In a generation, the Lord Abbot of the Thai Monastery in Sarnath has transformed the monastery into a beautiful garden of trees, flowers, shrubs and pathways. There is a lovely, quiet meditation centre at the back of the monastery and ample area for our dharma discussion groups to meet in the shade of the temple or under trees. The Abbot of the Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya shares the same dedication.
In the grounds of the Sarnath monastery, a 27-metre high state of the Buddha is under construction. It is a remarkable tribute to the creative power of the stonemasons engaged in the building of the statue. There are 539 blocks of stone, around one metre by one metre by one metre, cut out of a sacred mountain in Uttar Pradesh, also used by the much love Buddhist King Ashoka 2000 years ago. In a cell in the meditation centre, there is a small model of the final statue. The stonemasons simply sit on top of a block of stone or cross-legged on the ground beside a block of stone and chip away. Chip, chip, chip. Hour in and hour out.
It is extraordinarily hard to imagine how they know what to do with the hammer and chisel in their hand. The workers have no tape measure, no sheets of paper with detailed measurements or instructions. They chip away hours everyday. Then, with rope and bamboo poles, they assemble a section. The head of the Buddha fits together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle – with a face of serene calmness and contemplative presence. The base, head and feet are complete.
I said to the Abbot: “I cannot understand how the stonemasons work without plans and measurements. If they make a wrong chip or series of wrong chips in the stone, then it ruins the whole block of stone. Do they ever make a mistake?”
The Abbot smiled. He replied: “I decided to employ ancient craftsmen rather than modern rock cutting technology. The men engaged in the work learnt from their fathers going back many generations for hundreds of years. It is true that if they make a mistake in their chipping it would ruin the block. They never make a mistake.”
Three years ago, we, the teachers and dharma yogis, collected around £500 (€750, $900) to offer the Abbot as a dana to cover two blocks of stone, for the transportation of two of the rocks, and the work of the stonemasons. It took two large blocks of stone to make the upper and lower lip of the Buddha. We said we love the words of the Buddha so we gave the dana for the lips. The workers have been engaged in the project for the past four years. The abbot hopes to have the statue complete in the next two years. It is a slow, precise and moment to moment task.
On behalf of one American practitioner, I handed over an anonymous donation of 20,000 rupees ($500) towards this beautiful statue. A huge smile of appreciation broke out on the face of the Abbot. The serene face of the Buddha continues to show a stoic equanimity. The grandeur of the statue will be there long after we have parted company with this world.