Bud­dha in the Bush

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Lisa Clausen

On a cold Fri­day in May, sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple took off their shoes and waited qui­etly in front of an enor­mous yel­low and red cur­tain. They’d gath­ered for a spir­i­tual home­com­ing, trav­el­ling past fields noisy with crows and road­side pump­kin stalls, and up a dirt road to the Great Stupa of Univer­sal Com­pas­sion, the largest sa­cred Bud­dhist struc­ture of its kind in the Western world, a bril­liantly white pyra­mid ris­ing from a dark sea of gums out­side Bendigo, cen­tral Vic­to­ria. Just be­fore 2pm the cur­tain in the stupa’s vast cen­tral tem­ple, or gompa, be­gan to lower jerk­ily. Some in the crowd leapt to their feet with mo­biles aloft, while oth­ers pressed their palms to­gether in rev­er­ence. Be­fore them, on a stage cov­ered with dozens of vases bright with chrysan­the­mums and or­chids, was the stupa’s long-awaited holy cen­tre­piece, the Jade Bud­dha for Univer­sal Peace. Cross-legged in the lo­tus pose on an al­abaster throne, smooth limbs shot through with streaks of moss green and its face painted in pure gold, the 4-tonne fig­ure is the big­gest gem-qual­ity jade Bud­dha statue in the world. It smiled serenely as rows of chant­ing monks on blue cush­ions con­se­crated it, rang bells and threw hand­fuls of rice, herald­ing a three-day cel­e­bra­tion at­tended by more than 10,000 de­vout and cu­ri­ous. Carved from an 18-tonne boulder of translu­cent jade, the Jade Bud­dha has been tour­ing the world with its mes­sage of peace for the past nine years, meet­ing ec­static crowds in 125 cities across 20 coun­tries. Close by the Bud­dha’s side for months each year has been Ian Green, the stupa’s 72-year-old chair­per­son, a re­tired ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive whose vi­sion for this iso­lated bush set­ting be­gan nearly 40 years ago. Green, a calm fig­ure wear­ing a black beret and a vivid emer­ald tie em­bossed with dragons, says that the fi­nal ar­rival of his “dear friend”, after years of re­lent­less fundrais­ing and labyrinthine lo­gis­tics, has su­per-charged the stupa’s spir­i­tual in­ten­sity. “This has been like a work­site for so long, but now it feels like a true tem­ple.”

While Green, his wife, Judy, and a group of fel­low Bud­dhists first be­gan build­ing a med­i­ta­tion cen­tre on the bush site in 1980, it wasn’t un­til 2003 that Green took a call from an Amer­i­can jew­ellery de­signer hunt­ing for some­one to cre­ate a Bud­dha statue from a famed Cana­dian jade boulder known as Po­lar Pride. After an un­likely first meet­ing (at the jew­eller’s sug­ges­tion) in a Cal­i­for­nian nud­ist club, Green met the min­ing com­pany that owned the boulder and, at the urg­ing of his spir­i­tual teacher, Ti­betan monk Lama Zopa Rin­poche, set about fundrais­ing for the $1 mil­lion price tag. Since Thai mas­ter carvers fin­ished their work in 2008, nearly 12 mil­lion peo­ple have seen the statue, many wait­ing for hours in queues some­times sev­eral kilo­me­tres long and jostling for the hon­our of guard­ing it each night. The Greens were treated like rock stars by crowds weep­ing with joy. “I know it doesn’t make sense sci­en­tif­i­cally and peo­ple can eas­ily write me off for talk­ing about it,” Green says rue­fully, “but there is a mys­ti­cal el­e­ment to the Jade Bud­dha.”

The in­te­rior will take years to com­plete. Green likens the project to the cre­ation of Spain’s Sagrada Família.

On its global odyssey the 2.5-me­tre-tall statue has with­stood long sea voy­ages, bogged fork­lifts, out­door venues cov­ered in snow, and a se­ri­ous truck crash in Ger­many that left it cracked and in ur­gent need of ex­pert restora­tion. Dur­ing a visit to Sin­ga­pore, Green shud­dered as he watched the price­less statue be­ing lifted over 30-me­tre street trees to reach a mar­quee set up in busy Or­chard Road. And to reach a ru­ral tem­ple in Viet­nam’s Mekong Delta, the Jade Bud­dha had to be placed gin­gerly by a crane onto makeshift rollers be­fore a crowd pushed and pulled it along a thin river­side path for more than a kilo­me­tre. “With every push we’d move maybe half a me­tre,” says Green, laugh­ing. After all that, mov­ing the Jade Bud­dha into its new, light-filled home two hours’ drive north-west of Mel­bourne seemed sim­ple. The Great Stupa of Univer­sal Com­pas­sion is lo­cated on 89 hectares of un­cleared bush, some of it orig­i­nally be­long­ing to Green’s fam­ily. Each of its lev­els is set back to form a breath­tak­ing step pyra­mid com­pris­ing long white ter­races lined with dozens of doors. Mod­elled on stu­pas built through­out Asia for more than 2000 years, it tow­ers nearly 50 me­tres over the land­scape. By next year, with the help of $2 mil­lion in state fund­ing and do­na­tions, as well as fur­ther money raised through sales of me­men­tos made from Po­lar Pride of­f­cuts, the ex­te­rior will be adorned with a gold-plated copper para­sol, a golden finial filled with holy ob­jects, and a cone-shaped se­ries of rings within which will dan­gle a dec­o­rated 13-me­tre trunk known as the Life Force Tree. The in­te­rior is be­ing painted with in­tri­cate mu­rals and man­dalas, and fea­tures 80 or­nate shrine rooms, which will take years to com­plete. Green likens the project to the cre­ation of Spain’s Sagrada Família. “We’re build­ing some­thing that would never be fin­ished in one per­son’s life­time.” Even while in­com­plete, the stupa drew 26,000 vis­i­tors last year, and is well on its way to be­com­ing a global Bud­dhist pil­grim­age site. Among the crowd at the Jade Bud­dha’s public wel­com­ing was a tour group from Viet­nam, who’d booked their first trip to Aus­tralia just to see it. “We feel so much peace and hap­pi­ness from the Jade Bud­dha,” says a beam­ing Huang Thi Kim Chau, sur­rounded by fel­low trav­ellers tak­ing self­ies. See­ing koalas and kan­ga­roos was much fur­ther down their list. Such is the pull of the Jade Bud­dha that Green is al­ready field­ing emails from Bud­dhist com­mu­ni­ties over­seas plead­ing for another visit. “He’s so pop­u­lar we won’t be able to hold him here for­ever,” Green says. “But for now he’s hav­ing a rest. And so are we.”

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