From Kathmandu to Green Hills, Tibetan Singing Bowls Come to Life in the Hands of Kent Cathcart
by Michael Dukes
Photography by Hunter Armistead
I take two steps into Kent Cathcart’s Green Hills flat and stop, transfixed. Here, a stone’s throw from the traffic-swollen center of commerce I routinely navigate several times each week, lies a hidden oasis of tranquility. It’s as if the busy world outside has simply melted away. This meeting could be taking place a thousand miles from here. Or a thousand years.
I’m greeted warmly by Cathcart and an amiable canine companion. Over a lifetime spanning nearly eighty years, the subject of this profile has assumed the roles of Trappist monk, musical event director, renegade drama teacher, father, and mystic. He has spent years in both New York and Los Angeles. Close friends include a long list of high-profile actors, writers, and spiritual luminaries. These days, life is decidedly more quiet: “I have lived in monasteries, and now I have created one here.”
Many of these bowls are 1,000, 1,200, even 1,600 years old,” Cathcart beams. “I say that I am a forest ranger, and they are the big trees. They have been around a lot longer than I.
Though I’ve come specifically to learn more about his collection of Tibetan bowls—rumored to be the largest in North America—there isn’t a single one in sight. The walls and tables are covered with paintings and photographs representing friends, family, and every major religious pathway. The place is filled with antiques and relics of all description. But where are the fabled bowls?
It turns out they’re kept in a dedicated room. But first things first. Before I can see them, Cathcart and I must get to know one another.
“People always ask me how I got involved in this,” Cathcart dives in. “In the mid 90s, one of my daughters lived in Northern California, on the San Juan Ridge in the High Sierras. I would visit her, and she lived in a lovely little cabin with propane and a water tank. All the people up there were living off the grid. Allen Ginsberg had a place. All kinds of people.
“And in the midst of this clearing was a Zendo (Buddhist temple). I would go to meditate there, although I’m not a Buddhist. At one end was a beautiful altar. They had this large bowl. I would play it, and the vibration would just come through me.
“A few months later, I was in Santa Fe for a religious conference. A friend of mine had a Tibetan singing bowl. I asked if he might be able to get me one. After months of waiting, finally the phone rang. And this voice on the other end of the phone said, ‘Kent, I have two or three singing bowls, and one of them is yours.’ I chose my first bowl over the phone.
“When it arrived, I began to play with it, and something went wild within my heart. I was so moved by the sounds. That began the collection. And obviously, with any collector, you fall in love with what you’re collecting, or you wouldn’t do it.”
And Cathcart fell hard. Before long, he’d forged connections with specialized experts who could provide a steady stream of precious bowls. When a new shipment of artifacts from Delhi or Kathmandu appeared in Los Angeles, Cathcart was among the first to know. He’d fly out to inspect the latest arrivals in person, selecting those that spoke to him most deeply.
At last, we make our way into The Room. There must be seventy or more bowls—too many to count. They vary from a few inches in diameter to huge, deep specimens measuring at least eighteen inches across. Each rests on an ornate, red-silk pillow atop a wooden stand.
“The monks made them to produce three different octaves at the same time. A good bowl is very profound. Some of these will resonate for two and a half to three minutes with just a light tap.”
Cathcart guides me to a large leather chair, where I close my eyes. “The bowls will take you to silence, stillness, and serenity.”
Moving about the room, he softly strikes his musical treasures with an assortment of sticks and mallets. He coaxes combinations of thick overtones from others by gently rubbing their rims.
The sounds are deep, complex, and powerful. They fill the room, taking what seems like forever to trail off into infinite space. It’s hard to imagine a visitor who wouldn’t be deeply moved by this experience, regardless of religious background or spiritual outlook.
Have ten minutes passed since Cathcart tapped the first bowl to life? Half an hour? It dawns on me that time passage is no longer a relevant question.
But then, Tibetan bowls will do that to you.