Monk offers food for thought ... and art

by Dave Hart, Chapel Hill News, Nov 23, 2008

CHAPEL HILL , NC (USA) -- Most folks have never done anything more creative with butter than spread it on toast or drizzle it, a la Jackson Pollock, over popcorn.

On Tuesday, though, Buddhist monk Geshe Sangpo turned clarified butter into a medium for artistic and spiritual expression.

<< Buddhist monk Geshe Sangpo gradually adds carefully hand-shaped, multicolored pieces of clarified butter onto a conical form made of shaped ground oatmeal Tuesday morning in the atrium of the FedEx Global Education Center at UNC. - Dave Hart, Staff Writer

Curious passersby gathered around Sangpo in the lobby of the FedEx Global Education Center as he demonstrated the ancient Tibetan Buddhist art of butter sculpture.

Seated behind a table in the lobby, clad in orange and maroon robes, Sangpo plucked tiny blobs of brilliantly dyed butter from the metal bowl full of cold water in which they floated. Like a ceramic artist working in clay, he rolled, flattened and pinched each little lump into a precise shape and pressed it onto the base, a foot-tall cone made of an oatmeal paste.

"In Tibet, we would use butter from a yak," Sangpo said. "The water keeps the butter cold."

As he worked, the piece took form as a delicate, intricate temple adorned with spirals, flowers and scalloped disks.

"Butter sculpture is very ancient in Tibet," said Sherab Lama, co-founder of the nonprofit Himalayan Society, who arranged the demonstration to coincide with UNC-Chapel Hill's International Education Week. "The design that Geshe Sangpo is doing is an offering to Tara, a female deity, the goddess of compassion."

Butter -- slick and prone to melting --isn't the easiest medium to work in. Which is precisely why it is suitable for the creation of spiritual art, Lama said.

"You need attention, focus, patience, calmness," he said. "If you lose your patience or focus, you cannot create the sculpture. So it's a way of meditation."

The sculpture will remain on display in the lobby for a few days, Lama said. After that the oatmeal will break down, and the piece will have to be disposed of.

"We'll probably put it outside for the squirrels," he said. "They will love it."