A billionaire's largesse flows to University of Toronto

by JONATHAN WOODWARD, Globe and Mail, April 3, 2006

VANCOUVER, Canada -- A West Vancouver businessman, leader of one of Hong Kong's wealthiest and most prominent families, has given $4-million to the University of Toronto as part of a grand plan to create a network of Buddhist studies programs to span the globe.

The new program -- to be announced today at the university's Scarborough campus -- is the fourth institution worldwide and the second in Canada to receive millions of dollars to study and teach the eastern religion as part of the legacy of billionaire Robert Hung-Ngai Ho.

Mr. Ho, 73, said his family's motto is to give back, and he wants to return money that has been in his family since the time of his grandfather.

"We have a focus of making Buddhism more appreciated and more widely known," said the soft-spoken Mr. Ho in an interview in his second-storey office in West Vancouver, decorated sparingly with calligraphy and ancient Chinese pottery.

In 2000, one of Mr. Ho's charitable foundations, the Tung Lin Kok Yuen society, committed $15-million over 10 years to a Buddhism program at Hong Kong University.

Then, he breathed life into the International Buddhist College in Songkla, Thailand, with a $600,000 donation after the college had to abandon construction on several buildings because it didn't have the funds to continue.

The buildings bear the Ho family name.

In February, the University of British Columbia announced Mr. Ho had given it $4-million for a chair named after his foundation, and in early March, Mr. Ho finalized his $4-million deal with the University of Toronto.

"We've got Thailand, we've got Hong Kong, we've got Vancouver, we've got Toronto. Next stop is south of the border," said Mr. Ho, adding that he has made contact with the University of California at Berkeley, and from there would like to expand to the University of London in England.

"Our plan is to circle the globe," he said.

Mr. Ho's grandfather, Sir Robert Ho Tung, made a fortune on land deals and commodity trading, and today his business is a worldwide empire.

But Mr. Ho says his charitable efforts spring from his grandmother, Lady Clara Lin-Kok, who founded a temple and a free school in Hong Kong in the early 20th century.

"Our goal is to make Buddhism known to people," Mr. Ho said. "In pockets of the world, they think Buddhism is a superstition, and that is totally inaccurate.

"If you are a Buddhist, you do not need to go to a temple, you pray at home, you can pray anywhere," he said. "You don't have to live in the mountains and meditate, you can live in the world."

The $4-million deal with U of T was reached in early March, said William Bowen, Chair of Humanities at the Scarborough campus. The campus's principal, Kwong-loi Shun, was approached by Mr. Ho as the details of his UBC deal were being finalized last year, he said.

Of the $4-million, $3-million will create an endowment for a visiting professor, and the rest will fund a series of public lectures expected to attract Buddhist speakers from around the world. It will join the Yehan Numata, a Buddhist studies program at U of T's Mississauga campus.

All of the programs, from Hong Kong to Vancouver to Toronto, would share ideas and professors, and would support each others' educational missions, Prof. Bowen said.

"These are the pieces of the puzzle across the three campuses," he said.

U of T policy forbids the use of donated money until one year after the gift is made, said Prof. Bowen, so the program would be expected to begin in 2007.

Mr. Ho graduated from Colgate University in 1956 with a BA and began a journalism career with a masters degree at Columbia University in 1958.

He covered the White House and the United Nations for National Geographic for several years.