Is that a human skull? All in the name of art!

Dianne McGowan

Table of Contents

Tibetan Buddhist practices
Historical European practices

This chapter explores the ambiguities of Western beliefs in relation to the sacredness of the Western human body, especially in death. These ambiguities are highlighted by considering the contemporary transformation of Tibetan Buddhist ritual objects into Western art objects. Having the cross-cultural and historical specificity of concepts of and treatment of the body as sacred in death the chapter explores the de-sacralisation of the dead body in contemporary European culture, especially in the art of Gunther von Hagans.

The chapter is divided into three parts: the first introduces Tibetan Buddhist customs and objects; the second describes the historical European attitudes to human bone; and the third muses over the acceptance of Tibetan Buddhist human bone objects as art and Western notions towards the sacredness of the dead.

Tibetan Buddhist practices

Anyone who has glanced at Tibetan Buddhist thangkas (Tibetan paintings) or sculpture will have noticed a vanguard of ferocious multi-armed, multi-legged and multi-headed deities, very different from that of the compassionate and peaceful seated image of Sakyamuni Buddha. For example, Yamantaka, the defeater of Yama, ‘The Lord of Death’, has a corpulent human body with a buffalo head, on top of which are arranged multiple human heads. His 36 flailing arms hold weapons and symbols, while his eighteen legs trample animal and human bodies underfoot. The most visible ritual human bone object held by these ferocious deities and used in ritual practice by Tibetan Buddhists is the skull-cup,which has many levels of meaning depending on what it is filled with, who holds it, and the position in which it is held.[1]

For example, Naro Dakini may be displayed in a thangka as a manifestation of Vajravarahi. Vajravarahi is the consort of Chakramsavara, a deity around which the current Dalai Lama holds many initiation ceremonies. Naro Dakini is portrayed as pouring blood from a skull-cup into her mouth, the blood trickles from her mouth and her vagina, symbolising how she is both consuming, and is being consumed, by the feminine principle, wisdom. In the crook of her left arm sits a tantric staff. On the apex of this staff, above a half crossed thunderbolt and a vase of nectar, is impaled a fresh head, a decaying head, a skull and a thunderbolt. When held by a female, the whole staff represents the masculine principle, compassion.[2] Like all Tibetan symbolism, the imagery represents multiple levels and layers of meanings, such as the representation of the physical universe or an esoteric formula. Thangkas, like sculptures, serve as picture maps detailing how one can achieve enlightenment in just one lifetime.

Because the practice of Tibetan Buddhism[3] has the potential for enlightenment in one lifetime, it is therefore, desirable to have the most potent implements with which to overcome the obstacles that trap the human in the ever-turning wheel of rebirth; that is, trapped in samsara. [4] Consequently, there are religiously sanctioned lists citing the most powerful source to the least for each ritual human bone object.[5] In the Naro Dakini example, an ideal skull-cup would be from a violently murdered or executed individual or an illegitimate child, aged seven or eight years, who was born from an incestuous union. The least desirable skull is from someone who died of natural old age.[6] The skulls of a venerable lama or pious laymen were often embellished and furnished with a decorative tripod and cover and then placed on an altar as the vessel for the ‘inner offerings’ of animals and humans.[7]

Mortuary customs in Tibet varied according to epoch, resources, region, rank or cause of death. According to Keith Dowman, historical sources mention practices such as the mummification or cremation of high lamas and that epidemic victims were either buried or cast into the river.[8] The novel Tibetan Buddhist mortuary practice, known in English as sky burial or vulture disposal,[9] has been suggested as a response to the frozen landscape and the scarcity of wood, although high lamas continued to be cremated.[10] Robert Ekvall suggests that the transition to sky burials by Tibetans was brought about when Buddhism was introduced in the late 700s.[11] The introduction of the Buddhist doctrinal ban on killing any sentient beings, be it buffalo or bug, posed a dilemma for Tibetans. Put simply, they lived in a harsh environment where survival depended on them killing animals for clothing and food. Ekvall notes that if a Muslim butcher could not be employed, the animal was asphyxiated and the refrain, ‘Oh, it is dead’, was uttered before a drop of blood was shed. In the act of surviving, Tibetans accumulated de-merits against their desired release from the samsara. By voluntarily and generously giving up their own human body at death to other sentient beings, such as vultures and dogs, they acknowledge this debt. Further, the relatives watching the dismembering were reminded of the Buddhist principles, that body and life is impermanent.[12]

The general custom of a sky burial is that, after death the body is propped up in a seated position. A monk is employed to chant to the newly released spirit, instructing it on correct behaviour and how to make a successful journey through the transitional state of the Bardo to the next rebirth cycle.[13] The ritual chant normally takes three days. Once finished, the body is tied into a foetal position and carried on a relative’s back to the nearest charnel grounds. Here, the head is shaved and then the butchers begin. They open up the body, take out the internal organs, disarticulate the limbs and cut the flesh into small pieces. The bones are pounded into powder and mixed with water to make tsampa-like balls.[14] Once finished, the vultures are summoned to accept the offering, while dogs and other small carnivorous animals clean up.[15] The cremated remains of high lamas were often pounded into fine ash, mixed with medicinal substances and then added to clay, which was then used to make small votive plaques for personal shrines.[16]