As often happens here in your favorite Urban Semiotic, yesterday’s article — The Unnecessary Necessary: An Anonymous Stranger — and its comments, creates the inspiration for a second article to expand the ideas we expressed together.

Today I will share with you a story I learned many years ago from my first Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga guruji: The Lesson of the Singing Bowl.

A Singing Bowl

A traditional Tibetan Singing Bowl is made of bronze and you use the song it creates to soothe your inner core and to provide direction for others in discovering the peace its voice provides. Here is The Lesson of the Singing Bowl as it was taught to me:

A young man traveled to Tibet to find his path in the world. The young man stayed at a monastery and he and a monk became friends. As a part of the daily meditation, Singing Bowls were called into song.

The young man was enchanted by the sound and wished to play all the bowls into voice at every opportunity. The young man was a natural at coaxing rich tones from the bronze bowl. The monk was impressed and supportive. One day the young man was visiting the monk in his quarters and he saw a large and valuable Singing Bowl.

He asked the monk if he could play the Singing Bowl and the monk readily agreed. At the end of the session, the monk said to the young man, “The Singing Bowl was made for you.” “I love the sound very much,” the young man said, “It makes a beautiful song.”

“The song is because of your touch. That voice belongs to you now.” The monk picked up the bowl and provided it to the young man.

“Oh, no!” The young boy said. “I can’t accept such a valuable gift. The bowl is yours, not mine.” The monk again provided the Singing Bowl to the young boy, “I want you to take the gift. The bowl now belongs to no one but you.”

The young boy, embarrassed and feeling unworthy, shook his head and backed out of the room apologizing. “I cannot accept such a precious gift. I’m sorry.” The young boy left the monk’s quarters and, the next day, left the monastery and Tibet to return home to America.

A month later a large box from Tibet arrived at the young boy’s doorstep. When the boy opened the box, he found the monk’s beautiful Singing Bowl with the following note attached: “The bowl decides its owner. It has no song without your touch. If you still feel the bowl does not belong to you, pass it on to the next person who claims it as I have done for you.”

The young man, realizing the gift was in the recognition of shared beauty, and not money or attachment, accepted the bowl from the box and played it with joy into song every day for the rest of his life.

The Lesson of the Singing Bowl, my teacher taught me, is to not judge the intention of others beyond the immediate truth of the matter.

The singing bowl was not about value or ownership. The singing bowl was about expressed joy and the beauty in finding each other and in making even greater joy and beauty in the process of ongoing discovery.

“Too often,” my teacher taught me, “we judge people and gifts and appreciation from our viewpoint and not from the viewpoint of the giver, and that causes frustration and hurt feelings.” If a person chooses to provide you a Singing Bowl in any form — accept the gift and smile and make the moment everlasting.

If someone thanks you for a favor or a kind act with money or a gift or a simple smile, accept the offer as is without deciding its worth based on your experience or expectation.

They are thanking you in the only way they know.

You are not to judge appropriateness — you are only to receive what is given back to you.

The gift, the thank you, the return favor — all have tremendous power and value from the giver in the reciprocity of the necessary expression.

To deny them that opportunity — and to disregard their wanted flow of energy back into you by unnecessarily frustrating the natural need for give and take in the world — is to reject the very sound of joy found in the song of The Lesson of the Singing Bowl.


  1. David,
    Fantastic story!
    This is a lesson I should perhaps take to heart. I am somewhat suspicious of gifts–mainly when they come from boyfriends–and their intended meaning and purpose. I feel that by giving me a gift a boyfriend is trying to obligate me to return the favor in some way, usually through my affection or love. I do not like that feeling; like he thinks I can be “bought.” Perhaps I should not place my own judgment and perception on the gift and just graciously accept it and move on.

  2. Hi Emily!
    It is difficult when we live in a modern world and there are those who seek to exploit the natural ebb and flow of interacting with each other.
    There is always the risk that gifts and thanks come with strings and extensions — but I think our natural instinct tells us if the effort is sincere or not and sometimes we need to make that determination for our own safety.
    In my example from yesterday, I was distraught I could not properly express my thanks for the kind effort. Perhaps if I’d been better witted I might have given him this blog address in the hopes he would have read about our feelings of thanks.
    There will always be people who read “The Lesson of the Singing Bowl” and then extort the message of the teaching for their own benefit – they will ask for something that truly does not belong to them just to see if a gift can be forced.
    Context and sensitivity play warning roles in these things. We have to make the right call in the moment and hope — like the young boy in the story — that time and tide can teach us more than we think we know.
    I think most people know when they’re being played and if the offer and the acceptance is genuine or not.

  3. David,
    You’re very right.
    This is a great story and it makes a nice article as well.
    I do not think that people necessarily mean to offend by not accepting gifts as gratuity for a good deed, as in the case of your Anonymous Stranger. Some people think and have probably been taught that to accept something in return for a selfless act cheapens the act and therefore makes it selfish.
    As you insist in your article, this is a thought-habit that we need to break. Do not do the deed with expectation of a gift, but do not deny the giver their opportunity to express gratitude either.

  4. Emily —
    Yes, I think the cheapening of the thanks comes in the expectation of a reward instead of the offering of the reward.
    We need to remain vigilant and act right, remain neutral, and accept the forthcoming thanks if they are offered and if they are not, then the kind act remains spotless and untouched by expectation.

  5. Hello — just surfed on from BlogExplosion. I have never heard this beautiful and wonderful story before. Thanks so much! It made my day.

  6. David- Perhaps, at times, some people don’t accept material gifts or rewards because they are not “materialists,” and have enough material support at the time to maintain their physical body and spirit as it is, and would rather enjoy the emptiness, nothingness, good karma, or just the air that would be expelled by any more material. “Western” thinking generally sees matter as good, but it is only good if needed. There is another side to things, especially when things are not needed. They are taken from those who need. 18,000 children die of starvation every day. “There is a lot of blood, on the other side of ‘the good life,’ “(Nietzsche). Food is only good when one is hungry. Material is good, only when one needs matter.

  7. Have you read “The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property” by Lewis Hyde?
    Your story reminds of this wonderful book which describes the idiosyncratic economy of giving gifts. Hyde articulately lays out how giving gifts attracts wealth.
    By accepting the singing bowl the young man blessed his teacher with much much more.
    David glad to hear you benefit from Ashtanga also. My wife and I are heading to Mysore to work with Patabhi Jois and Sharath this summer. Talk about a gift!

  8. What a beautiful story.
    At times I am also “given” gifts that I act as guardian for until the rigthful owner comes along. They often come with the unspoken proviso that “if you cannot use this then I know you will find someone that will”.

  9. The only concern I have with your comment, fred, is if someone is materialistic and finds value in things and in the giving of things in thanks — and you reject their offer of thanks — you are rejecting not just who they are and what they believe in but the spirit that moved them to thank you in the first place.
    I say take people where they are and honor their intent and place in the hierarchy of the universe without filtering the experience through the prejudices of your own worldview.

  10. Derrick!
    I have not read the Hyde book. I just ordered the book from Amazon and it will be here tomorrow! Thank you for the recommendation!

    By accepting the singing bowl the young man blessed his teacher with much much more.

    Exactly right! It was never about the bowl. It was about the cementing of the relationship between the young man and the monk.
    It takes commitment and dedication to accept a gift because it is a beginning and not an ending. You are vested in tending the future when you give a gift and also when you accept one.
    Wow! Mysore! Jois! It. The IT. There is no higher! You are tremendously blessed! Have a great trip and remember it forever!

  11. Hello Nicola!
    It is difficult to accept gifts because you accept a debt. You take on an ownership and you become part of the provenance of the kindness.
    I have failed in the reception of gifts many times in my life for my ultimate loss.
    When I first moved to Washington, D.C. from Nebraska I took on an assistant director’s job at Ford’s Theatre and part of my job was to get tea three times a day for the director during our 12 hour workdays. Each time he said, “I’d love some tea,” he’d give me $20.00 USD and say, “Keep the change.”
    The tea was a dollar and I always said to him, “It isn’t right for me to keep the change. It is your money, not mine” and every time I’d come back from getting him tea I’d count back his $19 in change to the obvious consternation of the director I was supposedly serving.
    That scenario played out over a four month rehearsal period.
    It was only years later I realized the director was trying to help me out, to pay me a little bit out of his own pocket for my hard work, but I was too wound up in my own duty and glossy honor to see through his obvious effort to pay me more without embarrassing me or calling attention to my plight.
    In fact, I was the one who embarrassed him with my public counting out of the change. I thought I was being upright and upfront and professing my Midwestern Morality — when all I was doing was being unreceptive and closed and hurtful.

  12. David- The materialistic person who finds value in things and expects others to see things that way is starting the “prejudice of world view,” and puts others in a double bind wherein others must “loose,” if they don’t see things, his/her way, and help spread this dualistic and materialistic way of seeing things. i too say “take people where they are at and honor their intent,” but at the same time, avoid the self effacing ” political correctness ” of acting as if one is in complete agreement with their materialistic way of seeing, which only helps falsly spread this way of seeing which the world is obviously lopsided about today. i guess it’s “different strokes…” we don’t all have to have the same beliefs. i know i am in the minority here, as in most places, and don’t mind.

  13. fred —
    I appreciate what you’re saying — I’m just wondering what happens if you are enlightened and others around you are not — isn’t it your mandate and your destiny and duty to accept them where they are on their scale of psychic evolution?
    It’s easy to condemn someone for not being a genius or for not being able to see the bigger picture because of their flaws — but isn’t it the better path to help them find the way or to send them a box with a second chance grow beyond their own limitations? They may not be able to accept or even understand the offer but at least the effort was made on their behalf.

  14. Hi David,
    The change story gives good insight into the Midwestern values. If I had been in the same position, I would have brought back the receipt to show the director. 🙂
    When I was 18-years-old, I went on an exchange trip to Holland. We were visiting my host family’s grandmother and she offered everyone some juice to drink. I politely declined because I didn’t want to have her put herself through any trouble to get anything for me. The host-father told me that I should ask the grandmother for some juice as it would hurt her feelings if I didn’t accept it. In my view, I thought I was being polite by not requiring her to do anything for me. Instead, I ended up not being as polite as I thought I was being because I wasn’t open to her hospitality.

  15. Thank you for the story David ………. I suspect I would have done the same as you.
    Chris – I have fallen foul of that one. Not wanting to put a person *out* or to any trouble and then finding I had caused offence by *refusing their hospitality*.

  16. David- i agree with your first paragraph above. i believe no one should be condemned for anything because evrything is an act of “God.” People should not use the last sentence as a cop out and preform “vile” acts. Materialists gifting non-materialist should be given the message in the most subtle/acceptable way that “thank you very much, but i have enough on my plate right now.” i remember offering a gift to someone, and he said ” i don’t know if i can afford the karma.” i thought this was an excellent way of saying what i have been attempting to say here.

  17. Hi Chris!
    Oh, I would’ve given him a receipt if the street vendor had one! I’m sure the street vendor was furious he had to give me $19 in change three times a day, or maybe I was a good way to get rid of all his dollar bills.
    One of the technical guys came up to me one day after rehearsal and said, “Why don’t you keep the change? He’s telling you to keep it!”
    I told the guy I couldn’t keep the change because it was my job to assist him and that job included getting him tea and it was wrong of me to profit from the existing deal by pocketing an extra $57 dollars a day on the side. The tech guy just looked at me like I was stupid.
    Love the Holland story! Did you end up asking for the juice or not?

  18. Hi David,
    I ended up apologizing saying that I didn’t understand and asked for some juice. All was forgiven.
    Also, a big change from the American way of life (or maybe it was just my host family’s way of living) — the wife picked up all of the dishes, cleaned the table and generally did all of the cleaning. In my house, it was expected that the kids would do all of the dishwasher-loading and table cleaning if we expected to have someone make us hot food. 🙂

  19. Chris!
    I’m glad you had some juice and I’m sure it tasted really good after you took the hint!
    It’s a good thing to have the kids learn to pitch in early in life — it pays off big later!

  20. Thanks for the lovely story David! It is telling.
    A gift is welcome anyday but I have a problem with the immediate ‘returning’ one. More so, when I get ‘money’ back for offering my time, effort, company or something similar. It seems my ‘help’ is measured in terms of money, which doesn’t remain ‘help’ anymore.
    I understand that my rejection shows that I am rejecting the person as a whole…at the same time, the person who is offering money in return is ignoring my offer of help.
    But it’s just me.

  21. Hi Katha —
    Yes, I still think your response is unfortunate.
    You are judging the thanks based on your own prejudices and you are not accepting the thanks on the level of the spirit from which it was able to be offered.

  22. We took a visitor to our favourite “New Age” shop in Boscastle in Cornwall last week – I had a singing bowl moment.
    There on the table was a beautiful singing bowl ……… the one difference was that the *striker* was bound with suede – it struck a beautiful tone.
    If it is still there when we next visit – I know it should be mine.

  23. Because it wasn’t the right time …….. (gut instinct) – to be honest I wasn’t sure I was ready – but we will be visiting next month 🙂 🙂 – and I shall make sure I am ready.

  24. Hi natzgal!
    That is the lesson that is lost in our current political culture: We cannot teach ourselves. We need teachers to show us new ways of thinking so we can make our own way. Without those willing to share what we know, we spin in circles without advancing. That’s why universal education is important and that’s why we must all work hard to make sure every child has access to the best and most inspired educators available.

  25. Very interesting David! I personally function best with teachers. I find their energy inspires my own creativity, which doesn’t flow as well on my own. Yet, with the internet and books, there is so much we can learn ourselves, I almost feel guilty having this want (or even need) to find a real, live teacher. They say when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I am waiting 🙂 And trying to ready myself.

Comments are closed.