The 7th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Butter lamps (Tibetan: དཀར་མེ་, Wylie: dkar me) are a conspicuous feature of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the Himalayas. The lamps traditionally burn clarified yak butter, but now often use vegetable oil or vanaspati ghee.
Each morning Tibetans offer a lighted butter lamp, representing the illumination of wisdom, along with seven bowls containing pure water (or symbolic offerings of washing water, drinking water, flowers, scent, perfumed water, food, and sound) before the images on their household shrine. The butter lamp usually being placed between the fourth and fifth bowls. At funeral ceremonies or when visiting temples and going on pilgrimage to sacred sites, Tibetan Buddhists often light a large number of butter lamps together at one time.
Pilgrims also supply lamp oil to gain merit. The monks in the monastery manage the actual lamps, taking extreme care to avoid starting one of the devastating fires which have damaged many monasteries over the years. For safety, butter lamps are sometimes restricted to a separate courtyard enclosure with a stone floor.
Externally, the lights are seen to banish darkness. Conceptually, they convert prosaic substance into illumination, a transformation akin to the search for enlightenment. Esoterically, they recall the heat of the tummo yoga energy of the Six Yogas of Naropa, an important text for Kagyu, Gelug, and Sakya schools of tantric Buddhism.