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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMSnL7pNCfs

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

Torma photos © Filip Wolak; website: http://www.fotofilip.com

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 http://levekunst.com.

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