About Tormas

Tormas are associated with many aspects of Tibetan Buddhist practice. At times described by western observers as “Tibetan ritual cakes,” tormas may be edible, cake-like and intended to be eaten and enjoyed by sadhana practitioners in sacramental feasts. But many tormas are made of durable, non-edible materials. These sculptural objects are intended to reside on a meditation shrine, embodying the color, beauty and symbolic meaning inherent in Buddhist tantrayana.

The roots of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism are ancient, originating in India, through Tibet, to the West quite recently. The Tibetan system is based on discourses, or teachings, attributed to the Buddha in India, dating to about 450 BCE. Some of those discourses are referred to as the Buddhist tantras (Sanskrit). It is the influence of the tantras that makes Tibetan Buddhism (AKA vajrayana) distinctive among the various schools of Buddhism.

The word tantra means “thread” or “continuity” in that there is an emphasis on recognizing wakefulness in immediate experience at all times. Awake is the thread. The term tantra is sometimes compounded with another Sanskrit word, yana, which is generally translated as “vehicle”—a means of going forward, or loosely as “path.” So the compound word tantrayana may be understood to mean “the vehicle of practicing the tantras,” or perhaps “the path of recognizing continuity of mind.”

Although the recognition of the true nature of mind is by its character immediate and complete, developing a sense of that in life requires some training. Meditation practice, rituals, torma offering and a variety of other methods provide a progressive set of means for stabilizing the continuity of that recognition.

The Meaning of Offering

Understanding the nature of making offering in tantra practice is essential to grasping the role of tormas. When offering a permanent shrine torma the process is generally one of visualization and attitude. Though ritual is involved, religion and religious belief, or faith, may not characterize the process in the same way that faith characterizes the relationship of a worshiper to the worshiped in theistic traditions. Nontheism means that whatever energy or unseen force is offered to, the understanding is one of no separation. Despite the emphasis on deities, protectors and guru devotion in the tantrayana, the intent of offering is opening to, and recognizing, one’s wisdom. Wisdom does not reside externally—it’s the true nature of mind. That is the essential meaning of nontheism.

So making offering generally, and offering tormas specifically, is primarily a way to connect with that nontheistic understanding. From the point of view of the tantras, wisdom is existent. Whose wisdom it is, is irrelevant. Wisdom has no owner, thus there is nothing to worship. The nature of your own mind and heart is identical to the wisdom of the guru, the deity, or any unseen force or energy in your world. Offering with an open mind is, at its most essential, opening to and recognizing the true nature of mind. It is also a means of generating merit, cultivating generosity, and several other positive things—all of which support that recognition.

The Meaning of Torma

The Tibetan word "torma" has two parts. The first syllable "tor" is a verb that means to "throw out." In the Vajrayana sadhana practices, tormas made of barley flour, butter and other ingredients are a part of a ritual, then placed outdoors as a gesture of making offering, and of generosity. This literal and outer expression of offering provides sustenance for beings who encounter the offered torma (squirrels, birds and other local beings benefit). Such an offering may also be a gesture on the part of the practitioner to a world of unseen forces or beings that one wishes to influence and even to control.

The inner sense of throwing out may be understood as the severing of attachment to desirable things—cutting through one’s entrapment in desire, known in the tradition as klesha. This does not imply the disappearance of desirable things. Our world is filled with desirable things which can’t really be avoided. Rather than avoidance, the inner sense of offering implies an opportunity to look deeply into the nature of desire itself and from this point of view, the arising of desire is an opportunity not to be missed. The arising of desire is a chance to recognize wisdom. The problem with desire is self-centeredness. This "throwing out" then, brings with it a sense of abandoning the self-referential neurosis of desire. Severing from, or purifying, klesha—the blinding conditioned emotional reactions that cause much suffering for oneself and others. All well-worth throwing out.

The second syllable of the word torma, "ma," is a feminine ending, which evokes a maternal, nurturing quality. Understanding the true meaning of this simple syllable is a means of cultivating loving kindness for all beings, much as a mother feels love for her children. So, with the first syllable one severs attachment to self-centeredness—an act of generosity and self-awareness. Having removed that obstacle, with the second syllable one may radiate love and sympathy to others. The entire offering takes place with an attitude of loving kindness.

The above was derived in part from remarks made by Lama Tashi Dondrup at Sopa Choling three-year retreat center in 1998. Translated by Elizabeth Callahan.

Phil Karl

Phil grew up in a family of artists where he developed an abiding love of the visual arts and the creative. He trained in drawing, sculpting and painting from an early age. He has been a student of Buddhism, and of Chogyam Trungpa, since 1977 and has a deep sense of respect for Trungpa Rinpoche’s understanding and his appreciation of dharma and the visual arts. Phil completed the traditional Tibetan three-year meditation retreat at Sopa Choling, Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia in 2003, where he had the opportunity to practice meditation intensively and study and practice the art of torma-making. He founded Tormas.biz in 2003 upon completing the retreat.For over thirty years Phil has taught a wide variety of courses in the Dharma, in the lineage of Trungpa Rinpoche. He has led meditation programs in the US, Canada, Europe and at the Shambhala International Seminary at Shambhala Mountain Center. He served as a core faculty member of the Ngedon School of Higher Learning and as adjunct faculty in the Religious Studies Department of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Phil has worked as a Buddhist chaplain in the state and federal prison systems, counseling and providing Dharma teaching and meditation instruction to Buddhist inmates.

Tormas Here and Now

As for these tormas, I make them following traditional Tibetan guidelines for shape, color and other traditional features. My training at Sopa Choling came through two closely related Karma Kagyu torma-making traditions—from Lama Tashi Thondup, and Lama Karma Phuntsok—trained at Rumtek and Sherap Ling monasteries, respectively. All salient features of the tormas I make reflect those traditions. Traditionally, many of the tormas call for tordze and a mantra to be inserted inside the torma, which I do. The materials, on the other hand, are modern and western. Many of the bodies of the tormas are cast from a tough plaster called Hydrostone and the ornaments are made from Sculpey ™, which is a high quality polymer sculpting medium. These materials are sturdy and the colors vivid and durable. The torma bodies are painted using high quality enamels. The tormas if properly packaged may be transported for use in retreat situations and if cared for should remain relatively unchanged for decades.

I very much enjoy making these and appreciate you visiting my site. Please look around and contact me if you’d like to be in touch.