22.09.2013 Buddhism

Dharma City

Jeremy Ball visits the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion in Bendigo

In 1851, gold was discovered in Bendigo, a beautiful country area 151 kilometres north west of Melbourne. Prospectors flooded there in droves, turning the green hills into Victoria's fourth largest city. Since then, 777,000 kilograms of gold have been extracted from Bendigo's hills.

Two centuries later, the area is set to become famous for seekers of a far more elusive and precious gold, that of spiritual transformation, for Bendigo is home to an incredible project, the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion. Once completed, it will be the largest stupa in the Western world, reaching almost 50 metres high and 50 metres square at the base. It is being built to last at least 1000 years and to shed its blessings on the world, most notably the minds of those who visit and meditate there. It is envisaged as a great spiritual wheel generating and emitting positive spiritual energy, a source of enlightenment for all.

This extraordinary project was envisioned by the late Lama Yeshe, a highly charismatic and popular lama who played an important role in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West, and especially to Australia. In 1981, Lama Yeshe travelled from his monastery in exile in Kathmandu, Nepal to inaugurate and teach at Atisha Centre which had just been created by Ian Green and his team.

The retreat was a great success and during the course Lama Yeshe took a walk around the 20 hectare site with Ian where he extolled his master plan for the land to become a Dharma City including a monastery, an aged-care facility, a lay community and, at its centre, the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion. Ian wrote the vision down in great detail. Sadly, this was to be Lama Yeshe's last visit to Australia and he passed from his body at the tender age of 49 leaving behind many devoted students. Among them, Ian Green has made it his life's mission to fulfil his Lama's dreams and wishes.

In 1970, Ian was single, had a good job in advertising in Melbourne and was enjoying all the trappings of the high life that came with it. Through the hypnotising mists of samsara, the wisdom dawned that if he did not have a change of lifestyle his life may be very short. So, in 1971, he took six weeks' leave from work and headed to India. Ian was immediately touched by how the sacred infuses every aspect of life on the subcontinent with altars in every home, taxi, shop, even in trees! Immersed in this deep spirituality, Ian realised just how shallow and materialistic Western society had become. But it was not until the end of the journey when he took some quiet time away from the hustle and bustle of Indian life in a park a short drive from the holy Hindu city of Varanasi that Ian's personal spiritual juices began to flow: "The moment I walked into that park I felt a sense of tranquillity and calmness that I had not felt before in India and only rarely in Australia. As I remember it, I felt totally at peace … as if I had just come home after wandering for a very long time. "Standing in the center of the park, I was confronted by a great monolithic object. I could not work out if this was man made or a natural phenomenon but it seemed to emanate an incredible power that nearly knocked me over. I was looking at the Great Stupa of Sarnath, which marks the spot where the Buddha gave his first teaching." Destiny had caught up with Ian in a big way; while at the park he purchased a copy of What is Buddhism? As he read the pages on the flight home he had the distinct feeling he had heard it all before. On returning to Melbourne, synchronicity continued to dance through his life and he was introduced to Tara House, a Melbourne Dharma organisation set up around Lama Yeshe and his main student Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Ian quickly became an integral member taking many teachings and becoming a committee member.

It was Lama Yeshe's wish to set up a retreat centre in Victoria and after exhaustive efforts to find the right place, Ian's father donated 20 hectares of his own bushland at Myers Flat, near Bendigo. (Other Green family members later added to this parcel, increasing the land holding to 60 hectares.) Just six months before Lama Yeshe was due to arrive, Ian moved onto the land with his wife Judy, three young children and several other team members to transform the bush into a retreat centre.

After Lama Yeshe's fateful visit much of the next 10 years was spent establishing Atisha Retreat Centre until, in 1994, Lama Zopa Rinpoche sent him a coffee table book of Tibet. As Ian recounts, "Over a spread on the Great Stupa of Gyantse Lama Zopa had written, 'This is my idea for the stupa in Bendigo.'" Kumbum, the great tantric stupa a few hours' drive from Lhasa in Tibet is one of the most majestic and spiritually powerful stupas in the world, containing 1000 rooms with more than 100,000 Buddha images. The following year in 1995, Ian led a team to Tibet to survey the stupa and, in 1996, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama taught in Australia, he gave the project his blessing and its name. In 2007, he consecrated the site. Once complete, the stupa at Bendigo will be an exact replica of Kumbum in size and shape. Advances in engineering including a steel frame will allow internal improvements so that the many small rooms of the original will give way to a great teaching hall, dharma library and more.

The main purpose and intention behind building the stupa is to make the lives of all beings, the young and the old, meaningful. Viewing the stupa will help purify the mind and collect merit, which is the cause of all happiness and success. Ian Green believes our physical environment heavily influences our view of reality and that this is dominated by symbols of commerce, not spirituality. "The Great Stupa and the Jade Buddha are becoming international symbols of the importance of spirituality and peace in our lives today. By making large holy objects a part of our landscape, we are creating a new reality. This is a reality that presents spirituality as a vital part of being a human being," says Ian.

The stupa construction is well underway with the steel structure already in place and the wall panels being placed. It has taken many years of planning and fundraising to get to this stage and it will be several more years until the building is complete. The level to which the stupa will be decorated and adorned will take years of devotion by artisans and monks trained in tantra. The result will be one of the modern wonders of the world.

I have had the joy of visiting the project on several occasions since I first heard of it in 2006. I encourage you to visit. There is an exhibit of incredible body relics left in the ashes of the bodies of very high and ancient Buddhist masters. These relics carry a very powerful spiritual energy and just by being with them and seeing them one feels a great transmission and purification. The energy field of the stupa is becoming very strong, with the blessings of the relics, and consecrations of many Lamas and spiritual leaders and the amazing Jade Buddha. This is a project Australia should be very proud to host, one which an incredibly dedicated team have been pouring themselves into for many years ably led by Australia's own dharma king Ian Green.

For more information and donation see www.stupa.org.au

Jeremy Ball

At 26, following a “shamanic intervention”, Jeremy closed his business and left London to visit sacred sites and elders, later creating Transformational Tours and SacredFire.

When not roaming mother earth, you will find Jeremy at home in Byron Bay's hinterland, playing with his children and planning the next adventure. jeremy@transformationaltours.com.au