Nan Hua…

The second half of September 2015 meant a wrap-up of my three month sojourn in South Africa, as the visa was due to expire compelling the travel back to India on 30th September. The days that preceded turned out to be an exploration towards altitude of a spiritual mountain, the arduous ascension en route to summit to suddenly discover a scenic splendour, invested with a rare grandeur the like of which one has not been witness to at any time before in life, igniting an overwhelming sense of Keatsian ecstasy engulfing the spirit to utter, ‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, / And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; / Round many western islands have I been / Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold…… / Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken; / Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He stared at the Pacific – and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise – / Silent, upon a peak in Darien’. While Keats was enraptured by George Chapman’s translation of Homer, the subject of my awe-struck adoration is Nan Hua Temple, in a place called Bronkhorstspruit, part of Gauteng province, located a little over a hundred kilometers away from Johannesburg.

In what looked like realization of a pre-ordained vision, we drove down, on a clear sunshine day in the last week of September, to Bronkhorstspruit, taking a wee bit more than an hour of motoring, to reach the temple gateway around noon. A constituent of Chinese Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, established by venerable Master Hsing Yun to propagate humanistic Buddhism of Mahayana school, Nan Hua, or ‘flower in the south’ in translation, is the name given to South African branch of Fo Guan Shan Buddhist Order. The entire township, comprising the temple, academy, library, conference hall, research facilities and meditation center, dining and living quarters, sprawls across an area of over eighteen thousand hectares generously donated in 1992 by Dr Hennie Senekal, the then executive mayor of Bronkhorstspruit. Upon completion of construction running across a timescale of more than twelve years, the site was formally inaugurated in 2005 to become the largest Buddhist temple in the whole of African continent, and, probably, one of the biggest in the world. Soaking in the view, my mind promptly drifted back by several years, to recall my first ever visit to a Buddhist temple outside India, in Kyoto, Japan, which was comparatively minuscule in size, squeezed into just a few acres. As I entered the gate, the sheer magnificence of edifices and aura surrounding the place simply overwhelmed me. Wafting in gentle benediction and pristine purity, a steady dharma breeze enveloped the area, apparently whispering ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ in a sibilance that penetrated the pervading silence. The main shrine, also called ‘the Great Hero Hall’, houses three giant statues of Buddha, referred to as ‘triple gem Buddha’, seated mainly in lotus position on pedestals, with eyes closed in meditation. As one faces these mega figures, the Buddha on the left is Amitabha, representing longevity, endless light and wisdom. In the middle is Sakyamuni, the teacher of Saha World, or world of endurance, whose teachings are transformative and promising endless bliss. On the right is the Pure Lapis Lazuli Paradise in the East, the healing Buddha, eradicator of sickness and eliminator of disasters. A Chinese lady seated near the door handed out a lighted joss stick to me which I reverentially fixed into a sand bowl placed in front of three images of the venerated soul that once walked the earth around two and a half millennia ago to preach to humanity the message of equality, non-violence, right living, loving kindness, desirelessness and infinite compassion. The flight of steps in front of main shrine serves as symbolic reminder of our goal to attain enlightenment. Much as I tried, I could not take pics because photography was strictly prohibited in the main shrine.

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By the side of the main shrine is the temple of Kuan Yin, also called the Great Compassion Shrine, in which stands the ornate figure of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, known as Kuan Yin in Chinese. Avalokitesvara can be broadly translated as ‘the compassionate sage who sees’, referring to the Bodhisattva’s ability to spot sufferings in the world and come to peoples’ aid. Endowed with a thousand eyes and hands, she has the power to save all sentient beings. She can assume myriad forms and the statue in the shrine portrays her with a third eye in the middle of her brow (similar to Shiva’s third eye) and multiple hands. Yet another shrine in close proximity is that of Samantabhadra, a well known Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, known as Pu Hsien in Chinese. A Bodhisattva is a ‘Buddha to be’, helping sentient beings along path of enlightenment; Bodhisattvas make the pledge to help others before they help themselves in attaining enlightenment.

A sweeping survey of the enormous expanse of township, featuring elegantly as architectural extension of compassionate images of Buddha and grandeur of the towering structures, sets off many thoughts in the mind of an objective seeker on the waning of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth, whereas, in sharp contrast, it struck deep roots in Sri Lanka, China, Japan and other Asian countries, not to speak of its growing appeal to discerning audiences worldwide as a moral code, devoid of dogma and complex ritual, based on simple teachings, eternal in its wisdom and universal in its application to day-to-day living. By the time Buddha arrived at the scene, societies in Bharat Varsha, as India was known in ancient times, were bearing the brunt of evils of caste system in the way it distortedly spread its tentacles. A harmless prescription by Manu the Lawgiver, envisaging segregation of tasks among various sections of society, suffered distortion in actual practice, mired in feudalistic greed and fascistic inclinations, resulting in division of society into upper and lower castes. The upper caste consisting of the feudal lords, and Brahmins, were either assigned with or arrogated to themselves the administration of the state and with it a ready access to  levers of power and pelf, priestly engagements and scholarly pursuits, and the people next in line, the Kshatriyas or the warriors, were assigned to military duties, followed by the Vaisyas or the merchant class, engaged in trading and commerce, and finally the Shudras, at bottom of the pyramid, were consigned to the drudgery of hard agricultural labour on the fields, and all other jobs of a sundry and menial nature. Perceiving the prevailing evil very clearly, Buddha’s teachings were as much egalitarian and socially reformative as they were moralistic. He did not attempt to introduce complex dogma and esoteric principles of philosophical inquiry to the people, or preach about god or goddess, because he probably did not see any sense in conceptually irrational postulates. Practice of the Eight-fold path was considered to be adequate. The precepts that carried exhortations of equality and non-violence, appealed to people almost instantly and it manifested in the country wide establishment of Buddhist centers, making Buddhism the most dominant belief system in Bharat Varsha, which really rattled the upper castes, who, for centuries together were wallowing in the luxury of trumped-up notions of superiority by subordinating an entire mass of people to drudge in the open fields and toil in squalid environs while they nestled in cozy comfort of their mansions. As a deeply entrenched practice, the caste system exercised almost a stranglehold on societal structure.

The arrival of Buddha wrought a gradual change in the situation during which the Vedic scriptures, foundational to Hinduism, slid into a limbo as the religious scene became progressively dominated by Dharmapada Sutra. And so it remained, till the advent of Shankaracharya in the eighth century CE. Shankaracharya imparted a renewed thrust to Vedic studies and the philosophy of Advaita, or non-duality, propounding Brahma satyam jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah, to mean ‘Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal’, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and Atman. Enunciating the Upanishadic principle of Tat Tvam Asi, to mean ‘that thou art’ or, the individual self or Atman in its pure and primordial state is identical with the universal self or Brahman, Shankaracharya also laid down that the key difference between Hinduism and Buddhism lay in the former asserting the existence of Atman (Soul or Self) and the latter negating it. To propagate his doctrine of the one eternal unchanging reality or Brahman and the illusion of plurality and differentiation, Shankaracharya travelled the length and breadth of Bharat Varsha, interacting with other scholars and established monasteries in the north, south, east and west regions. Widely believed to be an incarnation of Shiva, Shankaracharya’s endeavour was aimed at revival of sanatana dharma and establishing the pre-eminence of the Vedas.

A society enriched by the spiritual legacy of Buddhism and teachings of Shankaracharya based on Vedic scriptures should have surged ahead to dominate the global scene as an epitome of equality, non-violence and humanistic ideals of loving kindness and compassion. But it was, tragically, not to be. Looking back at history and how societies evolved in Bharat Varsha over various aeons, eras and millennia that followed, it can be seen that the Brahmins and upper castes rallied around Shankaracharya and his Advaita, ostensibly for spiritual uplift of society, but actually with the ulterior motive of systematically undermining Buddhism by artfully absorbing Buddha into Hinduism, proclaiming him to be an avatar of Vishnu, which was readily lapped up by a credulous and subservient public, unable to discern the hidden agenda of upper castes with their greater vested interest in perpetuating the caste system than in any compulsions of spiritual nature . Had Buddhism prevailed in India, it would have facilitated the evolution of egalitarian societies, free from discrimination of caste, colour and gender, which in turn would have had its salutary ramifications around the world. Whereas, probably inspired by caste patterns as it reared its monstrous dimensions in ancient India, discrimination and prejudices manifested across centuries around the world in the form of slavery, exploitation of the poor and working class under feudalism and extremist capitalism, racialism and untouchability; atrocities of the crudest forms and most uncouth attitudes still abound, continuing as racial and caste prejudices in many regions worldwide, the latest of which is in a remote village school in south India where upper caste children are forcibly prohibited by their parents to desist from eating midday meal cooked by a low caste woman. The woman, employed as cook in the government school, may end up losing the job that earns for her a monthly salary of Indian Rupees 1700/-, equivalent of USD 26/-, if the school children persist, under parental pressure, with boycott of the midday meal, potentially leading to the inhumanity of a destitute woman losing her job that fends for a family of seven children.

In spite of thousands of years of advances in culture, civilization, developments in science and technologies, it is very much a sad irony of prejudices of race, caste and colour, compounding a scenario cluttered by hundreds of religions sans spirituality, countless divisions of region, language, ethnicity, sans culture and refinement. Amidst all the clutter and chaos, Buddha’s golden mean, enshrined in the noble eightfold path of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration and right mindfulness, radiates as the right path leading to not only annihilation of desire and ultimate liberation but also realization of aham brahmasmi, or the divinity within, as prescribed by Vedas and duly underlined by Shankaracharya. My mind harks back to Bronkhorstspruit, to Nan Hua, to the eight-spoked Dharmic Wheel, pointing the way forward through the eight-fold path to enlightenment.


57 thoughts on “Nan Hua…

  1. Such an interesting post about Buddha and the history behind it all. It’s true that all around the world the morals and teachings of Buddha are well-known and there are certainly communities that are devoted followers of the faith and Gods. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva or Kuan Yin has always fascinated me, though I’m not a follower of the faith (my other family members are, though). With those thousand eyes and hands, she really has a kind heart and that’s such a great example to follow.

    Wonderful photos of the largest temple in the African continent, Raj. Understood that visitors can’t take photos inside – some things are sacred and meant to be witnessed and felt with the heart and soul only.

  2. Hi Raj,
    It is amazing how your visit to Nan Hua Temple has rolled out an exceptional post, touching various hues of faith and societal discriminations in our own country. It is indeed unfortunate that Buddhism got diluted in India with the passage of time due to the ulterior motives of some so-called mentors of faith. The situation has been deteriorating as the impressionable minds are steered away in the direction of what the parents think is the “right” faith! You have brilliantly summed up your thoughts and it is heartening to note that in the midst of all the chaos and conflict, there are such right-minded people…even a few can make a massive difference.

    Thank you for disseminating enlightenment and information. Those are lovely pictures. Thanks for sharing them. Stay blessed.

  3. A marvellously comprehensive overview of 2,500 years of Indian philosophy Raj. For myself, I see no conflict between the pre-Buddhistic concept of Self and the later Buddhistic formulation of Anatta. The former points to the essential nature of the world as distinct from its appearance to the untrained mind; the latter rests more upon the specific doctrine of Condition Dependent Origination/Genesis, or Paticcasamuppada (Pali) – it is a rejection of personal autonomy and agency as regards the human being, yet stands too in respect to non-sentient matter. In other words, the teaching of Anatta asserts that all things and beings (dhammas) are without any self-sustaining capacity, their causal origins and ontological status laying beyond the dhamma (thing/being) itself.

    This is not to say that there are no things or beings (dhammas), but that their existence instantiates conascently with other dhammas. When a dhamma (a being) apprehends this, and can reflect upon the fact for themselves, then this can be thought of as knowing the Self – though in the greater sense of its interrelatedness, not the lesser sense of an autonomous agent. One might say a certain semantic confusion arises with the use of the word(s) Self/self, and because of this academics have emphasised distinctions in the doctrines that do not exist in what they in fact point to equally – not a monistic Self, and neither a dualistic self/other dichotomy, but a mutual sublation of all subjectivity and objectivity which transcends such mundane points of reference.

    With gratitude and respect to you Raj,


    • Thanks very much, Hariod, for your observation that goes a little deeper into Buddhist theology of ‘pratityasamutpada’ (a compound of Sanskrit ‘pratitya’ to mean ‘having depended’, and ‘samutpada’, for ‘árising’ or ‘origin’, conjoining to ‘pratityasamutpada’, to mean ‘dependent origination’), the twelve links of dependent origination tracing the chain of interdependent causes contributing to samsara. Buddha is very clear in stating that the path of nirvana or ultimate liberation from cosmic recycling, to give another term for samsara, mandates a reversal of the process of arising and ceasing, whereby attaining nibhana means a complete elimination of the causal cogs in the wheel of life. A precept sequentially pointing to Anatman (Sanskrit equivalent of Pali Anatta) could not have logically accommodated Atman or Self, which, by itself, is an attachment, even if to an abstraction, that would have contradicted a theology prescribing total detachment and annihilation of desires. The instruction is to view the perception of self as part of conditioned process, and not as an entity or essence.The story goes that Buddha’s attainment of nirvana was a saga of epic struggle involving years of hard penance and meditation, renouncing all worldly possessions and desires, in spite of which nirvana appeared beyond reach. Then the realization dawned that there was still a lurking desire his mind was steadfastly clinging on to, even after painstakingly renouncing all desires to arrive at what he thought to be a stage of absolute desirelessness; his mind was yet not free from desire to attain nirvana, and consequently a minute trace of selfish motivation guided his efforts. That final realization virtually prompted further long years of rigorous continuation of penance and meditation after relinquishing the desire for nirvana, which culminated in his eventual enlightenment. In the ultimate analysis, it may be maintained that there is neither subject nor object, not even self, just streams and rivers of illusion merging into the ocean of Shiva, the grand infinity. With my respectful regards… Raj.

      • <em"A precept sequentially pointing to Anatman (Sanskrit equivalent of Pali Anatta) could not have logically accommodated Atman or Self." – Clearly that is so Raj, yet we should not conflate Self (in the Vedic sense) with the (imagined) enduring self of personal autonomy and agency. Self (capitalised) and self (non-capitalised) are two ontologically distinct categories, and are not interchangeable either semantically, nor does the latter become the former by means of transcendence or immanence. It is unclear whether we are in agreement on this or not; and if not, then one or other of the two doctrines must be erroneous – assuming both are not. May I respectfully ask, which would you say to be the case Raj?

    • Buddhism departs from traditional Vedic line in its non-assertion of essential or ultimate reality in things; it rejects the existence of soul as a metaphysical entity and yet recognises the existence of self as the subject of action in a moral and physical sense. Further, Buddhism postulates that nothing is permanent, thus if permanent is defined as Self or Atman, then nothing is self. Coincidentally, this line resonates in the Vedas as Shiva also means ‘shunyata’, the infinite nothingness. I do not think a categorical answer to your query is possible, Hariod. There is no question of right and wrong doctrines here as both lead to the same truth. The pertinent point is that Buddhism emerged as a rational and radical response to the then prevailing casteism, societal stratifications and iniquities. With an unrelenting focus on peace, Ahimsa, equality, compassion and respect for all forms of life, Buddha’s teachings are eternally relevant, offering a refinement on all beliefs. Trust this clarifies my preference, and, I am sure, yours as well…best wishes.

      • “There is no question of right and wrong doctrines here as both lead to the same truth.” – precisely so Raj, as both are constructs for the conceptual mind to grapple with as it inevitably must.

        There is a very dense academic work written by Theodor Ippolitovich Stcherbatsky (Professor Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences) entitled Buddhist Logic, which turned out to be a milestone in the history of Buddhology and which was published in 1930. In closing Volume One, Stcherbatsky writes:

        “And at last, ascending to the ultimate plane of every philosophy, we discover that the difference between Sensibility and Understanding is again dialectical. They are essentially the negation of each the other; they mutually sublate one another and become merged in a Final Monism.”

  4. I have read couple of times and I shall be reading many more times, it is such a fascinating narration of the history, culture, class and religion of a wonderful country of ours. The more we delve deep, the more we realize how little we know the history and the transition of society from one set of philosophies and practices to another set of dogmas and doctrines. Trying to constantly figure out and fathom the deep rooted prejudices and practices which keep the class, the caste divided and the sections of society in tenterhooks and in turmoil.

    You have subtly but substantially touched on so many aspects, I will try to deal with few and take the rest to another day for further deliberations. I am still figuring out where to start, Buddhism being the central theme of the post, I thought let me take on the Buddha’s golden eight fold path. Right view to speech to intention to action, can make our life so disciplined and so meaningful but we get lost and trapped in the wrong intentions to wrong actions. Yes, the society was divided and it was deliberate action to create the class divide, the caste divide and the divide of mind which was so strong is still prevalent in certain parts of our society and it looks so bizarre to know that mid-day meal cooked low caste is considered to be untouchable. It is archaic thought. How to stop this medieval thought process that is destroying the fabric of our society. It is making it fragile. The constant flight of fear keeps certain section of the society completed grounded. There is no fair play and rules are skewed and controlled by the designers. One start thinking how does our mind works and how much we get influenced and how these biases and prejudices keeps us imprisoned.

    Much of the section of our society is indeed mired with ” feudalistic greed and fascistic inclinations”, not just India across the world as rightly pointed out is the “exploitation of the poor and working class under feudalism and extremist capitalism, racialism and untouchability”. In-spite of constant efforts and endeavor from different communities and people of eminence to facilitate the evolution of egalitarian societies, free from discrimination of caste, colour and gender, has shown little signs of change but still a long way to go.

    I agree it just not a visit to the place of “Nan Hua” but it a journey of exploration towards altitude of a spiritual mountain…
    Deeply thought out and conveys a deeper meaning of the psychic of our thinking…profound indeed.

  5. Dear Raj,
    I was very interested to learn how the caste system began in India. I thought it had something to do with reincarnation so your narrative was not only thought-provoking, but important for me to learn. I think that great writing, like great art, begins the readers and viewers on a path toward discovery. I used the word path because it really is a manner of traveling. The way you write takes me out of myself. I forget my-self and travel in my mind to a new place.
    I did not know that Buddhism had been used by self-serving individuals to further their own desires. Catholicism is another victim of this desecration. I often think, and please forgive me for being negative, that most of the really stellar ideas that people come up with are often polluted, no, ruined, by other people. I have mixed feelings about some of the modern copyright issues that are being discussed and implemented in the U.S.A. now, but, perhaps, (and I’m smiling) these great theologies should have had a copyright license marked: Do Not Add Your Own Ideas.
    On a side note, I did not expect the temple to be such a riot of color. Fabulous!

    • Moral teachings handed down by sages and philosophers are all crystal clear, Ginene, and so are many of the additions and interpretations. While the interpretations mostly clarify, a good many are distortionary, calculated to serve certain selfish interests and hence misleading. What is really required and overdue is to dismantle the institutional structures of religions and reduce these to the level of individual choices and personal preferences, whereby all places of worship are rationalised to fewer numbers and converted to museums and historical monuments. The world will be a better place if it is put through…

  6. Raj I am not a Buddhist, Hindu. Taoist, or a follower of the Abrahamic religions.
    This seems to be an appropriate time to make a statement on how I see things.
    I have taken what helps me, to live a better life, from the whole intoxicating confusing, conglomerate-cocktail of religion.
    As well as philosophical ideas from outstanding people that have stood test of time.
    That is why I follow the logical Eightfold Path as a map to peace and contentment.
    Some of the best art and architecture are dedicated to religion and there is nothing evil in the believers.
    It is the biased bigoted dogmas that defile them. If the mud is removed from the water it is pure.
    You got some interesting comments from thoughtful people.
    Ginene Nagel thought on copyright licence got me smiling and wondering.
    Like John Lennon it got me Imagining. _/\_

    • Nice to see you here, Jack, with your sharp observations. I am in total agreement with your thinking. Not following any particular religion is the best thing a person can do to himself and the efficacy of it stands clearly demonstrated in your case. Had you narrowly subscribed to some religion, you would have become terminally sick and folded up a long time ago. Luckily it did not happen that way…, Lol…, and you are still up and running, very much around to confer with…cheers.

  7. Another wonderful insightful post from you Raj, How sad to set amid the landscape of Spirituality of Buddhism that still such prejudices arise – referring to the eating of school meals and those who cook them, And still sadder the other cruelties which occur.. I wonder my friend when all of our ingrained discrimination will end.. For it is abundant across all faiths, all walks of life.. Each giving labels, each wanting their ‘God’ to be the only One..

    I Hope that some day, Like Jack hints at.. May we one day ‘Imagine’ a world of Peace I love John Lennon’s lyrics “Imagine there’s no countries-It isn’t hard to do-Nothing to kill or die for-And no religion too-Imagine all the people–Living life in peace…”… Oh yes just imagine.. 🙂

    Dear Raj, I really enjoyed your post and your photo’s.. 12 yrs a long time in building that temple and it seems no effort or amounts of money is ever spared for the grandeur of such places right the way around the world what ever Spiritual ‘house’ it may be..

    Wishing you a peaceful week..
    In love and with Blessings

    • Thanks very much Sue, for the great affection and wisdom underlying in your observations. As I have mentioned elsewhere, in response to one of the comments, the solution, though radical, may well be to eliminate the institutional character of religions as it is doing more harm than good. Conversion of religious structures into museums and centres of art and culture appears to be the ideal path to peace and harmony…best wishes.

  8. Raj, this is a fascinating history and critical analysis of the ways religious beliefs have been used to maintain social inequality and oppression. The enduing human costs are so powerfully demonstrated in the example of ‘upper caste” parents who prohibit their children from eating food prepared by a “lower caste cook,” thereby threatening her very survival. As you so eloquently point out, it could (should) be otherwise.

  9. Raj Its truly amazing to read a detailed account of your visit to Nan Hua. We have all along been fascinated by the teachings and wisdom of Buddha. Gautama’s story of renunciation itself makes us realise that we are here for a purpose and so we must identify and set our lakshya.

  10. Raj so interesting to read about the history of Buddha. You must have had an amazing few months. Thank you for sharing the beautiful photos . This brings our very best wishes to you.

  11. I have always feel related to many principles coming from Buddhism, even when I am a catholic, but not orthodoxically speaking…
    A great, thorough and wise post, my friend … Merry Christmas and all my best wishes to you. Aquileana 🎄

  12. That is because Buddha’s teachings are truly catholic or universal in spirit. So not to worry, Aqui, as we all have catholicity within us. Glad to see you here after a long while. Wishing you merry Xmas and a rewarding year ahead…

  13. Dear Raj,
    I just want to wish you and your family a Blessed Christmas Holiday Season.. and to thank you for your Kind support at Dreamwalkers..
    And to wish you a very Happy New Year..

    Blessings Sue 🙂

  14. I was happy to join you on this trip. The compassion shrine you spoke of is something that the world perhaps needs more of… I wish you a lovely July, Raj, and beyond xx

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