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The Maitreya Project: Di Cousens, 3 October, 2007

A crisis is building in the small Indian town of Kushinagar, where the Buddha died and was cremated 2500 years ago. Seven hundred and fifty acres of land is being compulsorily acquired by the state government of Uttar Pradesh so as to be leased to an entity called, ‘The Maitreya  Project', principally for the purpose of erecting a 500 foot statue of the future Buddha Maitreya.

The compulsory acquisition of the land in Kushinagar is sparking widespread opposition and this is being documented by newspapers both within India and outside. Recently an American doctoral student from Cornell University, Jessica Falcone, described her observations of the unhappiness of the local people who are being forced off their land. The local people, even old men of 70, are talking of fighting rather than being dispossessed. Says Jessica,

The farmers of Kushinagar are fighting, and they have been fighting for several years now. They have blocked the national highway, cajoled politicians, set up mass demonstrations and rallies, sued the state government, and held hunger strikes. They have also threatened violence. Leaders have said that they will kidnap tourists to bring attention to their plight. The oft-repeated mantra by farmers is, “we will kill or be killed, but we will not surrender our land.”

Identical sentiments have been reported in newspapers such as The Christian Science Monitor.

Kushinagar has yet to see violence related to the Maitreya Project, but anxiety over the plans remains. "I will cut them if they come here," says Kalami Devi, the demure, bespectacled head of the women's chapter of a local Save Our Land organization, as she makes a slicing motion across her neck to drive home her point.

"On paper, the state government has already taken the land," says P.P. Upadhyay, a district land acquisition officer, who adds that seven villages and between 15,000 and 20,000 people will be displaced. He says that if the farmers don't move, the police will be forced to remove them. "It's a clash – I think there will be a conflict."

These concerns have been considered by the project director, Peter Kedge, and a reply effectively brushing off all concerns was published on 20 September 2007. In summary, he said that 40 per cent of the landowners were said to be pleased to accept compensation, some others did not wish to leave for ‘bona fide reasons'‚ and some others had disputed land titles and fraudulent claims. Various guarantees were put forward such as;

However, Maitreya Project will not proceed on the site in Kushinagar until and unless a full, fair, and agreeable settlement is reached with all stakeholders.

In other words, Mr Kedge appears to be acknowledging that 60 per cent of the landowners do not wish to move. What is also problematic is that the independence of the settlement process does not appear to be guaranteed. For an outcome to be considered fair it is important that a body with no vested interests in the outcome determine whether a person's unwillingness to move is ‘bona fide' or not.

More fundamentally, the question has to be asked as to whether this project - whose budget estimate varies widely but is in the region of a half a billion US dollars – which aims to build a 500 foot bronze Buddha statue, is a good idea. The question must also be asked as to whether the money exists to pay for it, or whether it is likely to be found in the future. Over a period of not less than 15 years the Maitreya Project has issued a series of prospectuses outlining the benefits of building this enormous statue which, at times, have included the rather hard to prove proposition that donors will be guaranteed rebirth at the time of the future Buddha Maitreya. Millions of dollars have been raised to build the statue and the statue has not yet materialised. In the mean time money continues to be spent on publicity and prospectuses. Even if the landowners were to move tomorrow, in the absence of the huge sums required to complete the statue, the land could remain undeveloped for a long time. So, is the government of Uttar Pradesh being duped? This is a valid and important question.

In his recent statement, the Mr Kedge notes that during the period since the relocation of the statue project from Bodhgaya to Kushinagar in 2001 the project has interacted with four different elected state governments. So far they have been friendly, but it is not impossible that a future government will not be friendly, particularly if the project stalls indefinitely through lack of the substantial funds needed.

The design of the enormous statue has attracted considerable opposition within the Buddhist world. While Buddhism may be increasing in popularity in the West, in countries like China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Tibet, Buddhist temples and institutions have had to endure recent hardship as a result of wars and are still re-establishing basic infrastructure. Facilities such as basic education, the printing of sacred texts, and the construction of temples have been the first priority in countries with a living Buddhist tradition. Kushinagar, by contrast, has a majority population of Hindus, and no ethnic Buddhist traditions.

This project is being imposed by outsiders, and not ethnic Tibetans, but new Western Buddhists or newly converted Indian Buddhists, who appear to see the local Hindu culture as deficient.

The Maitreya Project is an administrative unit within the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, or FPMT, a California based Buddhist organisation. The head of the FPMT is Lama Zopa Rinpoche, originally a Nepalese Sherpa, who as a young boy was recognised as the reincarnation of a householder yogi from Solo Kumbhu in Nepal.

The design of the statue is also strange from a Buddhist perspective, as it is meant to include accommodation for residents. This means that the statue has toilets. During the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China toilet paper was printed with the image of a stupa on it as a means of forcing Buddhists to desecrate their own religion. Similarly, putting a toilet inside a Buddha statue is also a desecration.

And then there is the very simple point that the Buddha and Buddhism does not need excesses. It is a religion of the middle way. Lama Zopa's predecessor, the Tibetan refugee Lama Yeshe, proposed a large Maitreya statue be built in Bodhgaya. In Tibet ‘large' means not more than three stories tall, such as the Maitreya statue at the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse. At the most, that would be about 10 metres. The FPMT owns property in Bodhgaya at the Root Institute. It would be a simple and inexpensive matter for the FPMT to erect a 10 metre statue at the Root Institute and no one would be dispossessed.

If nothing changes, then it is likely that Indian landowners will be forced off their land by the Indian Army at gunpoint, followed by reprisals in the form of violence against either Army personnel or Buddhist monks. Local people have threatened to kill monks, burn down temples and kidnap tourists. Construction may begin but it will be under threat from the unhappy and disaffected people who have lost their land. The project ostensibly aspires to build communities and benefit local people but instead is spawning discontent and the threat of violence. This cannot be the way of the Buddha.


‘Questioning The Maitreya Project: What would the Buddha do?', by Jessica Maria Falcone, http://www.wildriverreview.com/airmail_india.php , accessed 30 September 2007.

ibid.

‘ Indian farmers oppose giant Buddha statue', Daniel Pepper, The Christian Science Monitor, 09/10/2007, ttp://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0910/p06s02-wosc.html, accessed 30 September 2007. See also: ‘Giant Buddha's tough love will drive out poor', Daniel Pepper, news.scotman.com - http://news.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=1440722007 , accessed 30 September 2007. See also: ‘Villagers Fight Plan for Giant Buddha', Daniel Pepper, 20 September, http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20070920/FOREIGN/109200032/1003/foreign , accessed 2 October 2007.

Maitreya Project, Latest Update, September 2007, http://www.maitreyaproject.org/en/updates/ , accessed 3 October 2007.

Related Links

Questioning The Maitreya Project: What would the Buddha do?', by Jessica Maria Falcone, read more

‘Villagers Fight Plan for Giant Buddha', Daniel Pepper, 20 September, more

Maitreya Project, Latest Update, September 2007, more

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Texts and Translations © Peter G. Friedlander unless otherwise indicated.