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a few people sent this to me, so im gonna break down the symbols and motifs on this skull rn (taking a break from work anyway).
might get a few things wrong plus some things have multiple interpretations so, small caveat. the larger caveat being that i, for a variety of reasons, do not actually endorse buddhism as a spiritual path. dont really want to get into why as of this moment but felt i should [...]
say that as i do not want to lead anyone astray. this is purely an artistic thing. in my many wanderings i actually studied briefly with a tibetan painting master, whose apartment was full of crushed up gems and minerals (for painting).
otherwise this is knowledge i accrued over time from a variety of people. i almost became tibetan buddhist but this is a tale for another time. lets do this. could spend a whole day on this thread but gonna try and keep it under fifteen minutes.
lets start at the front. this the tibetan version of the om symbol that, if you have floated in certain circles, is ubiquitous. if ur unfamiliar basically its a sacred syllable in hinduism and buddhism. here’s what the Sanskrit symbol (what you’ll usually see) looks like:
if you know about this stuff dont hate me for oversimplifying, i have to fit this stuff in tweets. anyway notice the similarity in the top circle and swoosh. we’ll address this later. in most forms of buddhism and Hinduism sound is a creative force so this has sacred significance
along the bottom of the skull is a mantra carved in Sanskrit. a mantra is basically like a string of syllables thats somewhere between a prayer and a magic set of sounds. you often repeat them in meditation and you will see them in art a lot. im assuming its a mantra.
i never learned to read sankrit but I see this way of writing it as like, the “formal” or some archaic high way of writing it, its not “normal” Sanskrit (i only know about this writing from studying art so, keep that in mind, im just a guy not a scholar).
youll notice an extreme visual similarity between tibetan and Sanskrit. not a coincidence. tibet actually had no writing system before buddhism came and they sent scholars to India to develop a writing system based on Sanskrit. Pic one is tibetan, pic two is Sanskrit.
lots of this marking that probably seems random to your western eyes is actually writing.
on the left side thats presumably a kneeling deer. it might be clearer in other pics. the first place buddha taught was called deer park so deer have a sacred significance in buddhism. theres often two deer flanking the Buddha, i bet there is another one on this skull somewhere.
on the top of the skull you’re seeing the bottom half of two interlocking skeletons. I’ve pointed to a ribbon that’s coming off them, like the wind is blowing it or something. you can see their rib cages, their hips, and their interlocking feet. we’ll do them next.
you can see them much more clearly here. these are the citipati, two dancing skeletons very common in buddhist art. many stories about who they are, they kind of blend into folklore. ill attach other picks of them. notice what theyre holding.
my favorite story about them is that theyre a couple who was meditating and they were about to get enlightened but then some robber came and killed them. not sure what the moral is there or if thats the whole tale, you can look into it if you want.
the one on the left is holding a skull bowl. this is a common ceremonial item in tibetan buddhism. many stories as to its origin, supposedly in nepal if a monk was being punished he’d be forced to eat out a skull bowl as punishment, so then later it showed humility.
scholarship about this stuff is pretty bad and conflicting, so there’s basically like 100 stories for what everything means. just saying. i suspect it also has shamanic and tantric significance (it does). anyway couldn’t find a good pic but sometimes they’re really decorated.
the one on the right is holding a vajra. someone could write a book about what this thing means, it’s like the main symbol of and in tibetan buddhism (which is really called vajrayana, its named after this thing). its like a mystical scepter / weapon.
google is giving me the worst pics of this stuff. anyway it is really like a lightning bolt weapon that was formerly wielded by the god Indra in Hinduism so, when you see this closed claw scepter motif you should see it as a lightning bolt scepter thing. this motif is ubiquitous
more writing (on the temple, left). this thing in between them is a stylized cloud.
i think this thing on the left is a bird head. if it didnt have this eye I would think it was a ritual knife but it really looks like a bird head. That would be atypical but when figures are in a charnal ground (place where they’d burn bodies, like a graveyard) [...]
there is often dead stuff around like corpses or animals eating people, so this wouldnt be that weird. theres also another mantra on the right. damn this is taking a minute and i have to do something in like ten minutes. jamie pull up the next image.
theres a lot going on here. another deer as i suspected (top left) and another om symbol (bottom right).
this figure on the back left is Garuda eating a snake. he’s like a mythical bird man celestial creature, he’s a vehicle for one of the gods. he’s often shown eating a snake (this idea of an eagle eating a snake is ubiquitous, mexican flag for example).
this figure here is some female deity. you can tell its female because you can see her yoni (thats a classy way of saying her vagina). its kind of weird she doesnt have the normal crown of skulls so, normally id guess it was vajrayogini but i cant really say for sure.
in Indian art the tridents a symbol of shiva, in tantric Buddhism its usually a symbol of chakrasamvara (another deity). when his consort (mystical gf) is depicted without him the trident often represents him, so id guess this is his consort (who she is then varies by tradition)
u can see in her other hand she has a skull cup, this time it’s full of blood. lots of tantric significance to that. vajrayogini is often depicted like this so if i had to guess id say this is her, shes a popular female wrathful deity (she doesnt have the other usual things tho)
alright now the other side and the back. more of their sacred syllables, writing, and clouds. also a deer (you can find that).
this guy on the back is probably mahakala. you can notice his larger stature (wider, hes heavy), skirt (probably is a tiger skin), the flowing back hair, the jewelry, the teeth, the third eye, all common motifs on tibetan wrathful deities and or protector deities.
google is giving me terrible pics but, here are some other images of mahakala so you can see what i mean. the thing is his “form” is so common i couldnt say who it is for sure without more info. youll also see endless variations on it (more arms, more heads, different stuff etc)
in this hand hes holding a big swan shaped (my phrasing) ritual knife. its called a kartika. notice the vajra handle. many different meanings for this thing, it has a ritual significance in tantric buddhism.
the other hand is doing whats called a mudra, this is like a significant hand gesture, you could say. halfway between a symbolic motif and a magical gesture. this is the demon subduing mudra, which you probably know as the heavy metal horns. (can’t find a good pic).
hes also trampling a snake. these deities will often be shown trampling things, that is common.
on the back here is something called a stupa. when the buddha died they built this special sculpture / mound, they usually hold relics from special dead people and Buddhists visit them and circumambulate them. they start as a lump in India and then get more elaborate.
as tantric buddhism dovetails with secret practices it’s basically impossible to answer this. you’ll get then different answers from ten different people because every tradition within the umbrella of tantric buddhism is different. [...]

the most common answer is that the five skulls represent the five poisons (five emotional bad things like envy) that the deity helps get rid of. thats not what youll hear if youre deep in the system though. my answer is that is developed over time + has many conflicting meanings
on the top back of the skull (not pictured but I can tell its there) is a double vajra, two vajras together (the tibetan word for vajra is dorje, like door jay, not that you asked).
anyway, thats basically what i could tell you. to be responsible gotta wrap this up with a little note, the art of Tibet is really really awesome. its a mix of indian and Nepalese art, chinese art, and indigenous forms of central asian shamanism [...]
the quality of the art is very high and its medieval flavor combined with the death and rebirth symbolism is very enticing. i took a lot from this art as I was developing in a variety of ways.
normally i try and not be needlessly negative but i have to step into potentially controversial territory as frankly i wish someone told me this, and i cant really end a thread where im making this art sound sexy and cool as hell without this.
i highly recommend that you [not] get sucked into this world. you can enjoy and study the art but its not going to give you what youre looking for spiritually. theres a few reasons why i say this, to put it as briefly as possible, buddhism is extremely nihilistic at its core [..]
it is basically an anti-life worldview, as much as I hate to say it. also as a westerner the picture you get of it is so innaccurate, and its inextricably woven into certain cultures: the doors of those cultures will always be closed to you if you’re a western person.
buddhism really turned me on to spirituality in general so im thankful for that but ive seen a lot of people get sucked in by the sexy art + then throw themselves into this black pit, its a confusing labyrinth from which you dont emerge. sorry to take it there just being real.
anyway i wont go further into it then that. my thoughts on buddhism are another thread for another time, feel free to ask me in DMs. otherwise the art is fucking rad and definitely worth checking out. theres nothing else like it. hope this was interesting 👌
since this thread got kind of long i might update it with some clearer pics of things i described in here if i come across them. here you can clearly see the mudra (hand gesture) i described above (the clear picture is of a different deity).
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