Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha gained Enlightenment, is especially important to Buddhists the world over. The sixth-century Mahabodhi Temple is the focus for pilgrims from around the globe, and in recent years temples and monasteries built by Buddhist organisations from across Asia have sprung up nearby. Soon an enormous golden statue of Maitreya Buddha will dominate it all.
Before his death, Lama Yeshe, the revered founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Teaching (fpmt), urged his disciples to build a statue of the Buddha Maitreya at Bodh Gaya. ‘It should be huge,’ he said. ‘As big as possible’. Spearheaded by entrepreneur Peter Kedge, the Maitreya Project is planning to erect the largest statue in the world – to reach 500 feet and to last 1,000 years. It will dwarf the world’s largest statue in China, and the 150ft Statue of Liberty would barely reach its knees.
The figure of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, will be filled with millions of mantras, relics and sacred objects. The throne will itself be a huge temple of staggering opulence featuring, for example, important Buddhist sutras written in gold, pearls, or semi-precious stones. The statue will sit in 40 acres of landscaped grounds, including a complex of monasteries, meditation pavilions, a hospital and guest houses. The organisers estimate the whole complex will cost $20 million, but some observers expect the final cost to be much higher.
The statue will probably be cast in bronze and will have to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. It is due to be finished in 2003, while the whole project will be completed two years later. However, executing such a complex feat of engineering in a region so short of infrastructure and skilled labour could bring many technical difficulties. The whole project is a magnet for both excitement and criticism.
Bihar, the poorest state in India, is famous for its lawlessness. And, despite the economic benefits of the tourists and pilgrims to Bodh Gaya, the local town is no exception. Many inhabitants are illiterate and have no access to primary health care. So the lavishness of the project has drawn criticism from some western Buddhists and local aid workers. But the latter are wary of criticising the project publicly for fear of disapproval from the local government, which is keen to attract foreign investment and tourism. According to one aid worker, ‘The hardest thing to stomach is the sheer amount of money that is being spent, when just a tiny proportion could make a huge difference to health or education in the local town.’ Last winter two children froze to death in a school at Bodh Gaya, because it had no blankets.
The gulf between the surrounding poverty and the wealth being poured into the Maitreya Project (known locally as ‘Buddhaland’) causes a number of quite practical problems. Temples and guest houses in Bodh Gaya, built on a far less lavish scale, are already vulnerable to attack by the region’s many ‘bandits’, and some employ armed guards. The new temple faces the prospect of being ringed by intensive military-style protection. The project also has to negotiate the prevalence of local corruption.
Supporters of the project argue that the money spent on the project will ‘trickle down’ to the local population, in the form of building contracts and employment. But local aid workers are sceptical. ‘Experience has tended to show that contracts for huge prestige projects do not go to local people but to companies operating at a national or even multi-national level.’ However, alongside the Maitreya Project, FPMT Buddhists also run the Maitri Leprosy Centre, as well as primary health-care and education projects, which provide real help to local people. In 1998 the original plans were extended to include a hospital in the grounds, although further details were not available.
The Project organisers also emphasise the potential benefits to pilgrims. The publicity material claims ‘it will create facilities of an international standard and offer many facilities that are not widely available in Bodh Gaya’. Yet certain leading local Buddhists complain that the new statue will detract from the Mahabodhi Temple itself. ‘This is an aesthetic issue that will affect all Buddhists,’ one commented. ‘There would be uproar if this happened at a Christian pilgrimage site.’
Other criticisms have been levelled at the spiritual basis of the donations. Peter Kedge is leading a huge fund-raising drive in Taiwan, Singapore, China and Japan, attracting wealthy Buddhists as well as ordinary devotees. The promotional material highlights the value of ‘making merit’ through giving money. While traditional within Mahayana Buddhism, this line smacks of ‘spiritual materialism’ to many Buddhists in the West. It promises that ‘those who sponsor or help to erect this statue will be the first disciples of Maitreya Buddha when he comes to this world.’ It also quotes a sutra promising that those who erect statues will not be reborn as slaves, poor, workers for a low salary, women, or disabled people.
The organisers use similar logic to argue that the statue will benefit locals. Rilbur Rimpoche says, ‘The people around Bodh Gaya will sow seeds of liberation and omniscience just by seeing the statue, hearing and remembering it’. From this point of view it does not matter that local people may have no understanding of what the statue represents because everything done towards a Buddha ‘is a cause for Enlightenment without depending on Dharma motivation’. IDP literature also controversially asserts: ‘Even the poor people who offer only five paisa will purify their negative karma of poverty and sickness and create the cause of wealth, happiness and peace.’
Justification for the statue is perhaps similar as for Europe’s great cathedrals (constructed amid similar deprivation): a monument to the Buddha’s Enlightenment and the values he represents will have a positive impact across the world. But this also means the ethical issues raised by the project will be subjected to intense scrutiny. Bodh Gaya is a special place for all Buddhists and this statue will profoundly alter its character.
Until now there has been little public debate about the statue in the Buddhist community, and criticism from within the fpmt itself has foundered because it was Lama Yeshe’s dying wish. Christopher Titmuss, who leads retreats at Bodh Gaya, has been an outspoken critic. He described the Maitreya Project as ‘wholly inappropriate and deeply distasteful’. The Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor believes ‘the project plays into the worst kind of Asian Buddhism. The crazy competition to build the biggest statue goes down well in Taiwan and Singapore, but it really is just atavistic superstition’.
Behind the varying responses lie different interpretations of Buddhism. For most followers of Tibetan Buddhism there is no moral conflict between the notions of making merit and the broad Buddhist goal of mental and spiritual development; for other Buddhists these two are profoundly at odds. As these perspectives collide in the modern world, it grows ever more vital that such differences are recognised and discussed.
Comment by Vishvapani www.vishvapani.org
Dharma Life 10, Spring 1999