Buddhist Butter Balls By the Bay
Date: Mon, 20 Mar 95 20:48:43 PST
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Buddhist Butter Balls By the Bay
Forwarded-by: email@example.com (Lani Herrmann)
Forwarded-by: Alix Herrmann Scheurer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
MAKING LIFE A BUTTER PLACE Buddhist monks sculpt their way into American
consciousness as cultures get more familiar
By Kathleen Donnelly
(San Jose) Mercury News Staff Writer Thu, 9 Mar 1995 08:14:13-0500
THE monks are late for lunch. Maroon robes flying, kids scattering at their
loafer-shod feet, they hurry through San Francisco's Exploratorium, where
they're spending the next two weeks molding an intricate, 12-foot-high
sculpture out of colored vegetable shortening.
It's a tradition, Sonam Wangchuk tries to explain as he rushes by the
interactive exhibits on wavelengths and electricity more familiar to
Exploratorium visitors. Like making sand mandalas and performing tantric
chants, sculpting in a medium that resembles Crisco is a centuries-old form
of devotion for the Buddhist monks from the Gyuto Tantric Monastery. They've
come to California to teach about that tradition, and to learn about
culture in the United States.
But right now, Wangchuk apologizes, the monks are late for just
such a lesson in U.S. popular culture. They have a lunch date at Mel's
Drive-In on Lombard Street.
Eleven monks ordering burgers at Mel's may be unusual, but it's not the
strangest position the monks have been in since they began making periodic
tours of the United States about eight years ago.
There was the time the monks' Greyhound bus got stuck in a blizzard in
Cheyenne, Wyo. They spent the night at the local Salvation Army shelter.
Then, there was Halloween night in Portland, Ore., when two monks rang the
doorbell of the home they mistakenly thought was their lodging for the night.
The residents took one look, handed over candy and closed the door.
Wherever the monks go, it's a learning experience for everyone.
"This is really appropriate here, says Melissa Alexander of the
Exploratorium, a science and technology museum that encourages audience
participation. "It teaches that different groups of people have different
ways of interpreting the phenomena of the world.
The monks from Gyuto Tantric Monastery are perhaps best known for their
hypnotic, other worldly chanting. They'll be performing six times in the Bay
Area this spring, including a May 19 concert at Stanford University. But
their skill at butter sculpting, which they will continue to exhibit at the
Exploratorium until March 23, is less well-known.
The tradition began when the monastery was founded in Tibet in 1474. Monks
used yak butter to mold dozens of approximately 1-foot high representations
of images from the Buddhist pantheon -- flowers, animals and deities.
The completed elements were then joined to make a large mandala, or deity's
abode. The mandala, visiting monk Thupten Norbu confirms, does eventually
In more than five centuries, the tradition has remained virtually the same.
The monks were, however, forced to change their sculpting medium when they
fled to India after the Chinese takeover of Tibet.
"In Tibet, we used yak butter, Norbu says. "But in India, it's hard to find.
The monks now use a vegetable shortening with the look and consistency of
margarine-laced Playdoh. They mold it into cantaloupe-sized balls and
transport it to the sculpting site in plastic picnic coolers.
As the monks began work in the Exploratorium on Tuesday morning, a crowd
gathered for the consecration of the work site. And when the monks exchanged
their saffron-colored robes for long, white bakers' aprons and headed for the
coolers, schoolchildren stopped dead in their tracks.
"What's going on? an elementary-age boy asks a group of schoolmates hanging
around the periphery of the sculpture site.
"They meditate and make sculptures out of butter, another replies
The group silently mulls over the information.
"They're Buddhist, one explains as his friends nod in agreement.
As the monks knead and slap the shortening, mixing colors and molding the
material into five-inch high towers that look like tiny volcanoes, Daniella
Sotelo and her friends from Wood Middle School in Alameda stop by.
"I think it's cool, Daniella says. "But wouldn't it melt?
"It's really interesting, her friend Aimee Barnes, a 7th-grader like
Daniella, remarks. "But could you eat it?
"Probably you could, Daniella concludes, "if it's butter.
They're the kinds of questions Norbu welcomes, even as he attempts to
meditate while sculpting.
"They ask and we can give answers, he says. "We both understand.
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED
Buddhist monks from the Gyuto Tantric Monastery will be working on the butter
sculpture through March 23, with the exception of Tuesday, March 14. For
exact working times, call (415) 563-7337. The Exploratorium, located inside
the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday -
Sunday. The Gyuto Monks Tibetan Tantric Choir will perform March 24 at the
Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, March 25 at Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley,
March 26 at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa, May 19 at Stanford
Memorial Church on the university campus, May 20 at Marin Center
in San Rafael and May 27 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. For
tickets, call the individual box offices or BASS ticket outlets, (408)
998-2277 or (510) 762-2277.
© 1995 Peter Langston