Monks create Buddhist oasis

by IAN STEWARD, The Press, June 16, 2007

Marshland, New Zealand -- As the Dalai Lama jetted in to town, talking (or not) to the Prime Minister, addressing stadiums of thousands, five Buddhist monks in Marshland rejoiced at the latest offering from their local devotees – electric blankets.

The Buddhist Temple on Marshland Road is never short of incongruous sights: yesterday a group of orange-robed monks with shaved eyebrows and close-cropped hair stood in a dirt semi-circle before a giant statue of Buddha.

They were talking to a Kiwi builder about how best to construct their feature pond and keep the ducks out of it.

The temple on the old market garden site has been slowly growing since the order moved there seven years ago. The farmhouse has become the main meeting house and a grand, gold-roofed meditation hall temple now stands in the middle of the 2.4ha site.

A row of small huts borders the orchard out the back and earthworks are under way to create a fitting monument to Buddha in the front yard.

The Marshland monks do it hard in the winter. Four of them come from Thailand, where the temperature rarely drops below 20deg, and the other is from Bangladesh where the coldest month has an average temperature of 26.

Their day begins at 5.30am with chanting and meditation until breakfast at 7.30. The monks are not allowed to cook for themselves or buy anything so they have to rely on local Thai people who come in on roster to provide for them and prepare their meals.

The electric blankets are a gift from well-known Christchurch businessman Antony Gough.

As well as owning most of the buildings on the Oxford Terrace "Strip", Gough and his Thai wife, Vicki, spend time at the temple helping the monks with their projects.

Gough's builder is consulting on the pond project and it will be Gough's tractor that moves the earth.

Gough was ordained as a "temporary monk" a few years ago to see how they lived and talks with enthusiasm about their accepting ways and the lack of fundamentalism they display.

"People see them and think `There's probably a bunch of extremists in there' but it's not like that with the Buddhists. It's all about accepting what comes to them. They're very happy, always smiling. An awful lot of Kiwis could do with that type of nature."

Because the community needed to care for the monks, the temple had become a focal point for Christchurch Thai people, he said.

After breakfast the monks work in their fields or glasshouse growing fruit and Thai herbs and tending their flower gardens.

Devotees come for the noon meal, the monks' last of the day, and a chanting session is held and the lay people join in. The chants are long, rhythmic, droning, incantations in Thai with a call-and-response form similar to Catholic ceremonies.

The five monks sit cross-legged in a row on a raised dais with the lay people making offerings and intoning their prayers below.

The monks eat lunch first, then the men, then the women.

Lay followers of Buddhism try to adhere to five rules, or "precepts", like a condensed Ten Commandments.

The monks live by 227 precepts which the Abbot at Marshland can recite from memory.

Despite the austerity of the monks' lives, they are allowed a few creature comforts, as long as they are donated.

They have Sky TV, which they swear is to watch the Thai news but it is whispered that there are a few closet football fans in the order.

They cannot chew food after noon but chocolate can be sucked so Gough is known to bring the odd bar after hours.

Because denial of desire is one of the chief tenets of Buddhism, the monks cannot even choose which chocolate bar they want. They take what is given to them.

After an evening meditation session the monks go to bed about 10pm. They sleep on mats on the floor in their chapter house and, although they are not supposed to want anything, their delight in their electric blankets was obvious.