Little Old Ladies and Tibetan Butter Sculptures

One of my students told me a story about a group of Tibetan monks who came to New York City to make a big butter sculpture. Day after day, the monks shaped and assembled a quite impressive display of flowers, different animals, and deities out of colored butters all fastened onto large boards, which then were going to be brought in a tall assembly. It is quite complicated and requires a great deal of experience in order to make a butter sculpture. watch here

Every day, many people came to watch the monks making butter sculpture, a very interesting process. Some of the monks had their hands immersed in water with ice cubes for long periods making this sculpture underwater. In addition, they had to keep the room at a very cold temperature, and it was wintertime, otherwise, the butter would melt. People would come to watch them mold and create the designs and ask questions, "Are your hands cold?" This was the important question to ask Tibetan Buddhist monks who came all the way from the other side of the world. They replied, "Of course they are cold. They are immersed in ice water." watch here

A group of old ladies came to see the butter sculpture being produced and assembled. These were beautiful older ladies wearing little mink shoulder wraps and little hats and quite a good amount of makeup. They said, "What are you going to do with the butter sculpture once it is finished? Will it be available for sale?" They said, "No, ladies, this butter sculpture will be scraped off and made into a lump and thrown away." They said, "Well, that is terrible! This butter sculpture should be preserved! You should not destroy it!" The monks, who did not have very good English, tried to explain carefully about the nature of impermanence and how butter sculpture and sand mandala making teach the Buddhist concept of the nature of impermanence in even this beautiful exhibit. The ladies did not understand and continued to complain that it was wrong to destroy these types of things at the end of the show.

This is an example of the wrong view that takes the impermanent to be permanent.
It seems the monks found the old ladies amusing because the making of butter sculpture is part of their education and practice as well as working on understanding the nature of change and impermanence. On the other hand, these well-preserved old ladies insisted that something that is going to change does not change. They want to hold away change and demand that either life return to the way it was before or never change at all. This rubs and irritates the actual way that you are alive. Holding away change and demanding life to be like before rubs and irritates the actual way you are alive, like trying to pet a cat from the tail to head.


  1. Interesting, especially since I struggle with impermanence and also because my favourite place to meditate is at the Science Museum's Tibetan Mandala Display. The monks who made it made it knowing it would be a permanent display to foster understanding of Buddhism and Tibetan Culture - but it should have been destroyed too, according to tradition and belief. So although I understand the frustration with their unwillingness to understand, I am also immensely grateful that this one mandala was preserved. sigh, so far to go.


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