Did you know we had a Great Stupa of Universal Compassion in Australia? Neither did we.
We found it searching on TripAdviser when we were looking at what to do in our short time in Bendigo. After spending the day being tourists and hopping on and off the Talking Tram we thought we’d spend the next morning checking out the Great Stupa.
What a surprise it was! I really had no idea what to expect apart from the brochure I’d picked up in town with a photo of a large white, rather oriental looking building.
What is a stupa?
Wikipedia says that “A stupa is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (……typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation.”
But what is it doing here near Bendigo?
Well it’s really a story of two men, one a local boy whose family have lived in Bendigo for over 150 years, Ian Green. The other is Ian’s teacher a Tibetan monk Lama Thubten Yeshe. After a successful career in advertising where Ian admits to ‘burning a candle at both ends’ he undertook a trip to India in 1971 where he saw first-hand spiritualism in everyday life and began reading Buddhist texts. He joined a Tibetan Buddhist group in Melbourne and, when it began searching for somewhere to build a retreat, Ian’s late father offered them a 20-hectare bush block near Bendigo.
Ian, his partner Judy (a Buddhist since the 1970’s) and her three young sons left Melbourne in 1981 and moved onto the block into an old railway carriage to establish a mediation centre. For a few years they had no running water or electricity. Lama Thubten Yeshe visited two years later and shared his vision of building a Buddhist village and stupa on the site. Since then more land has been donated to the project and the grounds now cover some 86 hectares.
After Lama Thubten Yeshe’s death his disciple Lama Zopa Rinpoche chose the 600-year-old Great Stupa of Gyantse in Tibet as the model for the project. When complete the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion will be 50 metres tall and 50 metres square at its base. This will make it the largest stupa outside of Asia. The outside of the stupa will look like the Tibetan one, however, inside it will have 80 ornate shrine rooms, teaching spaces, a central temple and a library, as well as holy relics on display.
The stupa has been engineered to last more than a 1000 years and has an estimated cost of $20 million dollars funded by donations. To date, the Victorian government has contributed $2.5 million in regional development funds.
There are ambitious plans for the site which you can view on their website at https://stupa.org.au/master-plan. These plans include a museum, restaurant, a hotel, Peace Park, monastery, nunnery, village, event rooms, an aged care facility, a school and all built to be off-grid and sustainable.
The Great Stupa is located on 14km outside of Bendigo and, after turning into the entrance, you wind your way through the bush to the carpark. From there you get your first really good view of the stupa. It is HUGE. The carpark is large and there was plenty of space for the motorhome. You enter through the visitors centre that currently houses a shop, a cafe, toilets and a small theatre where you can watch a short video on the Great Stupa. It’s a good idea to start with this. It is free to enter and you are given a map to guide you.
Leaving the Visitors Centre on foot you arrive in the Peace Park. You follow your map to each display from many different faiths around the world. All faiths are welcome.
Through the Peace Park you arrive higher in the gardens to an area surrounding the Great Stupa. Three great circles of gardens encircle the stupa. Along the outer circle are the Memorial Walls. On top of each wall are Stupas that are filled with holy objects and are consecrated. Below that ashes of the deceased or momentos are placed in the niches which are then sealed with a bronze plaque. Alternatively you can choose a tree Memorial for your loved ones. Their remains are mixed with the earth at the base of a tree and a bronze plaque is placed on a block of sandstone below the tree.
Finally you reach the imposing Great Stupa. Around the outside are lots of golden prayer wheels. The size of the stupa was a bit mind-boggling. It is so high. Decoration of the outside has commenced but so far only the top few levels have been completed.
Then you walk inside and it is HUGE. A big open hall with huge smaller shrines around the outside. One thing strikes you immediately, it’s so colourful. Colour is everywhere. The tall pillars are covered in colourful silk banners in the five colours that represent the five Wisdom Buddhas, Blue, White, Red, Green and Yellow. Each colour is associated with an element and a Buddha. For example Yellow symbolises rootedness and renunciation, the element of earth. Buddha Ratnasambhava is associated with yellow. Meditation on humility and equanimity transforms pride into wisdom.
The very high ceiling was unfinished and there is scaffolding surrounding one of the giant figures. Alongside it was an area filled with objects in the process of being painted. All this work is done by volunteers.
In one corner is a museum, Unique Tibet, housing wonderful displays of Tibetan clothing, objects of everyday life, and their faith. Arguably the most famous Tibetan of all, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited the Great Stupa in 2007. While there he blessed the Great Stupa.
The Great Stupa is home to many holy objects and the most valuable is the incredible Jade Buddha. The Jade Buddha for Universal Peace is the largest Buddha carved from gemstone quality jade in the world. The size and beauty of the statue make it a wonder of the world. The Buddha has been carved from a rare boulder of translucent jade (“Polar Pride”) which was discovered in Canada in the year 2000. The Jade Buddha is 2.5 metres high and sits on an alabaster throne of close to 1.6 metres high. The Jade Buddha itself weighs around 4 tonne and is considered to be priceless. The jade halo of the Jade Buddha is also on display but ironically it is too heavy to be put in place on the buddha itself.
The Great Stupa also houses a huge collection of holy relics. These have come from all around the world. Relics are found in the ashes after a great spiritual master has been cremated. They sometimes look like crystals or pearls and are said to hold the essence of the holy person. These holy relics are venerated in Buddhism. Eventually it is planned that the holy relics will be housed on the sixth level of the Great Stupa.
One of the monks who lives onsite at the monastery was the tour guide for that day and he gave a short talk about the Stupa and what we could see around us. He then wandered amongst the people and was happy to answer questions. The monks live at the Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery, a place where they can devote themselves to study, meditation and spiritual transformation. It’s the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery to be established in Australia to help preserve and disseminate Tibetan Buddhist teachings.
Not far from the Great Stupa is the Atisha Centre. The Atisha Centre is a Buddhist meditation and teaching centre in the Tibetan tradition. The Centre holds regular one-day courses and five-day retreats as well as study groups and community days.
A new library was under construction to house the Great Stupa’s collection. The Library aims to encourage study and research in the areas of science, philosophy and religion by making its resources and facilities available to scholars, researchers and the public.
After spending at least an hour soaking it all in inside the Great Stupa we made our way back through the Peace Park and into the cafe where we ordered some coffee and a tasty vegetarian lunch. Buddhists are all vegetarian as one of their beliefs is that all animals can be reincarnated as a person so you wouldn’t want to eat one! Our food was delicious.
If you are planning a visit to the Great Stupa you need to allow at least an hour and half to see it (we were there for three) and even then you’ll want to return to see it all again. I know we will put it on our list to visit again to see how much more has been completed.