The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 30, 2001
'Art and Soul

Buddhism in Australia
B.N. Goswamy

"Just by coming here and seeing and touching the stupa, the negative karmas will be annihilated, and they (the devotees) will find refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha."

Candlelit procession of devotees moving towards the Dhammakaya Stupa
Candlelit procession of devotees moving towards the Dhammakaya Stupa

THE connection is not easy to make, for one carries in one’s mind a very different image of the land. And, candidly, when I was there for a conference some three years ago — it was for a truly short stretch of time, I hasten to add in my defence, though — I saw nothing of Buddhism there personally. But apparently, the faith does not only have a presence in Australia: it is the fastest growing religion in that country. The numbers are still small, but between 1986 and 1991 they nearly doubled. And one understands that the figures are not made up simply of people of Asian origin who have come to settle there; the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha — are beginning to cast their gentle light upon a growing number of Australians, too.

My information comes not from research that I have conducted in any way on my own, but from TAASA, the journal that the Asian Art Society of Australia publishes with regularity. I was leafing through some recent issues and found one of them devoted almost exclusively to this theme. On the cover was a reproduction of one of those dazzling Tibetan thangkas, soaked in colour, astir with figures possessed of a strange energy: flames rising everywhere, animal mounts of esoteric deities a-gallop, and the dread figure of Yama, god of death, occupying the centre, as if directing a mysterious, cosmic dance. But inside, on pages rich in information and shot through with conviction, it was not so much works of art that I found, as an account of the various Buddhist communities that have come up in Australia, and the sacred structures they have steadily been building.

Excavating the City of David
August 26, 2001
The threshold of renunciation
August 12, 2001
The Mountain Goddess of Japan
July 29, 2001
The arts of heraldry
July 15, 2001
The ‘timeless’ Indian shawl
July 1, 2001
To "explore with desire"
June 17, 2001
Things that museums do
June 3, 2001
Taoism and the arts of China
May 20, 2001
Some fakes and a scandal
May 6, 2001
A collector’s intimate world
April 22, 2001
Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
March 25, 2001
Difficult business of authentication
February 25, 2001
Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
January 14, 2001

Building Buddhist complexes could not always have been easy, one can imagine. And, as one writer notes, the communities had to work within serious constraints: matters relating to funds apart, there were building laws and regulations to be kept in mind, much paperwork to be gone into, and some opposition from conservative, local governments and communities to be overcome. But the complexes did get built, for convictions were strong and the energies of the faithful unflagging. If the structures had to be located, on occasions, in outer suburban areas, or in the bush, it worked sometimes to the advantage of the communities, for there was closeness to nature in those surroundings, and a feeling of tranquility. The Thai-inspired Wat Buddha Dhamma, north of Sydney, for example, is more like a forest monastery, a retreat. At the heart of the complex now, relatively recently built, is an elegantly simple structure, the Sala or meditation hall, with the wonderful upward sweep of its roof, and the use of local materials, reminding one now of southeast Asian structures, now of a timber boat turned upside-down. It looks very calming, very poetic.

The Thai Buddhist community in Australia has, of course, a distinct entity of its own. But there are others who have raised structures: the Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist building in the country, was constructed by the Chinese from Taiwan; the Vietnamese have a temple, and plan to build, close to it, a stupa; there is a Wat raised by those from Laos, and another by the Cambodian community. One can imagine the sights as one moves from region to region: pagoda-like structures, Zen gardens, gabled roofs that look like elegantly tapered fingers. It is as if there were pockets everywhere of Asian outreach. But not everything is geared towards the needs of the immigrant communities alone, one can be sure. The rituals that these communities practice might be their own, but the thoughts, the wonderful philosophical core, of Buddhism, inspire many, many others. Like Leo Berkeley, a Dutch migrant in Australia, who came into contact some 50 years ago with a great Sri Lankan monk, was instructed into the Dhamma by him, and went on to found the Buddhist Society of New South Wales which continues to flourish and expand. The number of distinguished Australians — scholars members of the business community, bureaucrats — who are not only drawn towards Buddhism, but are practicing Buddhists, comes, at least to the outsider, as a surprise.

One could go into further details here. But I am tempted to end this piece differently: by drawing the reader’s attention to a monument that I myself knew remarkably little about till I chanced upon a description of it in the pages of TAASA. This is the magnificent Dhammakaya Cetiya in Thailand, just short of being the largest stupa in the world, which, as one knows, is the Borobudur in Indonesia. Relatively recently built, the Cetiya, dedicated to the Dhammakaya, i.e. the body of enlightenment of the Buddha, is built on stupendous scale, its futuristically designed hemispherical dome, surrounded by sloping terraces leading up to it, 108 metres in diameter. Buried in the stupa are some relics of the Buddha, and inside the dome is also a 4.5 metre-high image of the Buddha, cast from 14 tonnes of silver. There are astonishing figures that one reads of : on the Sloping terraces leading up to the dome are placed myriads of Dhammakaya images, each 18 cm high, set densely next to each other in serried rows; nearby is an Assembly Hall which accommodates up to 450,000 participants; present at the pooja ceremony at the time of the installation of the central image, were some 200,000 persons; more than a million people were expected to participate in the World Light of Peace Illumination Ceremony, unending rows of monks and nuns and lay Buddhists moving towards the dome with candles in their hands. But, clearly, there is more to this great monument than statistics, and there are moving accounts of the manner in which the building proceeded. When the site was to be consecrated, thousands of people gathered for mass meditation, each bringing a mat, a mosquito net and a lamp, camping on the ground for days and nights; when the central dome began to be constructed, the base was formed by bags of sand which devotees brought in by the thousand from their own homes across the length and breadth of Thailand.

A different take

I found an image of Mao Tse-Tung, painted by Karma Phuntsok, a well-known Tibetan thangka artist, settled in Australia, quite striking. It shows the great Communist leader, relatively young in years, dressed in his regulation buttoned-up coat, face predictably impassive. But superimposed upon the face, between the eyebrows, is a painted image of the Buddha seated in meditation. It is a "Meditation on the meanings of enemy, anger, karma", the painter says.


This feature was published on September 23, 2001