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The Kangling

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The kangling is the third instrument used in Chod. Put simply, the kangling is a trumpet made out of a human thighbone. It is a more uniquely Vajrayana instrument, which is often used in Tantric rituals involving Fierce deities. Perhaps in relation to this, the kangling is often thought to be used in subjugating activity and is an object of some power. Some have said that it is also used to cut the demons inside of you. Others have said that in Chod

in particular, the kangling is used to summon the various deities that are involved in the visualizations. The kangling is comprised of a bone from the thigh cut off about 30 cm. from the knee joint—two holes cut into the knobs of the knee joint, which forms the trumpet's double bell. A shallow recess is cut into the other end of the segment of bone into which the player blows to create sound. Being made from human bones, the kangling is understandably

treated with some secrecy. This is exacerbated in Nepal by the fact that kangling are apparently illegal to sell. Many Chod practitioners at least had a great deal of knowledge about them, but did not wish to discuss them in great detail. During my research, I was able to witness various Chod practitioners using kangling during the performance of Chod.


Background Information on the Kangling


The kangling is mainly associated with practitioners of Chod and various yogins and yoginis who practice in charnel grounds. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is associated with several protective deities such as ‘Red Mhakala with the thighbone trumpet' or the goddessThroma Nagmo,' in her role as the protector of the charnel grounds for Chod practitioners. Tibetan shamans and other practitioners have used the kangling in rituals of exorcism or weather control, for

its sound is said to be pleasing to wrathful deities, but terrifying to evil spirits. Its use in Chod, wherein various deities and spirits are called, is therefore not surprising. Its roots, like that of the damaru, can be traced back to India and the religious movement known as the Kapalikas— the “skull-bearers”—in the first millennium C.E. The kangling was one of several instruments developed by the Kapalikas that used human body parts as means of

shocking people into taking their religious practice more seriously. Given the practice that emerged in Tibet of ‘sky-burial' or the use of charnel grounds, these instruments were not extraordinarily difficult to make or acquire, even as they became somewhat looked down upon in India. For further information, see the section entitled “Background Information on the Damaru.”


In addition to the typical kangling made out of human thighbone, there is a substitute of sorts made out of copper that is sometimes used in monasteries. This copper substitute is referred to as the zang-kang (zangs rkang), and it is sometimes made out of gold or silver, if the monastery has enough wealth. Gold or silver is preferable, but copper is the most common. The zang-kang typically has an end that is in the shape of crocodile's mouth. In addition to

this relatively common copper zang-kang, there are several other possible substitutes for the kangling. These include the ra-kang (ra rkang)—which is made of the horn of a rhinoceros and is sometimes claimed to be made out of a unicorn horn, the shing-kang (shing rkang)—which is made out of wood, and the tsog-kang (tshogs rkang)—which is similar to the zang-kang, but has a larger ‘crocodile mouth' at its end.


Symbolism and Important Qualities the Kangling Should Possess

The various qualities that are key to a good kangling are very important due to their symbolic aspects. Symbolism and important qualities cannot be easily differentiated; therefore, they have been combined into one section.

First and foremost, the most important quality of a kangling is whether or not it is actually made of a human thighbone. There are some reproductions of kangling that are made of wood or plastic, but it is best to use one that is actually made of human bone. Even among those that are true kangling made of human bone, there are some that are better than others. Characteristics such as the color, shape, and where it comes from are key to bear in mind. For

instance, the best kangling are at least 16 or 17 years old. When it comes to color, bones that are white are the best, although I saw some Chodpas using kangling that were slightly tinged yellow or brown as well. If a bone is an unacceptable color or from an unacceptable source using it can arouse violence and cause unhappiness. Some kangling have the knee joint end painted red, but this is simply decoration and is not a key feature.

In addition to color, distinctions can also be made between those bones that come from the right leg and those that come from the left leg. The thighbone from the right leg of someone who has died in their prime with an “unimpaired intellect” is known as the “instrument of heroes,” while the thighbone from

the left leg of such a person would be referred to as the “instrument of heroines.” The hero's instrument can more specifically refer to the thighbone of an adult man who was killed by a weapon, and the thighbone of a qualified woman is sometimes referred to as the dakini's instrument. The choice of which bone to use is left somewhat open-ended—it ought to be whatever is appropriate to carry for that particular person and circumstance.


Bones that come from specific corpses are sometimes better than others. For instance, bones that come from the corpses of those that died from leprosy or starvation are not suitable as they might have black dots or be too light and lack marrow. As a general rule, the bones of particularly good people seem to be preferred for use as kangling. The bones of those who have great faults such as being quick to anger and committing murder should be avoided. There

are actually three special types of kangling that are special based upon the individual who the bone came from. One type is made from the bone of a Bodhisattva and is said to encourage the aspiration to actualize Bodhicitta—this type is called byan chub sems rkang. The second type is called the bam

rkang and is made from the bone of a woman who died when she was pregnant; the love that the mother could not give to her unborn child gives the bone an extra power that gets projected to the deities of protection. I was told that this type of kangling is actually the best and most powerful type. The third special type of kangling is the gri rkang, which is associated with two warriors dying in battle with their minds full of violence—the violence is harnessed during wrathful rituals to subdue evil spirits.

When it comes to the bone itself, there are some shapes that need to be present in order for the kangling to be good. These shapes are sometimes naturally present, but they can also be added to a certain extent. For example, the bone itself should be relatively straight. Furthermore the joint end of the kangling should be similar to the shape of the Tibetan letter cha—I was also told that one of the bulbs of the joint should be slightly larger than the

other. The bulb on the right side of the instrument is the one that ought to be larger. This shape can sometimes occur naturally, but often it is made better through the use of gums and glue, which can be used to mold the shape of the bone. Near the joint end of the bone, there must also be a flat space just behind the bulbs of the knee joint. This flat space is important as it is the location where dakinis will come to dance during Chod. It is sometimes referred to as the “Dakini's Dancing Place.”

Further up along the bone from the knee joint there should also be at least one and perhaps two small indents that look almost like the imprint left in something soft by a pressing a fingernail into it. This small indent has been described as a meditation center for dakinis or as representative of the “caves” of Padampa Sangye and Machik Labdron. It should be located somewhere on the side of the instrument near the center of its length. Continuing up

along the length of the bone, the end where the Chod practitioner blows into the instrument should be shaped like the Tibetan letter ca. Sometimes, however, the end may be covered in an attached metal mouthpiece. Besides the ends, the entire length of the bone should have a sort of “sharp” or more pointed edge that runs along the top of the instrument. This pointed edge signifies wisdom and the sharp minds of people—some compared it to the symbolism of Manjushri's sword.

Besides the symbolic shape, color, and origin, the most important feature of the kangling is its sound, like with the other instruments. It should produce a good clear sound, which a practitioner will eventually come to recognize from experience. Another easy way of testing the sound is to beat the mouthpiece with one hand and listen to the sound it produces. If this motion produces a brief hollow sound, then it is likely a good kangling.


Playing the Kangling


The kangling is usually held in the left hand—the ‘wisdom' hand—and is often played while the damaru is held in the right hand, the ‘method' hand. When it comes time to play the kangling it is played from the left side of the mouth; the left side is used so that it does not hit the damaru, which may still be being played. During a group Chod practice that I was able to observe, many people picked up the kangling and kept the bell in their left hand as well—

they also continued to play the damaru. There was no elaborate means of picking up the instrument, unlike the ritualistic manner that ought to be used to pick up the bell and dorje. When the kangling were played during the group practice, the music, which often felt orderly and hypnotic, took on a more wild and tumultuous feel.

Various techniques and practices are important to playing the kangling. For instance, when first learning to play the instrument, beginners may produce a slight vibrato on the instrument by shaking their hand, but they later learn to create vibrato through their breath alone. Practitioners are also meant to keep in mind and think through four sacred syllables—Dza, Hum, Bham, and Ho—while playing the kangling. Paired with these syllables are various rhythmic patterns that can be referred to as “three blows,” “four blows,” and “one blow.” For more information on the rhythmic patterns and syllables .


Musical Analysis and the Kangling


The kangling is used to play short melodies that are sometimes accompanied by the damaru. The melodies that are played on the kangling are said to be of the dbyangs type, meaning that they are “composed of sequences of subtle modifications of pitch and loudness which fluctuate continuously rather than being separated into discrete levels.” These melodies are generated from mantras, which have significant ritual meaning, that are found in the ritual text; each

melody is said to be an acoustic expression of the emotional character of the mantra from which it is generated. Dbyangs melodies, which are also found in vocal chant, are very subtle and are made up of continuously varying slight modifications of pitch, coloration, and intonation. These kinds of melodies can be characterized as being on the high end of the spectrum of melodies, containing the most beauty, effectiveness, and depth of pitch.

Unlike with the other instruments involved in Chod, the kangling sometimes has musical notation that is used by practitioners. This notation functions by graphically representing the intonational features of the melody line, although various notations are used that vary in style and types of symbols used.

On way of writing this notation is by giving the lines that are drawn to represent the pitch the following characteristics—thickening lines that indicate increasing loudness and definiteness of the pitch, rising lines to indicate rising pitch, falling lines to indicate falling pitch, and a sharp angle between rising and falling lines to indicate an interruption such as a breath or a momentary leap to a higher pitch. There are various methods of using this type of notation.

There are some specific rhythmic patterns referred to as “three blows,” “four blows,” and “one blow” that are said to be used with the kangling. These rhythms used during Chod were recorded by Daniel A. Scheidegger in his book Tibetan Ritual Music. See Image B in Appendix B for his transcription of the rhythmic patterns.


Shopping for a Kangling in Boudha


When setting out to begin research on Chod, I was curious to see how people acquired the various instruments used in the practice. Given the secretive and somewhat illicit nature of the kangling, discussing the process for making or acquiring kangling was not overly fruitful. For the most part those who did agree to speak about it wished to be kept anonymous.

Initially I was told by Kalsang Tso that she believes that some people donate their bodies to have their thighbones made into kangling, sort of like an offering to a Rinpoche. Bearing this in mind, I set out with Kalsang Tso to speak with shopkeepers in the area around Boudha, to see if anyone could tell

me anything about kangling. At one shop that I stopped at, the owner agreed to speak with me, although he did not have much to say on the subject. At this shop they do not sell real kangling, but they do sell the fake ones made out of plastic or wood. The plastic ones at least are actually made at the shop. They ordered the design and plastic material from India and then finish them here in Boudha.

In addition to the fake kangling, the shop also sells other instruments like the bell, dorje, and damaru. I was told that many tourists come in to buy the fake kangling, and most also end up buying other instruments as well. Not many Chod practitioners buy them, however, as they want to have the real thing. The owner of this shop, Anonymous 1, told me that while most of their customers are tourists, there are also a large number of wholesalers from Tibet who

come to buy them. They come relatively often and end up buying 25 to 50 fake kangling each time, which they then take back to Tibet and sell there. From what they were able to tell me, there is a relatively large market in Tibet for these fake kangling. Although they did not specify, perhaps this is due to tourism from regions in China outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is also intriguing that the market for fake kangling would be so large, as I was told that it is easier to get real kangling in Tibet—although this may not be true.

I spoke to several other shopkeepers who were unable to help me, but was then told of another shop around Boudha that might be able to give me information. Upon reaching this store, I was hesitantly told that they could get me a kangling, but they would not give many details. The shopkeeper said that they would sell them, but not to strangers. Kangling are difficult to get in part because they are illegal to sell. This shop told me that they get them from a

Lama through an intermediary. They offered to let me speak to the intermediary later in the day; however, when I returned and spoke to the intermediary they were unwilling to tell me anything. It seems likely that they did not want to tell a stranger—i.e. me—anything about the secretive and illicit trade of kangling. Even the Chod practitioners I spoke with did not know much of anything about kangling outside of their ritual uses.


The ethnomusicologist Jeffrey W. Cupchik outlines some of the key areas of variance, which are interesting to consider. He writes that the most stable part of the practice is the core meaning of Chod, across “all Tibetan Buddhist traditions and lineages, gCod means ‘cutting off' the mental habit of bdagdzin ma rigs pa (self-grasping ignorance) to realize the mindful state of bdag med rtogs pa'i shes rab (wisdom understanding selflessness).” As one moves away from this core practice they come to the ‘inner meditation' practices, which are subject to a degree of variance between traditions; however, all

traditions share the idea that the practice involves having an “attitude of renunciation conjoined with the altruistic intentionality of the Mahayana path and the insight of ‘emptiness,' the realization of the truth of mutual interdependence (lack of self-existence) of all phenomena.” By far, the least stable parts of Chod are the techniques and styles used in the music, which are shaped by the various teachers' pedagogy and interpretations as well as the

instruments themselves. These differences in how Chod practitioners are taught the music of their practice is interesting to examine, particularly in those areas where strong statements from one tradition are held as unimportant in others. The differences that emerge between specific practices are also intriguing given the special bond that is held to exist between student and teacher—it is very important to honor your teacher and to fail to do so or to disrespect your teacher was described to me as grievous sin.



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