“At this time when the assembly of the fifty-eight blood-drinking deities manifests from within your brain, you should recognise all that arises as the naturally arising luminosity of your own awareness. Then, you will immediately attain Buddhahood, inseparable from the blood-drinking deities.” (Bardo Thodol – The Tibetan Book of the Dead)
This quote from the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the manifestation of the fifty-eight wrathful blood-drinking Buddhist deities to the deceased in the Bardo – the space/place between death and rebirth – and associates these deities with blood drinking and the achieving of Buddhahood.
Wrathful deities play a central role in Buddhist practices: they are protectors of religious law (dharmapalas) and guardians of Buddhist doctrine. They also symbolise the violence that is a fundamental reality of the cosmos in general, and of the human mind in particular, and the energy needed to destroy the passions of the mind and achieve enlightenment.
As stated by De Nebesky Woikowitz in Oracles and Demons of Tibet (1993: 6), “The faces of many protectors of religion possess a typical wrathful expression: the mouth is contorted to an angry smile, from its corners protrude long fangs – often said to be of copper or iron -, or the upper teeth gnaw the lower lip”. A large number of wrathful deities are also depicted holding in their left hand a cup fashioned from the oval upper section of a human cranium. This serves as an offering or libation bowl and contains fresh blood.
Reflecting traditional iconography, the ceremonies held in honour of the wrathful deities include a skull-cup (kapala) filled with red fluids symbolising blood offered as a libation, or, alternatively, the “blood lake”, a round flat cake made of red-coloured flour.
Blood is thus the substance associated with wrathful dharmapalas and also frequently used as a real or symbolic offering during Buddhist ceremonies held to recall or celebrate these entities. Buddhist texts give detailed information about the kind of blood that applies to each context and scroll paintings (tanghkas), ritual sculptures and even Tantric ritual dances (charyanritya) depict wrathful deities consuming blood offerings and libations.
Albeit widely acknowledged that blood is a central component of Buddhism, associated with the wrathful aspects of dharampalas, and while information on blood rituals and offerings can be found in volumes on Buddhist practices and iconography, no study focuses on the symbolic meaning of blood and its representation in Buddhist rituals and meditation practices.
This research aims to fill the gap, conducting an in-depth investigation into the symbolic meaning of blood in Vajrayana Buddhist rituals in the Himalayan region. However, as a practice-based researcher with a background in visual cultures, I intend to approach the topic from an original and innovative perspective, giving a primary role to the visual investigation into art, material culture, performance and ritual artefacts.
The following elements consequently cover a central role in my research:
An analysis of ritual artefacts used in ceremonies associated with blood;
A visual exploration of the iconography of wrathful deities; A study of gestures and body postures (mudra) in Tantric ritual dances (charyanritya) which include the roles of blood-drinking deities.
The investigation into Vajrayana Buddhist material culture, sacred paintings and ritual dances will be supported by an analysis of sacred texts and oral traditions concerning blood offerings, libations and meditation.
The visual approach of this research will reflect research results. I am particularly interested in the combination of narration/storytelling with two- and three-dimensional visual outcomes (video and multimedia installations). I also believe that research into blood meanings and iconography in Buddhism offers an ideal field for combining cultural investigation with visual and creative research.
Outcomes of the research will include:
A multimedia installation in which ceremonial Buddhist objects are combined with videos and photographs;
An interactive hypertext artefact (e.g. website) accessible, as a permanent record, to scholars during and after the research project, containing the video essay, images, quotes, videos, primary and bibliographic resources collected during research.