Franciscan Spirituality Center
920 Market Street
La Crosse, WI 54601
Steve Spilde: Welcome. Today my guest is Tom Roberts. Tom is well-known in the La Crosse community. [He is] a longtime therapist. He’s also a presenter of retreats and workshops. He’s done many workshops here at the Franciscan Spirituality Center, and [he’s] done retreats at various places across the country. He’s especially well-known here at the Franciscan Spirituality Center as the presenter of the Tibetan Singing Bowls. It’s my pleasure today to welcome Tom.
Tom Roberts: Thank you, Steve.
Steve: Tom, tell me how you first encountered the singing bowls.
Tom: This will really date me. I’d always had a really small, little machine-made brass bowl that I used in my meditation, to start and to end. I can’t even tell you how long ago that was. The first time I was introduced to singing bowls and what they were and how they worked and what they were used for when I was either a junior or a senior undergrad at [UW-] Madison. A friend of mine had gone over to Nepal. I’m not quite sure why it was, but when he came back, he brought back these bowls that were about this size – about 6 inches across, kind of a deep kind of bowl. We’d crossed paths, and he said, “Tom, you’ve got to come over to my place and hear these things. I’ve never heard anything like this.” And so I did, and he was right. They were very, very powerful [with] tones and resonances that, even myself being a percussionist, hadn’t been subjected to, so to speak. I think he had about three or four of them, and he started playing them by striking and then by singing around the rim, and I was captivated. Obviously, this was back in the ‘70s. There was no Google, there was no internet – none of that stuff. I said, “Short of going to Nepal, where do you find these?” He said, “I have no clue.” He said the one thing that he did learn when he was over there was the Tibetan people – and I suspect the Dalai Lama was involved in this decision – were discussing releasing some of the artifacts – the social, the art, the medical, the spiritual artifacts of the Tibetan culture that had been driven out of China. Obviously, the bowls were in those discussions, and there were tens of thousands of them stored away in northern India, Nepal, and what have you.
Shortly afterwards, I began to start hearing about people going over there and being allowed to bring bowls back to the West, to introduce them to the West. I began searching around and found a couple of places where the people who were selling the bowls actually went there, were allowed to go into the large storage areas and select a limited number of bowls to bring back and use for themselves, as well as make them available to people in the West. That was my first introduction to that. As they became more plentiful, I began collecting bowls and matching them up. And then, as I have been doing for several decades, sharing them with people, like I have at the Spirituality Center.
Steve: When would you say you got your first bowl? Would that have been in the ‘80s?
Tom: My first bowl … You’re really trying the old memory here. … I would say late ‘70s [or] early ‘80s. It was in Minneapolis. There was a store there that specialized in Eastern artifacts: Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Southeast Asian. There were a couple of bowls there. I picked one up and I started to ring it and then I started to sing it. It sounded good to me. I didn’t really know the fine points of what made a good bowl at that point. I don’t think many people did except for the people in India and Nepal and Tibet. I purchased it. Again, it was a bowl very similar to this – the same size and shape and what have you. It was ridiculously inexpensive compared to what they’re going for now. It was my first bowl, and I would say late ‘70s, early ‘80s
Steve: Do you still have your first bowl?
Tom: Yes. I don’t play it much, simply because of how much I’ve learned about bowls in terms of resonance and how they’re made. That bowl doesn’t play very well with the other ones. The resonance isn’t very good, and the tone isn’t very good compared to the other ones. But yes, I still do have it.
Steve: You mentioned that you were a percussionist. That’s the instrument you played growing up?
Tom: Yup. I started playing the drums at 10. My brother had a little snare drum and a cymbal. I stole it from his room and started playing it. Yeah, I started at 10.