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Last updated: Friday, May 10, 2002
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THE UNHAPPY PRINCE AND THE MAITREYA STATUE PROJECT

Christopher Titmuss

Oscar Wilde, the beloved 19th century Irish novelist, wrote a touching story called The Happy Prince about a tall statue gilded with leaves of fine gold, two bright sapphires for the eyes and a large red ruby on his waist.

One night, a swallow making the long journey down to Egypt, took rest at the foot of statue on a cloudless night. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a drop of water fell on the bird, then another drop, yet there were no clouds in the sky. The swallow looked up and saw the eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears. 'Why are you crying', asked the swallow.

The Prince replied that when alive, he lived in the Palace of Sans Souci, where there was no sorrow. 'Now I am a tall statue and I can see all the misery in the city. In a room, I can see a poor woman with her little boy lying very ill with a high fever. But my feet are fastened to this pedestal and I cannot move.

'Please stay tonight and take this ruby fixed to me to the sad mother and her thirsty boy.' The swallow agreed. Taking the ruby, he left it on the table of the poor and then, with loving kindness, the swallow flapped his wings above to boy to cool him down.

At the Prince's request, the swallow stayed more days taking the two 1000-year-old India sapphires from the eyes of the Happy Prince to the needy ­ despite the Prince losing his eyesight. 'There is no mystery so great as misery,' said the Happy Prince. 'Fly over the city and tell me what you see.' The swallow also saw suffering all over the city, so he gave up making the journey to Egypt.

At the request of the Happy Prince, every night, the swallow stripped the statue of all of its gold leaf to give to the poor. Tired, weak and cold from the winter, the swallow made one last effort to thank the Prince for his loving kindness flying up high to kiss the lips of the Happy Prince and then immediately afterwards dropped dead from exhaustion.

Seeing that the statue now looked like a beggar, the city councilors melted down the Happy Prince in a furnace in order to build another statue. For a long time, the councilors argued over which one of them the next statue should be named after.

In 1995, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), a California based Tibetan Buddhist organization, decided to launch a major international appeal to raise $5,000,000 to build the world's tallest statue in the name of Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of Loving Kindness, who will succeed Sakyamuni Buddha. They chose as the location for the statue, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India, the most deprived region of south Asia and the place of the place of the Buddha's enlightenment.

Two years later, the estimated cost of the statue had risen to $20,000,000. By 1999, the organization told donors that the statue would cost $100,000,000. In 2000, the Board of Trustees of FPMT announced that the estimated cost to build the statue has risen another 50% to a staggering $150,000,000.

To be built in bronze, this massive statue will stand some 500 feet high (152.4 metres) high, more than three times the height of the Statue of Liberty in New York at 46 metres. To put it in another way, the scale compares in size to a beetle looking up at a human being towering above it. The FPMT, supported by leading figures in the Tibetan community, including the Dalai Lama, has spent between more than $2.000,000 on the promotion campaign, building a small prototype, purchase of vehicles, equipment and hosting teachings of the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya. The Foundation bought about 40 acres of land from Bodh Gaya farmers. They hope to complete the project by 2006 AD, which includes a small hospital, clinic and school.

I believe that the Maitreya statue project expresses a genuine wholesome motivation to bring benefit to all sentient beings. The FPMT has made a bold step in this direction. That certainly needs to be acknowledged. But, I believe, also, that the height and scale of the project reveals an error of judgement. Is it skilful means (Sanskrit: Upaya) to build a $150,000,000 statue in the poorest and most economically deprived region in the whole of the sub-continent of India?

The primary grounds for calling a halt to the building of this statue - at a cost of approximately $1,000,000 per metre - are four-fold,

1. The statue will be a crude imposition on a desperately impoverished region. Upon the statue's completion, only a tiny fraction of local people will benefit through gardening, cleaning and other forms of manual labor. The number will be around 400 - 600 people. Within the shadow of the statue, literacy rates are sometimes as low as 1%.

During the 1990's, Indian contractors bought children in the same local villages for around 150 rupees ($4) and sold them to Tibetan merchants for child labor elsewhere in India. (I have documents of sales). 'How will the statue help us?' cry out the poor today. Wages for manual workers in the area are less than at the time of the Buddha.

2. In February, 2000, respected Indian scientists at an international conference in New Delhi warned the country that water availability (per capita) in the country has dropped by 60% in the past 50 years, putting incredible stress on a sustainable agriculture. Eighty per cent of the population relies on ground water, mostly from wells. That figure jumps to more than 95% in rural Bihar.

The building, upkeep and cleaning of the Maitreya Statue will take an enormous toll on water from one of the world's hottest inhabited places in the summer with temperatures occasionally reaching up to 50 degrees (centigrade) or 130 F. Scientists report that in places like Bihar the recharge of rainwater into water tables has become a serious problem. It is uncertain what impact the depth of the statue into the ground will make on the already fragile water table.

3. None of the work offered to local people will contribute to the spiritual and cultural upliftment of these desperately poor people living in mud huts in conditions, far worse than European mediaeval poverty. It was not until January 2000 that the FPMT finally called a meeting of NGO's (non-government organization field workers), local officials and the business community to discuss local needs. All proposals seem to be ignored.

4. Respected economists around the world acknowledge that international tourism offers little for a local economy in poor countries. Architects, engineers, designers, builders and skilled labor will be imported from overseas to construct the statue. Their wages are often thousands of times greater than the locally impoverished people, who find themselves priced out of the local market. Wealthy traders from other parts of Bihar and further afield will certainly set up shop to provide for the personal needs for the flood of foreign skilled labor needed to build the statue.

Businessmen, big and small, are understandably keen to exploit take advantage of business opportunities on hearing the huge sums of money involved. Corruption and allegations of corruption are like an epidemic in Bihar, where even the Chief Minister for the state of Bihar last year, governed the state, via his wife, from the jail in Patna, the capital of Bihar.

The kindly Venerable Lama Zopa, spiritual advisor to the Maitreya Project and co-founder of FPMT, insists that the 'main goal is not the statue itself but peace and happiness for all sentient beings.' He says that the 'statue is essential for the cause of love and happiness in the world.' While acknowledging Lama Zopa's sincerely held beliefs, I believe that the sum of money involved has become grotesque, given the nightmare existence of people's lives in this area. I have urged the FPMT for years to examine urgently its priorities. For example, I suggested to:

Take one metre off the height of the 152-metre statue, FPMT would save approximately $1,000,000. This huge sum of money would educate every child, from the age of 5 - 15 years, in the neighboring 180 villages surrounding the statue. This education could include the normal school curriculum, plus spiritual and cultural teachings, such as we offer in our school in Bodh Gaya for 380 children from the poorest families.

Take another metre off the statue, FPMT could pay $1,000,000 to provide technical training centers, women's literacy programs, teach practical skills in agriculture, business, and building construction, as well as providing right livelihood for thousands of young men and women.

Take another metre off the statue, FPMT could spend the money to transform the Bodh Gaya region through environmentally aware initiatives, such as planting forests, groves of fruit trees, introduction of permaculture, sustainable development and other projects for the upliftment of the impoverished but good-natured Bihari people.

Currently, the world's tallest statue, the Ushika Buddhist Statue, stands at 120 metres. Situated outside Tokyo, the statue had an infrastructure and facilities to support the project. You don't need a Ph.D. in mathematics to work out the savings to reduce the height of the Maitreya Statue by 30 metres, while still making it the world's tallest statue.

In a four - page letter to the Board of Directors in December 1999, I wrote stating my concerns along with some of the above proposals. I suggested that the Board of Directors cut drastically the height of the statue, out of compassion for the suffering of local people and their barren and depressed environment.

I encouraged the board to invite volunteer Indian, Asian and Western artists to train local people to make thousands of Buddhist and Hindu statues, as well as Maitreya statues, for export worldwide. Buddhist art, such as Ajanta Cave in India, Pathan in Burma, Borobudur in Java, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Ayudhiya in Thailand, express breathtaking historical examples of artists meeting together for the collective welfare and joy of pilgrims. Bodh Gaya could join that exemplary tradition.

I have suggested a different vision from a 10-second glance at a huge statue, mostly arousing the curiosity of tourists, visiting during the cool season from November to February. They will take a brief look at it, after stepping out of their air-conditioned coaches, before going onto pay respect to the main shrine of the Bodhi Tree, three miles away. Often, the tourists will experience disappointment. They will find themselves deprived of seeing the head of Maitreya Buddha, or even the whole trunk of the body, since much of the statue will be lost in low lying clouds during the tourist season. It seems an ironic twist to the whole project.

NGO's working in the area for many years with a wealth of local experience have signed statements of concern about the project. They feel the money could be used to awaken the real potential of the entire region spiritually, culturally and economically. As you can appreciate, my Buddhist brothers and sisters in the Tibetan tradition take a very different view. At the present time, the FPMT have entered a public relations offensive to persuade the West of the merits of the statue.

In the official FPMT publicity brochure for December 1999, there is an article under the heading 'Why not build hospitals instead?' The article claims: 'Money alone will not change people's minds from creating the karma causing poverty, disease and other problems. Money spent on a statue, that is, on a Holy Object, will plant the imprint of the seed of liberation in the mind. Just seeing the statue, even only seeing a picture of the statue, will plant a seed and then gradually achieve liberation.'

Clearly, pictures and plans of the statue also plant seeds of deep concern for wise and compassionate people as well. Buddhist economics, 'small is beautiful' principles, human scale design and respect for the environment seem to have been overlooked.

Meanwhile, one in five children in the villages around Bodh Gaya never reach the age of four due to malnutrition and sickness, countless others spend their lives miserably trapped in fear, superstitious beliefs and desperate hardship and with a life expectancy of around 55 years.

Tibetans and Westerners, who support the project, will rely upon the great generosity of Taiwanese Buddhists to fund much of the $150,000,000. Many senior Tibetan lamas have made numerous trips to Taiwan to offer long life pujas to influential and affluent Taiwanese devotees. Hollywood actor, Richard Gere, who stayed in the FPMT center in Bodh Gaya, also visited Taiwan three years ago to show an exhibition of his photographs.

It may be that Taiwanese benefactors may have second thoughts about the project, if they became aware of profound local concerns in Bodh Gaya and the human and environmental impact of such a statue. Some donors, both Asian and Western, were told that if they donated money to the Maitreya Statue, they would be reborn as a disciple of Maitreya. Lamas tell local laborers they will make much merit working on the statue. Some Mahayana Buddhists believe that the statue will ensure a speedy return to this world of Maitreya, the next Buddha.

There are important questions that deserve attention.

Is it true that privately the Dalai Lama has reservations about a $150,000,000 statue but remains quiet publicly?

Will this statue, and the views behind it, reveal wisdom and compassion or reveal clinging to religious views in the name of wisdom and compassion?

Will the statue be regarded worldwide as a symbol of gross religious materialism?

If the statue is built, will Buddhism be regarded in the West as materialistic as any other religion?

Will the statue cause harm to the Tibetan cause worldwide since so many Tibetans in India and the Himalayas live in hardship themselves?

We should not be afraid to ask these questions. I believe that the Maitreya Buddha Statue in Bodh Gaya, like The Happy Prince, would also drop tears of anguish and sorrow on a swallow, with the heart of a bodhisattva, resting at the pedestal of his statue.

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