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Kapala - Tibetan Buddhist offering bowl

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LOSAR - an essay by Michel Lee

Appearances can be deceiving, so it is important to understand the cultural context of an object in order to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the object. This, for example, is a Tibetan Buddhist offering bowl made from a human skull. On its own it sounds pretty scary and if you look it up in our objects database you don't get much more information. So let's fill in the blanks.

This object is called a kapala, which comes from the Sanskrit word for skull or forehead. The offering bowl was used in monasteries to hold offerings, called torma, made from dough. The offerings are made to resemble the human heart, tongue, nose, eyes and ears. These symbols represent the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound.

One of the basic beliefs in Buddhism is that nothing stays the same, and nothing lasts forever. This includes life. We are born with a physical body. It changes as we get older, and one day we will die. When we die, our bodies eventually break down and become building blocks for new life and other things in this universe. Within the Tibetan Buddhist context, using ritual objects made from human bones is a constant reminder that life is impermanent, and nothing stays the same.

According to Buddhist belief, the world that we perceive around us is an illusion, as is our concept of the self. We experience this imagined world through our five senses, and the senses fool us into thinking that there is a self or an ego. By symbolically offering the five senses in the skull cup, it is a reminder to the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner of the illusion of the self, according to Buddhist belief.

The type of offering this bowl would have held is made to certain types of deities that are considered wrathful. The offerings are not meant to be seen by the uninitiated. As the gruesome appearance of the offerings could be could easily be misinterpreted, only those that understand the deeper meanings of the symbolism are allowed to view the offerings.

Now that you know more about this object, does it change the way in which you see it?