INTRODUCTION to the KAPALA
The human cranium has many functions and purposes in Vajrayana and Shaivite, emerging from the cemetery dwelling Kapalikas in ancient India. This ritual implement has many properties and power for manipulating the range of human, non-human and sacred energies for the benefit of beings. And it is an important requirement of all Vajaryana practitioners. As the container of the human brain and its inconceivable matrix of photons, biofields and powerful chemicals, the skull has its own remarkable qualities. There are piezoelectric, geometric and energetic qualities of the substance and shapes of the calvarium that modern science has barely begun to suspect, much less unravel. But the ancient tantric science knew well how to use this special piece of anatomy.
In tantra, the source of the kapala is typically either a Buddhist or, traditionally, the skull of a Brahaman. Such a skull has special qualities. But the concept here also is to break the cultural codes of the caste system, or any other societal hierarchical system—and the whole of human culture is based on a fixed status-based ideology. However, the calvariums of a saint or realized yogi is certainly the most valued due to the special energy it has come to contain, its inner structure changing in the process..
The blood filled kapala, held in the hands of male or female deities, usually at heart level, represents the union of the male and female principle. The white skull is the male Bodhichitta, skillful means. The blood is the female Yeshe or wisdom principle. The white seed from the father lives in the head, while the red seed from the mother line dwells in the pelvis. Their union at the heart is a state of full realization, also occurring at the time of death. It is the reversal of the birth process when the two poles separate to form the embryonic physical body. In other tantric symbolism, the skull-male is the half moon and the blood-female is the sun. There is much other symbolic meanings of the blood-drinking and sharing in deities of the old (Nyingma) and new (Sarma) school, especially in relation to the practices of tummo (inner alchemy) and tsa lung. But our focus here is their use in yogic practice.
Use in Empowerment
The skullcup and its alcohol content represents the second stage of Empowerment or Secret wong, the blissful union of male and female nectar i.e. phenomena and the universal ground of consciousness. This is the Sambhogakaya (pure archetypal energy) level, related to “speech” but connoting all forms of bioenergy.
Use on the Shrine
Though usually now substituted with small metal skull-shaped receptacles, traditionally a shrine has a male and female skull, containing alcohol (“men” meaning medicine or masculine principle) and black tea (rakta meaning blood or feminine energy). Additionally one has a skullcup or metal version on one’s practice table beside one inner offering section of practices, blessings offerings and so on.
Use As Bowl
In many Vajrayana empowerments the practitioner vows to only eat out of a skullcup as part of their tantric commitment. One of the reason is that it is “unfabricated,” a natural bowl not made by human ingenuity, but arising naturally. I would advise against this when visiting Starbucks, based on my experience. Ideally this would be different than the shrine skullcup used for sacred offerings or “inner offering.” But for the wandering mendicant, the same skull may be used for all purposes. It has also been used as begging bowl in old India and Tibet.
In all cases of making offerings or even using as an eating utensil, the visualization is the same as when it is described in the offering section of all rituals. The end point is that the skull becomes a vast ocean of the purified five elements. This emulates the inner process, the entire purpose of Vajrayana, of purifying the confused appearances of elemental Samsara into the inherent pristine and ever-present Nirvana.
Use in Transference
In a now (supposedly) extinct practice, one uses a skull to learn to transfer one’s consciousness to another recently deceased body. This “tung juk” is famously described as used by Dharma Dodé, the son of Marpa Lotsawa.
Use in Magic
The skullcup is used for serious exorcism or “demon removal” using various wrathful rites. It has also been used in various kinds of manipulative or patently black magic rites, such as controlling others, harming them in physical and material ways, seduction, overcoming business competitors and so on. This is particularly common in Malaysia and China, one reason to never send kapalas to unknown individuals in these regions.
Use in Divination
There are divination methods using the skull as a vessel, adding alcohol and butter and reading the signs that appear from cracks in the solidified butter layer. This is not unlike the ancient Chinese method of tortoise shell prognostication or other global forms of divination using bones, tea leaves, etc.
A complex and somewhat obscure corpus of concepts developed on the value of different shapes and feature of the kapala. In the vast tangle of Vajrayana traditions, there are naturally different systems of assessing meaning and qualities of skull cups. The are traditionally 15 aspects that can be examined and adjudicated.
5. patterns of veins
10. one’s own ground
11. ground of wealth
12. enemy’s ground
As a sample translation of one such text:
A single piece skull is best of the bests. Three pieces is middling amongst the best. Four pieces almost best. The best shape is like a cut egg. The middle like a lotus’s petal. Colors are white, yellow, red and maroon. Best is being luminous. Best is a thick skull, even all around, with only some variations in thickness. The accompanying diagrams lay out some of the arcane meanings of the various areas of the inside of the cranium. To see some full translations and references regarding skull signs, see Hanker, Martin. (2018) Thod Brtags. Charles University (2018).
In spite of all these convoluted and unusual proscriptions for decided the qualities of a kapala, in practice simply feeling the quality of the kapala is direct and tangible. One common piece of advice is to put it under your pillow at night and see what dreams arise, positive or negative. Another extreme suggestion is to bury it under a tree and see if it withers or flourishes! More often it is used as a cautionary tale about the perils of a “bad” damaru and its impact. Optimally however, just holding the kapala, or placing it upon the shrine and meditating upon it can reveal its qualities. Further, a kapala may not be inherently good or bad. Using the kapala for offerings, deity visualizations and mantra recitation, and 5-element work, it transforms into a sacred vessel. The kapala is a unique Vajrayana implement. It is “unfabricated,” not made by human hands, helping in the circuitous journey towards the unembellished natural state beyond conceptualization.