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The construction of a statue of the Buddha - big enough to contain a school, library, theatre and other facilities - in one of the poorest parts of India is drawing criticism

Wednesday  November 5  2000 David Wilson

WE are heading towards a new dark age, according to Buddhist scriptures. Despair, deformity and chaos will reign until a loving messiah - the Buddha Maitreya - manifests himself and creates heaven on Earth.

To honour him, a 152-metre high bronze statue, which would dwarf even the Statue of Liberty, is to be erected in the place where the first Buddha, Siddhartha, found enlightenment: Bodhgaya in Bihar, northern India.

Its feet resting on a lotus, the statue will sit on a throne the size of a 17-storey building. Inside will be a library, prayer halls, exhibition halls, a theatre, a school and even a roof garden. Behind the Buddha's eyes will be a shrine open only to the holiest Buddhists.

Another shrine for the public and pilgrims will be at heart level and contain precious relics of the Buddha collected from around the world.

On the outside of the throne will stand individual stone statues of the thousand Buddhas set in niches, with their names and life stories carved in different languages below. The surrounding environment - a 16-hectare park - will incorporate features such as schools, health centres, meditation pavilions, pools, fountains and animal sanctuaries.

With the Maitreya monument scheduled to be completed in December 2005, the land has already been purchased, and some are calling it the eighth wonder of the world.

'Never in the past has a mechanical engineering project of this size been completed and never in the future is it likely to be matched,' says Chris Lawrie, a project manager from the UK-based company Delcam, which is responsible for creating a digital prototype of the Buddha.

The whole idea was dreamed up by the late Tibetan Buddhist master Lama Thubten Yeshe, who decreed that the statue should be as large as possible, and last a thousand years. After his death in 1984, Lama Zopa Rinpoche became the project's spiritual director.

He has said that paying a pilgrimage to the shrine can bring an individual nothing less than peace, happiness and success in this life and the next life, combined with 'the ultimate happiness of liberation from samsara, and the peerless happiness of full enlightenment'.

Until now in the press not a word has been breathed against the project, but some Buddhists oppose it vehemently. Buddhist scholar Axel Strom from Norway says: 'I believe that the huge sums donated to this project could be much better employed (and produce far more merit) had they for instance been channelled into projects aimed at the direct alleviation of the deep poverty among the inhabitants of Bihar.'

Many Bodhgayans agree with him and are deeply concerned about the project's consequences. In July last year, in a letter to the project organisers, members of the Bodhgaya Forum of Village Republics predicted that its effect on local life would be dire.

'We see clearly that our villages will no longer remain villages. They will degenerate into slums. We are afraid that the proclaimed values of the Maitreya Statue - Maitri, loving kindness, compassion - will prove to be only wishful thinking. Instead we will have more greed and dependence on market forces, cut-throat competition and unemployment, disintegration of the community and cultural degeneration.' Instead of peace, the letter went on, unrest would intensify.

Bodhgaya was being developed not so much as a centre of spirituality but as a focal point of the tourism industry, it was claimed.

Project organiser Peter Kedge, an Englishman who used to run a Hong Kong engineering business, disagrees, echoing Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

'Spiritually, the form of the future Buddha Maitreya is the embodiment of ultimate kindness and compassion. The monument is to inspire and enhance these qualities within the minds of all who see it,' he says.

He plays down criticisms. 'With a project of such size and scope, a range of opinion is to be expected. The vast majority of local people are overwhelmingly supportive and welcoming of the project,' he says.

However, Buddhist studies lecturer at Australia's La Trobe University Peter Friedlander says he would prefer to support a monk or nun rather than a building project.

'What is more, it is evident that, if you visit temples and monasteries, what influences people the most is the dedication and practice of the monks and nuns and not the splendour or otherwise of the buildings,' Friedlander says.

Tibetan historian Diana Cousens, who is leading a petition against the Maitreya monument, brands it 'grotesque' and points out that a bronze Buddha the size of a skyscraper, radiating heat on 45-degree Celsius days will be oppressive to visitors. Cousens also berates the development of the park land, which she calls 'some rich Buddhists taking some poor farmer's irrigation water and running it through their fountains'.

The Bodhgaya Forum of Village Republics claim the project has already jeopardised the irrigation patterns of villages near Bodhgaya. Kedge denies this. He highlights education and health care gains: 'The project school and hospital programme will bring enormous benefit to the local area by providing free services where few exist and where, even if they did, many people cannot afford to pay for even the most basic of services.'

But it appears that only after the monument is built will it become plain whether it is truly benign or - as Strom puts it - 'senseless and insensitive': the opposite of everything the Buddha Maitreya is meant to represent.

© South China Morning Post

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Texts and Translations © Peter G. Friedlander unless otherwise indicated.