One of the more unnerving aspects of Tantric Buddhism (as well as the Bön tradition)
is the host of wrathful divinities as well as that fact that from time to time one encounters among the most placid of ritual objects other ritual objects crafted from human skulls,
tibias and even human skin.
The Citapati: graveyard guardians, they are one of the 75 manifestations of Mahakala.
Mahakala crown ornaments: five human skulls
Mahakala ritual accessories: a skullcap and cleaver
Mahakala mala made of human skulls
While I make no claims to expertise on the subject, I thought that it would be constructive (within the limits of my modest abilities) to attempt to clarify this issue, to gather together and comment upon here a certain amount of rare photographic documents regarding the use of these sacred objects made of human bone within Tibetan Buddhist practices. I do not pretend to have fully explored this issue and have had quite a time of it putting together this page, among the details revealed only during empowerments which I have no authority to reveal, those of which I am ignorant, and that which has seemed to me beside the point
and sometimes I have simply had to shut up.
Equally, I have thought it useful to align these aspects of Tibetan Buddhism with those of other religious traditions, including the Christian!
Damaru (ritual drum) fashioned from two cranial caps
Another example of a human skull damaru
Antique photograph of a Chöd practitioner - notice the trumpet made of a human tibia
Antique photo of a Tantric yogi
In the Buddhist Tantric traditions, the use of human bones to fabricate sundry ritual instruments is considered primarily to bring to mind the reality of impermanence,
the practitioner being led to meditate upon the fact that one day...and perhaps sooner than he thinks...his existence too will be reduced down to a few paltry objects.
One finds similar meditative considerations in the Theravadin traditions,
certain temples keeping skeletons on display as a reminder to the monks of their impermanence. Some monastic ascetics
used to take for their sole object of meditation a piece of human bone,
this practice was still alive in the 1960's.
Human skeleton between two reminders: "It hasn't been so long since I was just like you" and "Sooner than you think you will be like me".
(From the temple of the most Venerable LP Tim, Thailand)
Complete human skeleton on display at the Tigers Temple to help the monks in their meditations on impermanence.
(Picture courtesy of my friend Paola)
Extremely rare Tibetan shaman's mask formed and carved from bits of a human skull
(Collection A.S, Italie)
Tantric ceremonial apron, made of human bone beads
Another example of a tantric ceremonial apron made of human bone beads.
Ritual offering cup ("Kapala")
Kapala from Ladakh, made from a children skull
(Collection J.M Le Roy)
Himalayan shaman's necklace made up of human teeth.
The second aspect, more difficult to explain to the uninitiated, is related to the secret aspects of the Vajrayana, arises from the fact that the Vajrayana is a vow of complete realization which undertakes to put to use absolutely ALL of life's appearances in the sole aim of leading the disciple to Awakening in the course of only one incarnation, thus the host of divinities multicolored and multiform, each one precisely symbolizing an aspect of the practitioner's life.
This is why one meets (among others) sexual divinities in copulative union
(Tibetan: "Yab Yum"), a Medicine Buddha, a Buddha of Compassion....
Thus the recollection of death, along with the aversion and fear it inspires are used as potent methods to induce the natural workings of his mind to lead to the disciple's awakening.
Thus one finds in every prayer wheel a human bone bead for example, which shows clearly that the use of bones are neither to frighten nor to shock.
Tibetan rosary bead
Thangka showing the symbolic offerings to the Wrathful Divinities,
among which are found diverse human and animal body parts.
A goat's skull placed atop a prayer wall in Tibet as a votive offering.
Tibetan dance costume of the sacred Citipati.
Contemporary yogi during a funeral ritual (Tibet).
Photograph of a Tibetan funeral ritual, during which the deceased's corpse is hacked apart, ground up and offered to the vultures. Persons performing these rituals are called in Tibetan "Rogyapas". Today this custom has almost disappeared, having been declared illegal by the Chinese occupying Tibet. In other times the Rogyapas were those who selected the bones having the qualities proper for the crafting of ritual objects.
Another condition which explains more simply the extensive use of human and animal bones in Tibet is, very simply, the lack of...wood! Almost all wooden objects had to be imported from India via yak - obviously wood had to be set aside for purposes for which it is indispensable (building temples, woodblocks to print the sacred texts...) Thus bone was used instead of wood and it was permissible for artisans to create from bone quantifies of sacred objects, evolving remarkable art forms. The tradition, however, of using human bones to make ritual objects has followed the Tibetans into exile (for ritual objects), even where wood is less difficult to obtain.
A tantric ritual vase made of two human craniums (Nepal).
A tantric ritual vase (Bumpa) of human bone.
Detail of the carving on a tantric ritual vase.
A recent kapala made partly of a turtle shell.
A recent kapala made of a monkey skull.
The dessicated body of LP Daeng
(Wat Khunaram, Thailand)
The following visual examples show that the use of death representations (momento mori) made of human bone is not somethingunique to Tibetan Buddhism but actually is quite often found at the core of various religious traditions across the planet.
All religious controversy is silly, as the Masters well know!
The following photos are presented as a small demonstration that the Christian religion is far from being "innocent" of the use of human remains and macabre relics - the faithful who feel called upon to publicly criticize the customs of Tantric Buddhism are invited to contemplate these images...
Moreover, while speaking on this subject, to contemplate too the fact in the Catholic religion the faithful are forced symbolically to consume human flesh and blood during the course of the mass.
Ankou (death) image sculpted above a holy water font (Brittany).
Carving on a Breton ossuary.
Capucin catacombs (Rome)
The Sedlec Church (Czech Republic), in which are collected and on display more than 40,000 skulls, which have been used to make nearly all the cult objects and to furnish the church!
Ornamented mummified hand of a Greek Orthodox saint.
Ornamented mummified hand of the first king of Hungary,
on display at a cathedral in Budapest.
The chevelure of St. Therese of Lisieux
Over 40 different Christian Saint's relics are assembled on this frame.