eBay allows for the sale of human remains from China . This is despite a Customer Service policy which states that
“Human body parts or items containing body parts are not allowed. We don’t allow the sale of human bodies, body parts, or products made from the human body on eBay. Human body parts or items containing body parts are not allowed, including first class relics”
What are these human remains and where are they coming from? Why is eBay allowing their sale?
Buddhism has been the dominant religion on the Tibetan plateau for over 1200 years. Following the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950, many of the teachers within Tibetan Buddhism either fled the country, were killed or imprisoned. Buddhism was traditionally to have been brought to Tibet by the teacher known as Padmasambhava (“Born from a Lotus) in the 8th century. The Buddhism of Tibet is made up a various schools, with the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug being the largest. The scriptural, doctrinal and practical dimensions of these schools are vast. But for the purposes of this article there is one particular aspect that is relevant; the use of human remains in devotional and meditational practices.
Buddhism in Tibet is related in various ways to the ancient -pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, called Bön. The Bön religion continues today, and it can be identified as emerging from an animist and shamanistic set of spiritual practices with various levels and forms — from the magical to the textual. Along with the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism already mention, Bön is considered the fifth. Such is the exchange between the two religions. According to Nisa Ferrari in a Master’s Thesis for the University of Leiden (p.10), Bön uses human bone objects in its rituals:
Furthermore, the use of human remains in rituals is common in Tantric Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism practiced in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, and Bhutan, Buddhist Tantra is most often termed Vajrayāna (Tib. རྡོ་རྗེ་ཐེག་པ་, dorje tekpa, Wyl. rdo rje theg pa) and Secret mantra (Skt. Guhyamantra, Tib. གསང་སྔགས་, sang ngak, Wyl. gsang sngags). The vajra is a mythical weapon associated with Indra which was said to be indestructible and unbreakable (like a diamond) and extremely powerful (like thunder). Thus, the term is variously translated as Diamond Vehicle, Thunderbolt Vehicle, Indestructible Vehicle and so on. The Tantric path is one that aims towards enlightenment (ego death, realisation of samahdi, attainment of the siddis or powers, and the status of Bodhisattva or ‘Great Soul’ while compassionately working for the salvation of all beings) in this life. The use of human remains in the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism became associated with the “non-dual state of mind, so that it is impossible to distinguish between an object of appeal and one of repulsion, instead everything becomes the manifestation of Void” (Ferrari p 14).
Today there are dozens of objects for sale on eBay that report to be Tibetan Buddhist ritual objects that include human bone — mostly the crown of the cranium or skull and the thigh bone, or femur from adult humans. Here are some images of what is for sale on eBay on the 22 July 2022:
These are kapala (Sanskrit for “skull”) or skull cups used as ritual implements (bowl) in Buddhist Tantra (Vajrayana) rituals. The source of all these objects is China.
In Tibetan monasteries a kapala is used symbolically to hold bread or dough cakes, torma, and wine instead of blood and flesh as offerings to wrathful deities, such as the ferocious Dharmapāla (“defender of the faith”). The dough cakes are shaped to resemble human eyes, ears and tongues. The kapala is made in the form of a skull, specially collected and prepared. It is elaborately anointed and consecrated before use. The cup is also elaborately decorated and kept in a triangular pedestal. The heavily embossed cup is usually made of silver-gilt bronze with lid shaped like a skull and with a handle made in the form of a thunderbolt.
There are two central concerns relating to the presence of these objects on eBay: firstly as the sale of human remains and the implications it has and secondly, the use of Tibetan Buddhist culture as a source of income.
The trade in human bones was made illegal in China in 2008. But most of the ‘Tibetan ritual objects’ using human bones for sale on eBay come from China. Looking at the photos above, several different objects for sale seem to feature the same photos. While I am no expert, it would not be difficult to make fake kapala or kangling if one could obtain the bones and have some degree of skill in fine metalworking.
The second issue is perhaps even more alarming. Tibet has been occupied and controlled by China since 1950. Since that time, over 1.2 million out of a total of 6 million Tibetans have been killed, over 6000 monasteries have been destroyed, and thousands of Tibetans have been imprisoned. To see the counterfeiting or sale of genuine artifacts from this threatened culture for sale is deeply disturbing.
eBay must remove these objects from sale.
Ferrari, Nisa (2019). Human bones as ritual objects in Tibetan Buddhism. Master thesis | Asian Studies (60 EC) (University of Leiden MA) https://hdl.handle.net/1887/77290