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Big Buddha

Maitreya, the buddha of the future, is arriving
a few eons ahead of schedule
by Tom Huston

Buddhist scripture foretells that thousands of years from now, after the final traces of the historical Buddha's teachings have vanished from living memory, his awakened successor will descend into the world. Called Maitreya (derived from the Sanskrit word maitri, meaning “love”), he will restore the dharma, the Buddha's teachings of liberation, to a spiritually impoverished humanity. But in the ancient town of Kushinagar in northern India, where the Buddha passed into parinirvana 2,500 years ago, there are rumors that Maitreya may be arriving an eon or two ahead of schedule.

Since 1995, the California-based Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition has been rallying behind a proposal to bring this future Buddha down from his blissful rest in emptiness* and into the realm of form—a colossal, 500-foot-tall bronze form, that is. The “Maitreya Project,” as it is known, was conceived by the late Tibetan Buddhist master Lama Thubten Yeshe and his student, Lama Zopa Rinpoche (currently the project's spiritual director). Their stated goal is to construct the largest Buddha statue in the world, a “Buddhist cathedral for the public . . . designed to last at least 1,000 years so it can act as a catalyst for peace for a full millennium.”

Funded solely by donations—with an estimated total cost of two hundred million dollars—the project was originally intended to be implemented in Bodhgaya, India, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. But local resistance was fierce, with critics decrying the absurdity of paying two hundred million dollars to foreign building contractors and providing few employment opportunities for local workers in one of the poorest regions of the country. Years later, the project is currently underway in the more receptive town of Kushinagar, despite Maitreya's still-exorbitant price tag. Perhaps to allay any concerns about the statue's ultimate benefits to the residents of this ancient town, Maitreya Project is planning to implement a number of social programs, including a school for local village children called the Maitreya Project Universal Education School, where students aged five to eighteen will attend free classes daily.

For those curious about the statue's design, Maitreya Project's website ( features a slideshow tour of computer models and artistic renderings of the seated golden Maitreya figure, its lush surroundings, and the cavernous, ornate temple housed inside its throne. This seventeen-story temple will feature its own forty-foot Maitreya statue, an enormous wall bejeweled with 200,000 images of the Buddha, and a more reasonably sized thirty-three-foot statue of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. At five hundred feet, the main Maitreya statue will be over three times the height of New York's Statue of Liberty, and upon its scheduled completion in 2008, will stand as the tallest statue in the world.

As for any disputes regarding the elaborate monument's monumental cost, Maitreya Project's Victoria Ewart, for one, has heard enough. “People may say that two hundred million dollars is an enormous sum,” she says. “But [consider] Hollywood, where a film like The Matrix contains a momentary special effect lasting only a few seconds, but costing several million dollars. It is indicative of our times that we can spend so much money on something that's just momentary—and ends up on a video shelf—while we are reluctant to provide enough money to build an important spiritual symbol like the Maitreya Project.” And who could argue with that?

* Technically he's on deck in the Tushita Heaven, paradise of the thirty-three gods.


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