The Outstanding Art of Tibetan Butter Sculpture

This article was written for the online magazine: LEVEKUNST art of life, a lovely new site created by Erik Pema Kunsang and his wife, Tara Trinley Wangmo.

By Yeshe Wangmo; Photos © Filip Wolak. Many ritual practices in Tibetan Buddhism require the use of sacred offerings called torma. In Tibet, these were usually made out of tsampa, roasted barley flour and butter. In the West we usually substitute wheat flour or oatmeal for the roasted barley flour, which is difficult and time-consuming to make. If you break down the word torma in Tibetan, tor literally means to scatter or toss out a small number of things or pieces. The suffix ma represents love.  So you could say that the word torma means to offer something to someone with love. The torma is traditionally tossed outside after being used in a ritual, becoming food for insects and wild animals.

It is taught that in order to become enlightened, one needs to gather vast accumulations of both wisdom and merit. Wisdom is developed gradually through study and contemplation. Merit is achieved through making offerings and perfecting the practice of generosity. So tormas help us to develop the practice of generosity and are used in the ritual practices of Vajrayana Buddhism as a skillfull means of accumulating merit. They also help to relinquish attachment. Torma not only means to toss out an offering, but to give up attachment as well.

Years ago, as an aspiring practitioner in the traditional three-year meditation retreat, I did not understand this very well and I struggled a lot with tormas. We had to make a great many of them, and our free time within the intensity of the three-year-retreat schedule was very limited. I would have preferred to study in my free time, rather than make a lot of tormas, so I felt somewhat resistant towards them. For one thing, they were difficult to make: while the geometrical shapes may have looked simple enough in the diagrams, they weren’t so easy to form in actual practice. The same with the disc-shaped decorations made out of butter: I have warm hands, so the butter melted as soon as my fingers came into contact with it. This meant immersing both hands into a big bowl of ice water to make the butter ornaments, all in all, a very unpleasant, even painful experience.

I calculated that we spent nearly one quarter of our time in retreat making tormas, and while I could understand why we had to make them on an intellectual level, because we had been told that they were a necessary part of the practice, on a deeper level they did not make sense to me; I felt no intuitive or personal connection with them in relation to the elaborate visualization practices we were doing.

I have often wondered why, as fledging practitioners, we weren’t given a better explanation of tormas from the very beginning, since they aren’t something we are familiar with in Western culture. There seemed to me to be something missing in the transmission. But maybe this is because the subject of tormas is actually quite complex; and the rather simple offering tormas that we made in retreat were just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Eventually, I came to learn a great deal more about tormas. For one thing, merely by virtue of engaging in the practices over a long period of time, one comes to acquire a deeper appreciation of tormas and to feel that they are an integral part of the practice. But because that doesn’t usually happen in the beginning, you might say that there is a self-secret aspect to tormas, that their meaning can only be revealed gradually through extensive use.

In the deity practices of Tibetan Buddhism, tormas serve as a physical basis for the visualizations of offerings that are vast and limitless. But tormas do not only represent offerings to wisdom deities. There are also torma offerings made to the unenlightened spirits that wander hungry and confused in the bardo state between death and rebirth. There are tormas that are offered to harmful ghosts so that they will leave us alone and not hinder our spiritual progress. And there are also the torma offerings called tsok that we share with our vajra brothers and sisters in the context of a spiritual feast. Actually, the designation torma is not limited to offerings of any kind. The word torma can mean many things. Since there are many different kinds of tormas used in the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, there is not one, over-arching definition of the word. And in Tibet, tormas were not only made of perishable substances such as flour and butter, there were also permanent tormas made of gold, silver, clay and wood.

Some tormas are made, not as offerings to, but as representations of deities and their retinues. Even though these may bear no physical resemblance to the depictions of deities that we see in the Tibetan Buddhist paintings, the torma’s abstract shapes and vivid colors nonetheless capture the essence of a particular deity’s enlightened qualities and thereby symbolize the deity.

There are tormas that represent the mandala palaces of particular deities. There are many other kinds of tormas too, depending upon the kind of practice one is doing. And there are outer, inner, secret, and ultimate meanings to them as well.

In 2007 I had the fortunate opportunity to discuss a torma film idea with the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje in Bodhgaya, India. He graciously answered many questions about tormas and out of that, a torma film project was born. The film evolved over the next few years involving many people, inspired by the fact that the Karmapa was creating a new torma tradition in the Karma Kagyu lineage. He was designing elaborate butter sculptures for the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival for World Peace held annually in Bodhgaya. Monks and nuns from Karma Kagyu monasteries and nunneries throughout the Himalayan region were being trained extensively in the art of butter torma, under his direct supervision.

During the course of making the film, Torma: the Ancient Art of Tibetan Butter Sculpture, which was completed in 2014, we were able to interview not only His Holiness the 17th Karmapa about tormas, but several other great masters of the Karma Kagyu Lineage as well.  On a personal level, this project was a natural culmination of my early struggles with tormas and my subsequent life-long fascination with them.

The official trailer:

To view the film online and for info about ordering the DVD:

Torma photos © Filip Wolak; website:

Levekunst art of life by Erik Pema Kunsang & Tara Trinley Wangmo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at

Torma Film Screening at the Rubin Museum of Art

TORMA: THE ANCIENT ART OF TIBETAN BUTTER SCULPTURE WILL BE SCREENED AT “LUNCH MATTERS,” on APRIL 22 from 1:00 – 2:30 PM. Torma examines butter sculpture, the colorful and complex art form that is unique to Tibetan Buddhist culture. Sculpted in butter by devoted monks, tormas act as a link between the human and spiritual realms. via Rubin Museum of Art.

Kagyu Monlam Chenmo 2014 News: The Benefits of the Tsechu Lama Dance

via Kagyu Monlam Chenmo 2014 News: The Benefits of the Tsechu Lama Dance.

The Nature of the Lama Dance: This sacred lama dance with its long history and profound meaning is not like any ordinary dance one might perform. The essence or nature of the dance is recognizing that the nature of all phenomena is the union of appearance and emptiness. One’s body, speech, and mind no longer remain ordinary, and one visualizes oneself as the form of the deity. The dance becomes a way to express this to other people. via Kagyu Monlam Chenmo 2014 News: The Benefits of the Tsechu Lama Dance.

Vegetarian, Feminist Tibetan Monk Taking the US Ivy Leagues By Storm | Adele Wilde-Blavatsky

Karmapa Khyenno!

Twenty-nine year old Tibetan man, Orgyen Trinley Dorje – the 17th Karmapa – is currently on a two-month lecture tour of prestigious US universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Tickets for all events were immediately sold out. Who is this monk who, after visiting the headquarters of Google and Facebook, spoke about the need for a kinder internet culture? Why are so many people seeking his advice and inspiration in the 21st Century?

via Vegetarian, Feminist Tibetan Monk Taking the US Ivy Leagues By Storm | Adele Wilde-Blavatsky.

Torma Master Lama Choenyi Shares her Torma Techniques

Lama Choeyni with a box of air dry clay and Fimo colors

Lama Choeyni with a box of air dry clay and blocks of Fimo polymer clay colors.

Lama Choenyi is a highly skilled torma artist and is responsible for many of the fancy tormas used at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the North American seat of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa,  in Woodstock, New York. She recently sat down with me and graciously agreed to share her depth of knowledge and experience in the art of crafting “permanent tormas” out of clay and Fimo. She has spent many hours experimenting and over time has perfected techniques for working with the difficult-to-use materials.

This new set of Mahakala tormas took a year and a half to complete and was used for the Gutor pujas.

This new set of Mahakala tormas took a year and a half to complete and was used for the Gutor pujas.

When did you start making big, fancy tormas out of clay? Lama Lodro  (the women’s three-year-retreat master at Karme Ling Retreat) asked me to make a set of large Mahakala tormas for KTD because the ones they were using were very old and also too small. The initial problem was in finding the right materials, so I checked the art store in Woodstock for a suitable clay. I didn’t want to use Sculpey (a polymer clay) for the big tormas because Sculpey cracks, but once I experimented with natural, air-dry clay, I found that it works very nicely and smoothly.

This box of natural air-dry clay cost about $15.00.

This 25 lb. box of natural air-dry clay cost about $15.00.

The Mahakala tormas I made are very large, and I found that big tormas will shrink quite a lot as they dry, and if they aren’t hollowed out somewhat they will crack in the drying process. So after the torma is shaped and is partially dry, I hollow out the main body of the torma (but not the head). In the end, once the torma is completely dry,  the hollow part will be filled up with blessed substances, and it will become very heavy again, but at least during the drying process it isn’t.

At what point in the shaping process do you hollow it out? First I make the whole shape as perfectly as possible. I wait a little bit and let it dry for about a week with a plastic bag over it before I hollow it out.  This [hollowing out] will speed up the drying process.

Why use a plastic bag? The big tormas take several months to dry. So I leave the plastic bag on for a while, then take it off, and then put it back on. Taking the plastic on and off allows me to control the drying process so the clay doesn’t crack. During the drying process, the torma needs to be placed on a rack that will allow air to circulate underneath, like a cookie cooling rack. Once it starts to dry and harden, it’s easy to refine the shape because you can add a little more clay, or take some away. At the end when it is completely dry, you can smooth it with sand paper. And then you can fill it with blessed substances.

The Nyingzuk torma, the tentor, represents the deity and is filled with blessed substances and mantras.

The Nyingzuk torma, the tentor, represents the deity and is filled with blessed and fragrant substances, and mantras.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche filled the tormas and I have the list here of what he put inside: in general he used damtsik (samaya substances), which include mani pills, rice blessed by the 16th and 17th Karmapa and the previous Kalu Rinpoche, (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche has a collection of different kinds of rice blessed by holy beings), saffron, and a Tibetan text that he rolled up. For the Nyingzuk, because it represents the deity itself, Rinpoche put the body, speech and mind mantras of the deity inside, using the same text that he used when he filled the big Mahakala statue at KTD. Then he adds in fragrant substances like cloves, coriander seeds, and incense sticks, and then dried flower petals, five-colored silks, bits of paper printed with auspicious signs and symbols, and precious jewels. These are some of the same substances you would use to fill a statue since the Nyingzuk, like a statue, is a representation of the deity. Then once the hollow was filled, he sealed the bottom of the torma. Rinpoche used epoxy mixed with a little bit of powdered clay. Once that dried, Rinpoche sealed the torma further with an image of a double vajra and a red cloth glued over bottom of the torma.

Once the torma is all filled and ready to paint, you use a base coat of primer, let it dry, and then cover that with two or three coats of acrylic paint. When that is completely dry, you apply the glaze. The best glaze I found is the same glaze that they use on wood floors: a clear, water-based, high-gloss polyurethane. Be sure and use water-based polyurethane because it will not turn yellow over time. Oil-based polyurethane will yellow with age. You need at least two layers of this. The glaze dries fast; it only takes about two hours in between coats. After the last coat of glaze is completely dry, you can apply the norbus (jewels), marku (white lines), and gyens (ornaments) to the torma. For this I use Fimo polymer clay, (this is the name for a brand of polymer clay made by the German company Staedtler, and is found in art and craft stores in the U.S.) Here are the Fimo colors:

After you apply the norbus, marku, and gyens, you have to bake it in the oven. The marku must be glued on though, and I use crazy glue for that. The instructions on the Fimo package are to bake it for 30 minutes, but because the torma itself is so big, once the decorations are applied to the torma, you have to bake it much longer than it indicates in the instructions. For instance, if you bake a flower gyen on its own in the oven, it doesn’t take more than 15 or 30 minutes. However, once you have applied the gyens to a large torma, you have to let it bake for at least 50 minutes. Follow the directions for the temperature on the Fimo package (230° F).

Fimo "effect" white adds a translucent glow

Fimo “effect” white adds a translucent glow.

I mix the colors with “Effect White” to get a translucent effect. The Fimo is very hard and you need to use a softener when you are mixing the colors for your palette. If you don’t use the softener it can take hours to knead. I found that a few drops of unscented baby oil per each block of Fimo works very well as a softener. I also pass the Fimo through a pasta machine many times to help with the kneading and softening process. This is a big time-saver but it is still a lot of work to mix the mother color with white to get the different shades of color. (You need many shades of the primary colors for the gyens). I mix the solid Fimo colors with a little bit of “soft white” Fimo plus “effect white” to get the varying shades of the colors I like to work with. Once the Fimo gyens are baked, they are very strong and will last a long time. One thing to keep in mind is that the Fimo colors darken as they bake, so you need to make samples to know what the color will look like after it bakes. Enjoy a slideshow of some of Lama Choenyi’s tormas:

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The 16th Nepal Kagyu Monlam, Featuring Special Tormas, Concludes Today

Every year after the Tibetan New Year (Losar), the Karma Kagyu Monasteries in Nepal come together to organize a Kagyu Monlam. This year it was hosted by Dilyak Monastery, which is one of the oldest Kagyu Monasteries in Nepal and the seat of Kyabje Dilyak Dabsang Rinpoche.

Kyabje Dabsang Rinpoche (second from right).

Kyabje Dilyak Dabsang Rinpoche, (c) with Ponlop Rinpoche (l) and Dilyak Druppon Rinpoche (r).

Enjoy this gallery of beautiful tormas, created through the blessing of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, featuring the Karma Kagyu Lineage Masters and the new style of flower invented by the Karmapa recently. The tormas were made by Karma Samten and other students of Dilyak Monastery. Photos are courtesy of Karma Samten, a monk from Dilyak who is a master painter and sculptor, and one of the main torma artists responsible for creating the amazing butter sculptures every year for the Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya, India.