|Monday, May 7th 2001
World's biggest kindness
In the impoverished Indian state of Bihar, construction is underway on a bronze sitting Buddha statue that, when completed, will be 152.4m tall
AN AMBITIOUS US$195 million (S$350 million) project has been undertaken in Bihar, the poorest and least urbanised state in India, to build a 152.4-m-tall Buddhist statue, which is equivalent to a 50-storey building.
It will be the tallest Buddhist statue in the world when completed by the end of 2005. The two ancient statues in Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which the Taleban destroyed recently, were 36 m and 53 m, respectively.
Built to last 1,000 years, the bronze Maitreya Buddha will be the centrepiece of a complex of temples, monasteries and stupas set in a beautifully-landscaped 18-ha park in Bodhgaya, 3 km from the Mahabodhi Temple, where more than 2,500 years ago, under a pipal tree, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment.
The statue will be seated on a throne building, the equivalent of a 17-storey cathedral, which will contain prayer halls and shrine rooms filled with one million works of religious art.
AN UNDERTAKING OF ENORMOUS SCOPE
BUDDHISTS believe that Siddhartha was the fourth historical Buddha, an Enlightened or Awakened One, and that the fifth and future Buddha will be the Maitreya, which means loving kindness and compassion.
The Maitreya Project, as it is called, was launched in 1996 by the Foundation For The Preservation Of The Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), a worldwide Budd hist body founded in 1971 by two Tibetan high priests of the Gelug School, Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984) and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, 54. Both were trained at the Monastic University Of Sera, near Lhasa.
After fleeing Tibet in 1959, they set up a monastery on the Kopan hill outside of Kathmandu in Nepal in the 1960s.
They attracted wave after wave of Western disciples, some of whom set up Buddhist centres in their own countries when they went home. That was how the FPMT came into being.
Today, with Lama Zopa Rinpoche as its spiritual director, and its headquarters in Taos, New Mexico, in the United States, the organisation has more than 130 teaching centres, retreats, monasteries, hospices and other projects in 30 countries.
It also has a book publishing house, Wisdom Books, and a quarterly magazine called Mandala.
Its Singapore affiliate is the Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Geylang.
Ms Tara Melwani, who runs Jay Gee Enterprises, is in the process of setting up the Singapore office of the Maitreya Project and, as its director, will spearhead its fund-raising drive and publicity programmes in Singapore and the region.
The 36-year-old became a disciple of Lama Zopa Rinpoche in 1997 and, in 1998, spent a month in retreat in his Kopan monastery.
CONSTRUCTION IS AN INTERNATIONAL EFFORT
WORK on the project, which started in earnest in 1999 after its steering committee, led by its director and CEO Peter Kedge, picked the London architectural firm Whinney Mackay Lewis to design the colossal complex.
Mott MacDonald, a British engineering group whose portfolio includes the Anglo-French Channel tunnel and much of the new Hongkong airport and Tsing Ma Bridge, was commissioned to manage the design and construction of the project.
Larsen and Toubro, one of India's largest engineering and construction firms, is also among the many other companies involved in it.
Says Whinney Mackay Lewis: 'We are creating a contemporary architecture as an expression of the interaction between a modern interdependent global culture and the acute sense of place and history of India and Buddhism in Bodhgaya.'
A 1.5-m scale model of the Maitreya statue has been set up for public view in the Dharma hall at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road.
Will this be turned into a Buddhist theme park?
The Dalai Lama gives the project his blessing, but critics worry it could succumb to commercialism
THE Maitreya Project has the blessings of the Dalai Lama, head of the Gelupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual leader of Tibet.
When he visited the site in 1998, he said: 'This project is... the result of great courage and determination, and from the depth of my heart, I appreciate and applaud this wonderful project, and all those people connected with it.'
Ven Kwang Sheng, the chief administrator of Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road, where a 1.5-m scale model of the Maitreya statue has been set up for public viewing in its Dharma Hall today, sees the project as a 'significant mark of Buddhism'.
'It's important to venerate the statue, as we will sow the seeds of good karma,' he says.
'Maitreya means loving kindness and compassion, which is what the world needs now.'
Ven Shi Ming Yi, chairman and CEO of Ren Ci Hospital and the Abbot of Foo Hai Ch'an Monastery, as well as the Secretary-General of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, says he supports the project, although given the fact that the world economic outlook is not exactly rosy, it may want to take a few more years to raise the necessary funds to carry it out.
He says: 'The project has been planned for some time, and I believe it is a worthwhile one. As far as I am concerned, building a proper Buddha image is good.
'Those who are guided by Buddhist philosophy may feel that it is not important to have any Buddha image, but human beings being human beings, many need an image to make them feel more calm and serene. An image will also serve to remind them of Buddhist teachings.
'When you see someone kneeling before a Buddha image and pouring out his problems, you can see that it has its place.'
CRITICS FEAR A BUDDHIST DISNEYLAND
BUT the project is not without its detractors, from even within the Buddhist community.
Some fear it may end up as a kind of Buddhist Disneyland, with its overwhelming scale, its high-tech dazzle, and its planned merchandising of religious icons.
The sanctity of Bodhgaya, although mired in poverty as it is now, may be lost in the process as visitors from all over the world descend on it as they would on a major theme-park destination.
In fact, a director of the project uses the word 'branding' to describe the importance of the Maitreya project.
This is new-economy speak, but you cannot fault him for not keeping up with the times.
The project directors are acutely aware of the religious and political sensitivities (the FPMT is a Tibetan-linked organisation, after all) and the possible controversy that it will generate, and hence have kept it fairly low-key at the moment.
So far, the most public fund-raising initiatives have been carried out in Taiwan.
Popular singer Faye Wong, who is a Buddhist, was reported recently to be recording an EP of Buddhist songs to help raise funds for the project.
In Singapore, Ven K. Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan monk who has been an adviser for the Mahakaruna Buddhist Society for the past 12 years, and is also the adviser for the Sri Lanka Ramaya Temple on St Michael's Road, says: 'I support the project, even though I have my reservations about it. If I had that kind of money, I would rather spend it on education and the welfare of the people.'
JOB CREATION AND TECH TRANSFER
WHY not spend the money instead on education, health and improving the living standards of the poor in Bihar is a question that the Maitreya Project people have anticipated, and they have the ready answers.
As CEO Peter Kedge says: 'Because the project is so vast, it will, in fact, bring exactly these benefits as a consequence of such a major economic and spiritual impetus.
'The Maitreya Statue will not appear without one of the biggest inflows of foreign funding Bihar state has ever seen in the tourism sector. These funds will flow into job creation, technology transfer and skill development, and health and education.'
He asserts that conservative initial studies estimate that tourism is likely to grow over the next five years to reach an annual growth rate of 10 per cent. Foreign tourists are expected to make up 75 per cent of that growth.
At the moment, Bodhgaya attracts about 100,000 visitors a year, who either take the three-hour, 120-km road trip to the place from Patna, Bihar's capital, where there is a domestic airport, or travel by train from Calcutta.
The Indian Ministry of Tourism has green-lighted the re-opening of the long-disused airport in Bodhgaya, in light of the project.
It realises the potential of what it calls the Buddhist sector, which covers not just Bihar but many of the holy Buddhist sites as well, including Ladakh.
Coincidentally, the Indian Tourist office in Singapore is arranging to send a delegation of Buddhist leaders, tour company representatives and the media to the Sindhu Darshan, a religious festival, in Ladakh next month.
Late last year, a separate state, Jharkhand, was carved out of Bihar. The entire mineral resources of the former undivided Bihar are in Jharkhand.
The same applies to the major industries, both private and public. All the ancillaries based on these industries have also moved to Jharkhand, and one sees boarded up factories along the road from Patna to Bodhgaya.
Bihar has also lost 70 per cent of its forest cover to the new state. It is flood-prone; in fact, 56.5 per cent of the total flood-prone population of the country now lives in the new Bihar alone.
So the Maitreya Project may turn out to be just what the state needs most.
07/05/01 World's biggest kindness