With No Margarine for Error, Eight Buddhist Monks Practice a Butter Way to Honor the Gods

updated 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

There are perhaps no greater accomplishments than those proffered by man to his God. Think of the Temple of Luxor. Of the cathedral at Chartres.

And, this month only, think of eight Buddhist monks from the Gyuto Tantric Monastery in Bomdila, India, sitting in an unheated gallery in New York's Museum of Natural History, wearing maroon robes and Grateful Dead wristwatches, creating colorful foot-high figures from the Buddhist pantheon out of myriad, carefully assembled bits of yak butter.

Okay, vegetable shortening. Back in Tibet, where butter sculpture originated in the 15th century as a form of spiritual devotion celebrating the New Year, brightly dyed yak butter was the medium of choice. But since 1959, when the Chinese invasion of Tibet drove the monks to India, which lacks yaks, the sculptors have made do without. The monks study for years to master the art, in which every detail of color and design is specified in holy texts.

After the monks depart, the museum will melt down their masterpieces—a prospect that some achievement-oriented New Yorkers find disturbing. But the monks, whose English is limited, are all smiles as they explain that the very act of making the sculptures—and of watching them being made—confers a blessing. Preservation is pointless.

The butter sculpting caps a 15-city tour in which the monks performed another specialty, harmonic chanting. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, a tour sponsor, turned them on to C&W and Otis Redding tapes and gave them their watches. They visited Disneyland, and George Lucas screened the Star Wars trilogy for them at his ranch. "They're happy wherever they go," says Richard Gere, a Buddhist since 1982. "All their institutions are fashioned to create more good men. For us, just seeing people who are products of that kind of culture is important." And what will they miss about our culture? Said one, without hesitation, "Pizza."

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