Above and beyond religion

By Lincoln Tan

Most temples are built with the aim of being solely a place of worship. But New Zealand's largest Buddhist temple has bigger plans than that.

Not only does it want to be a community house for people of all creeds and ethnicities, Fo Guang Shan temple - which has its grand opening tomorrow - wants to also play an active role in curing some of society's ills.

Man Wang, a nun at the temple, said that at first glance New Zealand looked like a perfect country. Dig deeper and it was a society filled with problems such as child abuse, domestic violence, drugs and crime.

"We want our temple to help reduce some of these social problems," she said. "We believe we can do it through education and teaching people how to lead good lives."

Over the past two years, the temple has been offering community courses such as Chinese calligraphy, Chinese language, yoga and martial arts, and also acted as a base where the police can hold crime prevention talks and meetings.

The temple has an arm to help members connect with the wider community, called the Buddha's Light Association. Its chairman, Peter Young, said these community talks and sessions were meant to be catalysts to help people lead more-positive lives.

"The temple is not just a place for people to come to pray, otherwise it will be of no use to non-Buddhists," Mr Young said. "To make full use of the temple, we must open it for everyone to benefit."

Followers at Fo Guang Shan temple abide by the philosophy of Humanistic Buddhism, which Mr Young said teaches members to be more outward in their approach to doing good and mixing with the locals.

"We are encouraged to go out and get involved with the local community.

"Our members have been involved in many charity and community works, including raising money for the Heart Foundation and planting trees with the Manukau City Council."

Botany resident Margaret Dawson admitted to being a little nervous during the construction stages of the temple between 2001 and last year.

"I remember looking at it and thinking, 'Oh my God, what is this monstrous structure going to do to the landscape of this area?' " she said.

But Mrs Dawson has since become a regular visitor to the temple and has participated in some of its community programmes.

"I really think having these community classes helps make the temple less intimidating for the locals like me," she said.

"Since I first stepped into the temple last year, I have found it to have a calming effect and have been returning regularly."

Since the construction of the temple was completed, it has earned the reputation of being a local tourist attraction. It also gets busloads of visitors and overseas tourists.

Where: East Tamaki Heights, Flat Bush.
How big: The largest Buddhist temple in New Zealand, on a 3.6ha site.
How much: More than $20 million for the building alone.

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