Buddha in the Bush
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.”