The Bone Skullcup
The human skull cup, known in Sanskrit as Kapala and in Tibetan as a Thöpa, has extraordinary qualities. It is where the ordinary, mundane and confused world is transformed into its essential, pure nature. The five poisons and five worldly elements of earth, water, fire, air and space, become the Five Wisdoms. This then becomes the vehicle for making pure offerings to Buddhas, Yidams, Protectors, Dakinis and other enlightened guests. These same skull bones, male and female, are used to make the traditional Vajrayana damaru, expressing the union of this basic polarity within the context of Dzokchen or Mahamudra realization. The stable experience of the basic fabric or unitary field behind all phenomena is a core tenant of Vajrayana. Being “self-arisen” and not fabricated by the human hand, the skull bone represents our natural state, the inherent, uncontrived brilliance of unadulterated consciousness.
It must be understood that the functions and qualities of the skull cup kapala are not just symbolic. They are literal. In fact, eating from a properly prepared skullcup has remarkable effects on the energetic and nutritive qualities of the food itself. This is part of the ancient tantric science that was inherited by the Tibetans, who refined and perfected this alchemical art.
Unlike the human thighbone trumpet or kangling, the color and shades of the bone of the human skull cup or kapala is far more variable. This is due to the varying blood supply and activity of the various brain areas and scalp, the larger, more complex surface area, age, trauma and so on.
- Kapala, or human skull bone, are used for a variety of offering rituals and should be on every Vajrayana shrine.
- Particularly, they are essential for the Sang Wong, or Speech/Energy aspect of all empowerments.
- In Chod, the skullcup is part of the Dentok Chikma ritual, for accumulating profound blessings or positive virtue (jinlab) directly from MaChik.
- Traditional text attribute various characteristics and qualities to these different color and textural differences. The following is from the authoritative “Manual of Sacred Implements” published by the Mindroling Monastery in Southern India:
Today, it is difficult to find genuine kapala. Skull cups from India and Nepal are very hard to obtain, due to international and national laws. This is because the great majority of these human bone items were from robbed Moslem graves! Legal restrictions cut out this lucrative trade in India, but for Cho, this is a blessing in disguise, as any skull cup of this origin is completely inappropriate for Vajrayana purposes. Similarly, kapalas obtained in Chinese may very well be from political prisoners or executed criminals, including Tibetan nationals. The only place to acquire genuine Buddhist skull cup, kapala or kangling today is from Bhutan or Tamang of Nepal. Otherwise, Brahmin skulls are traditionally used since antiquity as a suitable source of kapala, mala and bone damaru.
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