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By Ven. Thubten Labdron
The Maitreya Project took an enormous step forward in its work to build a very large bronze statue of Maitreya Buddha, the future buddha, in Kushinagar, India, the holy site of Buddha Shakyamuni’s parinirvana. The Uttar Pradesh State Government handed over a large tract of land that it had offered to the Maitreya Project for the Maitreya statue to be built upon. The handover of the land was marked by a foundation stone laying ceremony on Friday, December 13, 2013. Ven. Thubten Labdron, director of Root Institute in Bodhgaya, was asked to be part of the team overseeing the religious and cultural aspects of the event. She shared with Mandala this report on how the ceremony came together in less than a week.
Ten days ago, Indian nun Ven. Gyalten Samten, photographer Andy Melnic and I were unexpectedly thrown together for a unique experience. One day, we were enjoying Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings at Kopan Monastery in Nepal, anticipating offering the annual long life puja to Rinpoche. The next, we were on our way to Kushinagar, India, for the Maitreya Project, not knowing what exactly we were heading into.
We were met in Kushinagar by District Magistrate Rigzin Samphel, who also had arranged our hotel. Atul Chopra, the Maitreya Project lawyer, was in Lucknow dealing with some last minute legal details. The hotel quickly turned into the central administration hub, with small, medium and very important officials and ministers coming and going, with sirens blaring and surrounded by security guards.
The final decision on the land for the Maitreya Project in Kushinagar had only been made two days before, but when we visited the venue, we found they had already flattened 40 acres [16 hectares] of land, erected an enormous tent scaffolding and almost completed two helipads. A 30 x 20 foot [9 x 6 meter] stage was half built, and there was a drivable dirt road. It looked like 20 construction sites in one.
We were fortunate to arrive before the activities became super hectic. The district magistrate made time to take us personally – with an entourage of bodyguards – to the Parinirvana Temple and the cremation stupa, two holy sites in Kushinagar associated with the historical Buddha’s passing away. The peaceful energy in those places is palpable, amazingly conducive to effortless meditation. Kushinagar is still underdeveloped, which is both good and not so good.
The next day we were escorted by an excellent tourist guide, Mr. Mishra, to the village where the Buddha took his last meal in the house of Cunda. There is a plaque with a touching extract from the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, titled “Relieving Cunda’s Remorse.” It says:
“Ananda … there are two offerings of food which are of equal fruition, exceeding in grandeur the fruition and result of any other offerings of food. Which two? The one partaken by the Tathagata before becoming fully enlightened … and the one partaken by the Tathagata before passing into the state of Nirvana in which no element of clinging remains.
“By his deed, the worthy Cunda has accumulated merit which makes for long life, beauty, well being, glory, heavenly rebirth and sovereignty. Thus, Ananda, the remorse of Cunda the metalworker should be dispelled.”
One can imagine how Cunda had been suffering in order to have Buddha so explicitly make that point!
We also visited the riverside site where the Buddha took his last bath on the way to Kushinagar and the ruins of a small monastery and stupa that had previously contained one part of Buddha’s holy relics. All of these three sites are clean and well maintained, with new statues of Buddha and explanatory plaques. After another visit to the Maitreya Project venue, we visited a site near the cremation stupa where the holy relics of Buddha were distributed to eight different kings.
During the days building up to the foundation stone laying ceremony, vehicles fitted with loudspeakers roamed along the Kushinagar roads, playing music and informing people about the Maitreya Project and how beneficial it will be to the local community, no matter what religion, bringing employment, recognition, peace and harmony, and exhorting them to attend the function.
The district magistrate, the commissioner (who oversees the four district magistrates of the Gorakpur area), and the local minister, Mr. Brahma Shankar Tripathi, had all been instrumental in bringing about the signing of the land deeds, alongside the untiring efforts of Atul Chopra and Peter Kedge, who continued working behind the scenes when the project had almost been given up. We are most fortunate that District Magistrate Rigzin Samphel was posted to Kushinagar two years ago and took an active interest in the project, and that a new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, was elected. (He’s now the youngest chief minister in India.) It has to be the fruition of all the prayers, practices and dedications made by so many people.
Two days after our arrival, 11 Kopan monks arrived, led by Geshe Lobsang Sherab and Ven. Ngawang Thinley. They brought with them huge thangkas of the eight great Indian pandits plus costumes for performing ritual dance. At the same time, the Root Institute vegetable shopping jeep arrived from Bodhgaya with the life-size statue of Maitreya Buddha sitting majestically in the back, borrowed from Maitreya School assembly hall. Ven. Yonden accompanied the statue, so we soon had a working team of monks, jeeps and drivers all soon involved in the program and decorations.
Meetings were held each night with the district magistrate and other officials to update each other on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s latest advice and program changes from the government. Fortunately, we FPMT wallahs are very well-trained in accepting change!
The day before the event, the town was literally filled with thousands of lathe-carrying policemen on motorbikes; very important police officials with many badges and stars; zillions of ambassadorial cars with blue flashing lights and sirens accompanied back and front by jeeps of armed police; and press.
Maitreya Project trustees Dr. Renuka Singh, Ranjit Walia and Ven. Kabir Saxena arrived the evening before the event. A Tibetan dance troupe arrived from Dharamsala late that evening. They had performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama the day before, on the anniversary of His Holiness receiving the Nobel Prize, then had driven for two days to reach Kushinagar in time. Vens. Kunsang, Sangpo and Tendhar arrived by car from Lucknow a couple of hours before the event.
District Magistrate Rigzin Samphel stayed at the venue the whole night to ensure everything was completed in time. By 9 a.m. on Friday, December 13, a magnificent flower display was completed with flowers from Delhi as well as the local state, Uttar Pradesh; the thangkas were being hung high; Maitreya Buddha was seated on a flower-adorned throne on stage; the gifts were all ready for distribution; and the atmosphere was peaceful.
It was amazing after watching the frenetic activities of the last few days. The whole venue had been completed in only five days, including two “Swiss Cottage” restrooms for Rinpoche and the chief minister. A separate stage was constructed adjacent to the main stage for the performers.
A local cultural program started exactly on time to entertain the crowds who had started to arrive early in the morning.
From 10 a.m., we were waiting for Rinpoche to arrive. The monks were lined up with musical instruments. The dancers were in costume. And the excitement was intense as we heard the sound of Rinpoche’s helicopter. It was a very emotional moment as it landed and Rinpoche emerged. Finally, Maitreya Project Kushinagar was happening! Rinpoche was accompanied by Mr. Sanjeev Chowdhury and his wife. Sanjeev has been very instrumental in making this happen.
Then the chief minister’s helicopter arrived and was quickly surrounded by commandos, heavy security vehicles and political party officials. Rinpoche, along with the monks and the trustees, greeted Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, and the event got under way.
The tourism minister, cultural minister, local minister, inspector general of police and many other ministers and officials filled the stage. The program went mostly according to plan, with speeches by various ministers; Ven. Kabir explained that the monks’ ritual masked dances were actually to dispel obstacles for the good of all, not a threat; and Sanjeev Chowdhury shared the many benefits that Maitreya Project will bring by putting Kushinagar on the world map. Rinpoche gave a lovely talk, translated by Ven. Kabir, on the benefits of the project and on the eight Indian pandits. Between the speeches, Rinpoche and the chief minister unveiled the commemorative plaque and symbolically laid the foundation stone.
All the speakers were very positive about the project, which was good to hear. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav made the final speech, explaining how when he took office, he had been given a letter from the Maitreya Project saying how difficult it had been as the land had been offered 12 years earlier, but successive governments had not finalized the actual handover. He also was very positive, and said he hoped that the social work projects would start very soon so that the local people will see the benefits. The chief minister also credited the district magistrate for his work with some well-deserved praise.
An estimated 100,000 people attended the event.
After the chief minister finished his speech, he left the stage, marking the close to a perfect event. There was much good feeling. Then the two helicopters lifted off and it was all over, except for a delicious lunch in the Lotus Nikko hotel, enjoyed by politicians, hungry policemen with rifles and sub-machine guns hung over their shoulders, Maitreya Project trustees and officials, and we three — the “Maitreya Project Cultural Team.”
Ven. Thubten Labdron is the director of Root Institute for Wisdom Culture in Bodhgaya, India.
Mandala‘s ongoing coverage of the Maitreya Project can be read online.
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