"Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones"
We all have them and rely on them everyday. However in our culture we do not normally see them nor do we like to. In fact, we take great care to avoid seeing these things, for in youth-oriented Western society, dying is considered a catastrophe or at least, a "tragedy," and death is a secret. Since the 1920's in most of North America, it has been the practice to embalm corpses and use cosmetics on them. We rarely get to see the structures that support our bodies and contain our humanity.
In the highest mountains, where the soil is not deep and the air is clear and dry, the bones of animals and human beings can be seen just as they are. Also, above the tree line, wood for carving or sculpting is not easily come by, and so bone often fulfills those purposes. For example, a thighbone makes a good trumpet; a skull, a bowl. Bones, human and animal are also used to make ornaments and ritual items like malas and bead "aprons."
A skull cup (Sanskrit, kapala) is a bowl made from a cranium. It can serve as a support for contemplation of our impermanence, reminding us to do our practice since death can come at any time. European monks and scholars kept skulls on their desks to serve as momento mori -- reminders of the immanence of death -- for much the same reasons. Sometimes it was sufficient to "hide" the skull in the composition of a painting.
In Himalayan Buddhism, the skull cup performs a similar purpose to the kumbha, a clay pot used in Vedic ritual. It is also evocative of the begging bowl used by the Buddha and his monks, and of the gourd or kalasha used in ancient times for carrying water. As a water pot, it reminds us to heed the teachings, to focus on meditation and not to spring leaks of distraction.
In Buddhist imagery, a kapala can be present as an offering bowl on a shrine, or held in the left hand of a deity. Sometimes it is held at the heart level, sometimes a dakini raises it as if to drink. It roils with the ambrosia of wisdom-bliss or it contains a placid, healing nectar.
Guru Padmasambhava displays a skull cup containing
the Ocean of Nectar -- the dharma wisdom teachings -- with a flask of the
Essence of Longevity floating in it. As a shrine offering (in the form of a
torma or as it appears in a tangka) the skull cup contains the "sense
offering" which, at first glance, may seem gruesome. In the bowl,
often decidedly three-cornered, we can see a pair of eyes on their stalks, two
ears, a nose and a tongue. This is simply a clear one-to-one iconography
in which the senses are represented by the organs that are the means of
input. The triangular form of the symbolic skull can be understood to
represent the Buddhist practitioner whose mind
is being transformed by the Three Jewels and their tantric
"corollaries," or Roots.
For use in benevolent practice, a skull can be donated to a monastery by the family of a deceased. For other practices (Hindu, Bon and Himalayan Buddhist)
Figures of buddhas and bodhisattvas in their wrathful aspects often display a 5-skull crown. Here, each skull represents a buddha family and its corresponding quality in the form of the "death" of an associated negativity such as anger, desire, etc.
"The Beautiful City" where Buddha Shakyamuni's family lived was called Kapilavastu. It was named for an ancient sage known as Kapila, for Skull (of Wisdom.) About five hundred years later, Jesus gave teachings on a skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem called Golgotha, a word meaning Skull Place.
The Great God of India, who alone remains when the universe dissolves, is portrayed atop a mound of ashes and incinerated bones. Symbolizing that he is the sole sustainer of all manifestation (Skt. Shaiva-siddhanta-shara,) he is coated in ash and adorned with a garland of skulls.
In Hindu practice, the ash (Skt. vibhuti) of ritual fires is used by yogis to coat their bodies, giving them an unearthly, even a corpse-like, appearance. The whitened effect is a symbol of the complete consumption of mundane desire, especially of a sexual nature.
The use of human bone for the purpose of Buddhist ritual may have originated in India. Some researchers attribute a shamanic
origin, but there is evidence to suggest that, on the contrary, shamanism (and true shamanism is a north Asian practice) was
source. That is, due to the spread of Buddhism to Mongolia and Siberia , the use of this type of ritual adornment may have
come from practitioners of Buddhism, and not the other way around.
When the Paramitas are counted as ten in number, then there is a pair of earrings
and a set of three separate necklaces that complete the set. The necklaces
include a choker and a waist-length one, with a medium-length one in between.
Nowadays, the 5-skull crown representing the Buddha families has been replaced by
a foldable one of painted cardboard. We would
not usually see someone wearing the bone costume in public. In iconography and "opera," it is reserved for the depiction of
early historical figures and dakinis.
In a famous tangka of Dorje P'hamo (Vajravarahi) on display in The Hermitage Museum in
St. Petersburg, Russia, the deity
wears bone ornaments in the form of a skirt shaped like lotus petals, with dangling bead ties, and a long garland of heads in the
manner of the great Indian goddess. (The tangka is known to be based on one that was in
Khara-koto, capital of Xiaxa, at the
time the region fell to Temujin Genghis Khan in 1227.)
This segment is primarily based on the article by Jean-luc Estournel called "Rus-pa'i-rgyan: parures tibetaines en os humain" which appeared in La revue de l'Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art in1992.
A pair of skeletons appears in the tangkas of some Himalayan Buddhist lineages. Each one has a staff, and one holds a flask of amrita while the other bears a skull cup. They are called the Chitipati. Interestingly, though most often they dance in parallel (as in a chorus line,) sometimes it is evident that they are a couple -- a male and female that dance in complementary or opposite fashion, intertwined and gazing at each other. They may be shown dancing on two corpses, or on two shells.
Legend tells how a pair of yogis were so absorbed in their meditation inside a certain Himalayan cave, that they did not even notice when a murderous brigand cut off their heads. Some believe that they have sworn revenge on all such marauders and will stop at nothing to protect their domain.
Among the dances performed by the Drepung Loseling monks for the surrounding populace, is Durdak Garcham, "Dance of the Lords of the Cemetery." The dancers, in bright red robes decorated with white bones, bend, kick and revolve while waving their long bony "fingers." However the intention is not to frighten but to remind the audience of the transience of human life. Dancing is used as an adjunct to Buddhist discourse in Himalayan monasteries because often the discourses are hard to follow, but dance breaks through the intellectual barrier. Also, the Dance of Death seems to cut through our natural denial of mortality perhaps because of what is known as the kinaesthetic effect.
There are a number of other cham performances in which skeleton dancers figure.
Dance of Death: Known as the Danse Macabre in the Western cultural tradition, it took the form of a processional kind of rowdy dance with some participants dressing up as skeletons. It was frequently performed in town squares during the years that the plague or Black Death visited European cities.
kinaesthetic effect: This is the easily observable effect that causes our own thigh muscles to contract as we watch someone else jump for a basketball hoop, for example.
Estournel: The original French article on his web site states that, since Waddell's Tibetan Buddhism (1895) and Berthold Laufer's (1874-1934) paper, "The use of human bones and skulls in Tibet" (1923), not much else on the topic is found in the West.