when i was in ganzi (western sichuan) last october, i saw something interesting at a tibetan buddhist supply store. a ceramic cone 6.5" tall, with two flower discs on one face and colored balls and yak horns down below. i didn't know what it was but it was so strikingly beautiful, i just had to buy one (it was cheap too, RMB¥14 or something like that). whenever i had the chance i'd ask tibetans what it was. nobody could tell me through their broken mandarin. the closest i ever came to an answer was back in chongqing, at a slew of chinese-run buddhist supply shops next to crowds of street fortune tellers and the luohan temple in yuzhong. one of the owners told me it had something to do with prayer, something about dishes, and putting the cone in water.
late last time i finally did some sleuthing. my search was complicated by the fact that there seems to be different variants of tibetan romanization, as well as sanskrit and hindi words mixed in for buddhist terms. my searching went from tibetan buddhism statuary, tibetan buddhism sensory offering, naividya statue, sensory offering food, samadhi statue, shalse, shalse 3 jewels, nivide shalse offering, to finally torma, which has it's own short wikipedia entry. the statue is a torma, or a shalze torma to be precise. here's my understanding of its function: in order to gain points in the afterlife, sensory offerings are made to buddha. it comes in the form of 8 bowls, with each a different sensory offering: water (for drinking), water (for washing), flower (for beauty), incense (for smelling), light (for seeing), perfume (for smelling again), food (for eating), and bell (for listening/music). back to tormas: tormas are traditionally sculpted out of dough and/or butter. they have many uses, like being a vessel for spirits. tormas - because they are made from edible material - can also be used as a ritual food offering, even symbolically when now they're made of ceramic/plastic. when they symbolize food, they're called shalzes, and they appear in sensory offerings.
that would explain the different shalzes i saw made out of butter. i didn't notice them at first, thought they were melted cones of candle wax, but then i saw they had the same shapes (cone plus 2 discs) as the torma i'd purchased. that branches off into an entirely new and fascinating area of tibetan butter sculptures. unlike the butter sculptures in our nation's diary belt, tibetan butter sculptures are colored and serve a religious purpose. there's even a documentary film about it that i hope to watch at some point (even though it seems to be a propaganda piece for ogyen trinley dorge in the ongoing 17th karmapa controversy currently rocking the tibetan buddhism world).
i ordered from amazon the handbook of tibetan buddhist symbols (2003, $20) by robert beer. it's the book i should've brought along when i went to western sichuan, just to decipher all the different iconography i saw when i visited various temples and holy sites. i browsed a sample of it online and immediately knew i had to get it. full of line drawings and descriptions, the only way the handbook can be made any better is if it was color, because color is also a key component of tibetan buddhist symbology.
the result of this morning's weigh-in: 148.2 lbs.
my 2nd aunt treated us to a hot pot buffet tonight, courtesy of her newfound generosity now that her retirement benefits have kicked in. plus, a friend of hers from church raved about the place and my parents had seen advertisements for it in the local chinese newspaper. the only problem was it was all the way out in framingham. but the thing to know about my family is we are willing to travel however far it takes in order to eat something delicious (case in point: our numerous food outings to flushing new york).
we decided to eat at 7:00, so my parents came to pick me up around 6:00. my sister would bring my 2nd aunt and uncle after she got off from work around that same time. the one thing we didn't anticipate was the traffic. friday night after work leaving the city, the traffic was bad. i'm sure it could've been worse, but it definitely made the drive much longer. we also saw several examples of bad driving, like a man watching a movie on his smartphone while driving. we didn't get to the restaurant until 7:15.
it was a place called samba west, just off of the highway. it wasn't just a restaurant, but a bar, a dance room, and live entertainment, with dolled up hostesses. there was nothing asian about the place other than the others and a stack of takeout sushi menus by the entrance. we weren't sure we were in the right place. where was the buffet table with all you can eat hot pot ingredients? maybe we came on the wrong night? "yes, we have hot pot buffet," one of the asian owners said to us, "one moment please." they put us by a long table at the far corner of the restaurant. there were 2 other tables of asians, which gave us some reassurance.
half of the place was a restaurant, the other half an alcohol-serving live entertainment joint. from where we sat we could also see a small sushi bar. the decor leaned on the upscale, with pretty red lanterns hanging overhead. apparently the way they do hot pot buffet is you order what you want and they bring it out to you. on the order form - written in pencil - was a reminder not to waste food and that there was a 2 hour limit. they had an okay selection, but i was naturally biased because i was comparing it to chongqing hot pot (which has no comparison). the fact that my sister came was a surprise, because she hardly ever participates in any family outings these days. she asked one of the asian waitresses if they had a gluten-free hot pot, the waitress told her they didn't, but they did have a special gluten-free asian menu. so my sister ended up ordering from that (which combined actually cost more than the per-person price of the hot pot).
i could've finished the restaurant's whole supply of lamb and tripe. i accidentally ordered pork intestines, which is not the same as chongqing duck intestines (which i can't find anywhere). we ordered the mala (spicy) broth, but you could hardly call it spicy (once again, i might be unfairly comparing it to chongqing hot pot, where the spicy broth is blood red and covered in additional dried hot peppers and peppercorns). my 2nd uncle was complaining that they didn't have any fruit on the menu (that seemed to be a deal breaker for him for some reason).
the hot pot was satisfactory. it's worth a trip to framingham for those who love hot pots but hate the high cost of local restaurants, which is essentially a scam given the portions they serve you and the price they charge. you could definitely eat a lot at samba west and the ingredients are all extremely fresh. although the food is non-stop, i wouldn't exactly call it a traditional buffet experience. for a better asian buffet experience closer to boston, i recommend maki maki (more expensive, but far larger selection, and i think they have a lunch discount).
the ride home was much faster. on my doorstep was a package, from the size i knew what it was immediately: the new foscam wifi webcam! i quickly set it up, a better improved version of the old foscam camera. at the very least the image is larger (1280x720 vs 640x480). the colors look better too, and the pan/tilt action also all seem faster and more responsive.