Sukhavati (Pure Land) Eco-Temple – Tamil Nadu, India

Project by the Foundation for His Sacred Majesty (FHSM)
Gautham Prabhu Nagappan (Executive Director)

Gautham Prabhu Nagappan
Gautham Prabhu Nagappan

Background: The Foundation for His Sacred Majesty (FHSM), based in Chennai, which has been working in this region for seven years among the most marginalized communities of former outcaste or untouchable Hindus, now referred to as Dalits. Since the 1950s, under the inspiration of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, India’s first Law Minister who was a Dalit, millions of Dalits have and continue to convert into Buddhism. The Foundation has been mobilizing multi-stakeholders participation in the design and implementation of a self-sustainable model on education and alternative livelihood to achieve community empowerment using the ideology of Dr. Ambedkar and the great Buddhist monarch of ancient India, Ashoka. FHSM is working on a number of levels from human rights advocacy to sustainable agriculture, income generating projects, youth education and mobilization, and Buddhist education and practice. The proposed Sukhavati Eco-Temple would provide not only a spiritual center for the community but also a multifarious complex for further developing the above programs.

Gauthama has been continually emphasizing in his recent work that environmental justice and integrity is an important missing link in the social development work amongst Dalits, which has mostly focused on political and legal rights. Unfortunately, he remarks, most Dalit leaders want to be elected to sit in the local legislatures or parliament and have little interest in giving back to community once they have gained such status. Gauthama’s father, former Director to the Ministry of Home Affairs himself and one of the founding fathers of the Dalit movement in South India, spent his entire career working for these communities, believing that the government should be responsible for taking care of the Dalits. Gauthama, however, feels the belief people have that the government and charities will give them things for “free” is debilitating. The powers-that-be create a system of structural violence pitting Dalits and other backward castes against each other by purposely providing less resources to them. This keeps them lost in the daily competition for scarce resource, and in this way, the Dalit movement is not sensitized to the environment. Therefore, when Gauthama started working in this area, he spent the first three years just doing awareness building. He feels there is no movement in India amongst the Dalits that has a holistic approach but that the Eco-Temple Community Development Scheme presents one such possibility.

sukhavatibricksTemple Design: The Sukhavati Eco-Temple will be a domed stupa made of Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks (CSEB) using local earth and local labor as part of a community income-generating project making CSEBs. Presently, they have one CSEB machine on loan from the alternative eco-community of Auroville, located not far away. Designers in Auroville have offered their expertise in developing the temple. At this point, however, seed capital is needed to purchase these CSEB making machines with one machine costing US$3,300. It is estimated that 50 days of work can produce enough bricks for sale to pay for one machine and that 5 machines will be needed to construct the temple. One of the members of the Eco-Temple Community Temple Project, Rev. Hidehito Okochi from Japan, has experience himself in building and financing from scratch a solar powered eco-temple. He offered two ideas to help generate seed capital: one is that those who offer money as dana for the construction of the temple would have their names stamped into the CSEB bricks which would be seen after construction is finished; a second is to create a micro-credit bank. Gauthama has already envisioned one for this work, tentatively called the ABCDE (Ambedkar Bank for Community Development and Empowerment). A final thought about the temple itself came from the peer group evaluation at the eco-temple meeting in Sri Lanka in January 2016. Other participants felt the stupa/temple can be designed for other uses besides just religious services, for example as a temple school or even a temple cafeteria. Gauthama remarked that this goes against cultural norms in the region, and in fact most Buddhist cultures. However, some of the innovators in the eco-temple group, such as Rev. Okochi, have successfully encouraged their communities to adopt new styles for the sake of deeper ecological values.

10 acre plot for the temple
10 acre plot for the temple

sukhavatiwellSurrounding Lands: The Sukhavati Eco Temple is located on 10 acres of now open plain. The property has good water resources with a nearby lake. A dried up river bed runs through the property, which needs a basic dredging to access the water table only a few feet underground. This water resource has enabled them to already start digging wells for not only to develop the land but also potentially as an income generating project selling drinking water. As this time, more bore wells are still needed at a cost of US$2,500/well. The entire property covers 150 acres in land that has been donated yet still has to go through a bureaucratic process of land title change. Gauthama seeks to develop this larger property as both for reforested bio-diverse land and for agricultural development of millet farming, a healthier and less resource intensive crop than white rice. The land will also be used to develop micro-grid solar, biomass, and other forms of clean energy. One of the local leaders, Mr. Venkatesan, has already developed a business plan for a small, 8kW solar power plant. Ironically, there is a huge 40gW solar farm on a nearby property that the government is building. As a testament to Gautham’s earlier comments, none of the workers at the site came from the local area, and the electricity will be fed back into the main grid with no direct access for any of the neighboring communities. That said, it was remarkable to visit a major government development site that wasn’t adversely affecting the local environment of the community.

Community Development: FHSM has a wide variety of social initiatives in the surrounding community. For example, they have installed low cost, environmentally friendly toilet and sewage systems in some homes, which is a particular need for Dalit families who often have poor access to closed toilet systems. Indeed, one is reminded of the horrific rape and public hanging of two Dalit girls in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 who were victimized after going to the bathroom in a field because their home had no toilet system. Along with supporting women’s and children’s educational groups, FHSM has been working hard to develop local youth groups. These groups are largely thematized on Buddhist study and community service themes. They are attempting to build associations of young people focused on improving their education with a spirit of serving and giving back to their community. Seeing the energy and investment put into succeeding generations of community leaders felt like an especially important activity for the sustainability of FHSM’s goals and work.

youth meeting with Rev. Okochi from Japan
youth meeting with Rev. Okochi from Japan

Conclusions: Seeing the realization of a community development sector gives one an even stronger sense of the potential for success for the Sukhavati Eco-Temple project. At this stage, it seems like further development of the land and its environment would be the next step before actually building the temple. However, Gauthama feels the time is ripe for proceeding with temple construction as the next stage as a means to provide further inspiration and energy to the community. As Buddhist identity, education, and training is still underdeveloped in this new movement among Dalits, an actual temple—of which there are none for Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu—would be an important sign of empowerment and identity. Gauthama explains that the status of a major religious center would have further benefits in their continual negotiations and struggles with various government and business sectors. We also learned in our visit to the region that Tiruvannamalai is a major religious and pilgrimage center in south India with a variety of ashrams, such as the center of Ramana Maharishi and the famous Saivaist Annamalaiyar Temple. It is hoped that a major Buddhist temple would add to this culture by not only restoring the original Buddhist culture of the region but bringing the teachings and insights of Dr. Ambedkar on spirituality and social justice to the wider communities of this region.

Eco-Temple Community Development Project meeting after study tour
Eco-Temple Community Development Project meeting after study tour

Action Plan: The following are agreements that a visiting group from the Eco-Temple Community Development Project made in February 2016 for action:

  • Create a more detailed topographical and design map of the land and temple for potential fundraising; perhaps a digital version using Google Maps so names can be translated to other languages.
  • Create a business plan for the temple including the self-sustaining aspects of it. There is a need to communicate the economic aspects of the work with the community development, human rights, peace building, and environmental aspects of the work. This will attract a wider range of donors who are not necessarily interested in Dalit or Buddhist issues and also serve as an exemplary project for other countries as well.
  • Based on the above plan, create a power point for different fundraising audiences for Gauthama to do fundraising trips to: Europe, China-Japan-Korea, and the United States
  • Create an educational unit around the concept of the Eco-Temple Community Development Project on such themes as good governance, environmental protection, and collective action. The new INEB Institute can collaborate in model curriculum building and the possibility of holding such programs in Tamil Nadu for their international students: 4-7 days study visits (Spring 2018); 8-10 week participatory research projects (Summer 2018)


Project Update: December 2016

Visit to Japan in June 

Gautham Prabhu with Rev. Ryojun Sato, a leading expert in Indian Buddhism in Japan, and Camille Rullan, IBEC/JNEB's first intern from Princeton University
Gautham Prabhu with Rev. Ryojun Sato, a leading expert in Indian Buddhism in Japan, and Camille Rullan, IBEC/JNEB’s first intern from Princeton University

From June 7 to 15, the International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC) at Kodosan under INEB Advisory Council member Rev. Masazumi Okano and eco-temple partner Rev. Hidehito Okochi hosted Gautham in Japan for a series of meetings and strategy building for the Sukhavati Eco-Temple. Highlights of the trip included an extended visit to the the Seicho-no-Ie denomination‘s Office in The Forest in Yamanashi Prefecture, where they have built a new administrative center for their group using ecologically harvested timber as well as installing solar and biomass to provide complete electric power to the center. The Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists also hosted Gautham for their New International Engaged Buddhism Study Group series, which was covered in depth by one of Japan’s leading Buddhist newspapers the Bukkyo Times (see Japanese language article only).

Temple Design & Project Development

The Sukhavati eco-temple project has been showing some developments in terms of creating relationships with Buddhists from different countries such as Taiwan, China, and Sri Lanka. The eco-temple will have an eco-friendly construction, developed with the help of an environment friendly architect company known as Biome Environmental Solutions. The Foundation of His Sacred Majesty (FHSM) is working closely with them developing the whole architectural design for the project. Dr. Pulikesi Chittu Rajangam, a board member of FHSM, has returned from the United States after completing his PhD from the University of Wisconsin and will be developing the project proposal along with FHSM Executive Director, Gauthama Prabhu. In the meanwhile, the lands are currently being used for growing organic cotton so that some income source can be generated for the project until start up funds are available.

Ven. Miao Hai to visit Tamil Nadu in February 20-25, 2017

Ven. Miao Hai, the Head of Renewable Energy Application at our eco-temple partner Zhengjue Temple in China, has expressed his willingness to visit Sukhavati eco-temple site to explore the possibilities of developing solar based projects and also raise funds for eco-temple project. This can be considered as one breakthrough of our work as no temple so far in Tamil Nadu has made such an initiative. During this period, we will organize sessions with Buddhist communities and also show farm projects. Ven. Miao Hai also expressed his willingness to support agro-based solar farming projects as there is a vast availability of land resources surrounding the eco-temple project site. Ven. Miao Hai has invited Gauthama Prabhu to China for this purpose and connect with resource persons.

Prof. Kalinga Seneviratne, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand visits Sukhavati

img-20161205-wa0002Prof. Kalinga Seneviratne from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand visited the Sukhavati temple land on 4th of December to explore the possibility of raising funds in Malaysia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. He is a good friend of INEB chairman Harsha Navaratne and has good relations with foundations in Sri Lanka that support environmental friendly activities and Buddhist activities. Prof. Kalinga also witnessed the social work projects of FHSM, such as our open well project that provide water access to Dalit villages, sanitary projects that provide individual toilets to women, a skill development program for youths, and a dry land farm project that creates greater economic sustainability and prevent suicides among farmers.

Meeting with INEB Chairman Harsha Navaratne in Chennai

FHSM has arranaged a meeting with INEB Chairman, Harsha Navaratne, in order to discuss the developments of the eco-temple and also about the genuineness of Sri Lankan organisations that have expressed interest in supporting FHSM for the eco-temple project. According to Harsha, Ven. Shobita Omalpe has very good links with China and could connect FHSM directly to Chinese donors. He gave a positive note about Ven. Shobitha Omalpe who has great interest in environment friendly projects and has asked us to meet him in Sri Lanka.

Sukhavati Eco-Temple meeting with Tamil Buddhist Federation

img-20161205-wa0030A meeting was organised among the Tamil Buddhist Federation, which was formed under the aegis of VIHARA (the Buddhist revival movement) in order to discuss the developments of the eco-temple project. The members representing more than 15 Buddhist organisations have expressed their unconditional moral support to this project. Prof. Kalinga was invited for the presentation and discussion. The Tamil Buddhist Federation also unanimously agreed that the Federation will not interfere in any matters pertaining to Sinhalese-Tamil issues in Sri Lanka and shall not receive grants from the Sri Lankan Government on moral grounds. However, foundations with an apolitical nature and a genuine intention for supporting the eco-temple shall be encouraged to participate in resource mobilisation for the eco-temple.

Sakyadhita Conference in Hong Kong

Sister Christie from the International Lay Buddhist Organisation has expressed her interest to invite members from FHSM to give presentations at the 15th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women to be held in Hong Kong in June 2017. She also encouraged us to organise a workshop that would help us connect with Buddhist donors who might be interested to support the eco-temple project. The concept note for the workshop is still underway and shall be submitted soon to the conference organisers.

INEB Founder Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa to visit FHSM in January 2017

INEB founder, Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa will visit FHSM in January 2017 in order to attend programs organized by FHSM on the revival of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu. FHSM plans to take this opportunity to show Ajahn the Sukhavati Eco-Temple project site and received his blessing.

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