religion," but it seems like it might be a good tactic.
posted by straight at 1:42 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Singing bowl enthusiasts typically state that the bowls are shrouded in secrecy. It is not ucommon 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.


Change "Tibetan" and "Buddhist" to some made-up sci-fi names in the above paragraph, and you have something that would slot neatly and unobstrusively into any of The Hitchikers' Guide books as an aside Guide entry. Of course, Adams was a master at dryly underlining people's various sillinesses, so this is perhaps not surprising.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:48 PM on November 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


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

Strikes me as a real-life attempt at what TVTropes calls "Mighty Whitey", because nobody can excel at and understand native culture like a white person.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:02 PM on November 1, 2015


There is also a secret city somewhere in a close dimension, to Himalayan Tibet, called Shambala, a teaching site. Whatever, I faced it. I love woo.

But a bonafide physicist has found some energy augmenting properties in these forms that may stand to double the effectiveness of solar panels, maybe then space travel too. Maybe this is the secret of the object, it is a remnant of a secret technology, rather than spiritual practice. Ummmm woo!
posted by Oyéah at 2:13 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh man. Because my main affinity group is loosely defined as "people who like weird sounds, weird shit, and especially weird sounding shit" so many people I know own, display and play with a lot of (apparently not so) Tibetan singing bowls.

And I've always felt kind of awkward about them, because they are frequently displayed on little pillows or makeshift altars and imbued with some kind of spiritual signifance beyond it sounding cool or being a meditative object and somehow different then just a crystal glass that you can get to sing with the wet finger trick, or even that plain old musical instrument next to it like a thumb piano.

Because I was always apprehensive about playing them, like "what's the right way to play this that isn't irrereverant or that is most respectful of its antiquity" and thus "maybe I shouldn't whack this like a gong or see what it tastes like or fill it full of ball bearings and dry ice because of woo".

When in reality I'm probably older than every last singing bowl I've ever met. Hell, I've probably owned belts older than some of them. For all I know someone hammered any one of them together out of old bronze artillery shells, tin plate and copper recycled out of old TVs.

BRB, meditating about old belts. They encircle and support with their endlessness.
posted by loquacious at 2:32 PM on November 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Oh man. Because my main affinity group is loosely defined as "people who like weird sounds, weird shit, and especially weird sounding shit" so many people I know own, display and play with a lot of (apparently not so) Tibetan singing bowls.


Well among other things we can learn from this article is how to model their sound using circular waveguide networks.
posted by atoxyl at 2:47 PM on November 1, 2015


396 Hz Solfeggio with Evening Theta Binaurals and Holophonic Tibetan Bells
posted by atoxyl at 2:54 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


It can be hard to get someone from another culture to offer critical comments to you about your own culture. I don't know if it's considered good anthropological practice to try to say something to break the ice and reassure the person that your comfortable talking critically about "white-people religion," but it seems like it might be a good tactic.

I don't know about "anthropological practice" - but can you really imagine that being a great ice breaker for talking to someone you didn't know, from another culture, about the effects of western cultural values? Wouldn't you at least want to find out a little bit about them first? They might appear to be a "typical" Tibetan but actually be a Christian, say, or have white relatives or a college degree in fucking post-colonial studies. Mightn't you want know some of that before throwing terms like "white people religion" into the conversation, if you wanted to find out their viewpoint?

Besides, the question about the bowls not being used by Tibetans is totally a leading question. How could that be good practice?
posted by iotic at 3:10 PM on November 1, 2015


iotic: all this seems to assume that the question of whether the bowls are a part of Tibetan spiritual practice is somehow open to discussion.
posted by idiopath at 3:54 PM on November 1, 2015


No it doesn't - just the last bit. And yeah, a large part of this article kinda is dealing with that question, so couldn't her viewpoint just possibly be of use? He is, after all, asking her the question. That presupposes he's interested in her viewpoint. But he's doing it in a leading way. And, let's face it, he fails to get a response.
posted by iotic at 4:11 PM on November 1, 2015


He tells us what the academic consensus is near the beginning of the article, and offers nothing that would challenge that consensus.

It's an article about why so many people would believe something about Tibetan spirituality that the actual spiritual people of Tibet unanimously say is not the case. The open question is "why are these people so misinformed about Tibetan traditions?".
posted by idiopath at 4:39 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Unanimously?
posted by iotic at 5:03 PM on November 1, 2015


Anyway I'm not sure why you keep coming back to that one thing. My point was that he failed to get her viewpoint on anything at all, and there might be reasons for that. Unlike you he did actually seem to want to.
posted by iotic at 5:11 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


The first one I came across was in a metaphysical shop with a bunch of others. The one I liked the most played a deep sound vibrating through my hands, up my arm, down into the floor. I floated home, debating whether I should raid my piggy bank then head back to try and barter her down a bit. I talked myself out of it though because I couldn't justify the cost which is neatly packaged up in the idea the bowls are made of seven metals along with the rest of the woo. I'm happy enough to believe their made of tin and copper, used for offerings and in daily life, I don't need the rest. There used to be a bowl seller on ebay who was incredibly honest about their provenance, and the history. I wish he was still around because I still think about getting one.


crystal glass that you can get to sing with the wet finger trick


But it doesn't get me into Flow like those bowls can. I'm kinda surprised how mesmerizing playing a bowl can be.
posted by redindiaink at 9:25 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I've been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for decades and never heard a damn thing about "singing bowls" and their magical properties, although many Rinpoches like to use them in the pan-Asian way mentioned in the article: to begin or more often to end a period of meditation.

Boy, did that image of the "Tibetan Singing Bells" album take me back! To 1972, in particular, when I bought the album. I loved that shit. Had no idea that, according to the article, it represented the genesis of New Age music.

Lots of great stuff in the article and on the savage minds website. Now I know about The Tibetan Feminist Collective, for one!
posted by kozad at 7:52 AM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


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