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Tibetan monk sculpts with butter to raise money for education
Butter art

Tibetan monk sculpts with butter to raise money for education

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Lama Penjo Bhutia pinched a small piece of colored butter, dipped and kneaded it in a bowl of cold water, then formed it into a flower petal.

He placed it on a thin piece of black wood next to an identical petal, while sitting at a small table at Barjon’s Books in Billings on Saturday afternoon. The Tibetan monk repeated the motion over and over, quickly creating a colorful, delicate three-dimensional sculpture.

The sculpture, which mirrored the fable of the four friends, included an elephant, a monkey, a rabbit and a partridge, all stacked on each other, under a beautiful tree. He added a bit of yellow butter to the grass, he said in his native Tibetan, in a nod to the color of Montana grass.

Penjo’s words were translated by Karma Tensum, executive director of the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation in Helena. Penjo is in the United States for two months to help raise money for the foundation.

He lives in Sikkim, India, at the Kalimpong Monastery, one of about 30 monks. His father was a monk before him in Tibet, Penjo said through Tensum. But when the Chinese annexed Tibet in 1959, many Tibetans fled to India, including Penjo’s father and his family. When Penjo turned 10, his father sent him to the monastery in Kalimpong to become a monk. Monks are assigned specific duties, including teaching children and managing the affairs of the monastery.

Penjo’s job involves building relationships, he told Tensum. Aside from his monastic duties, he has started working to educate Himalayan children in a village called Zuluk, a border region of eastern Sikkim.

“Because without some intervention, it looks like these children will never receive any education,” Tensum said.

He is in the U.S. to raise money for that project, Tensum said. Penjo also spoke during a fundraising dinner Saturday night.

As Penjo talked about his work, he enthralled onlookers as he sculpted the butter.

Penjo told the audience seated around him that he never received any formal training in Tibetan butter sculpture.

“When he was 14 or 15, he watched elder monks do the butter sculptures, would lend a helping hand, practice here, practice there, and over the course of a year, he mastered it,” Tensum said, translating Penjo’s words.

The butter is mixed with mineral pigments to create the different colors. Penjo said that apart from aptitude or skill, only certain people have the right type of physiology to do butter sculpture.

“Whether you could do butter sculpture or not also depended on your body temperature,” he said through Tensum. “If you had really warm hands — even if you have artistic talent — you wouldn’t make it.”

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