Bodhi Blues: A Year in India: Questioning the Maitreya project: What Would the Buddha Do?
At the crossroads, an old, thick tree shades a small temple to the Mother Goddess, but Anirudhwa village bakes in the heat of the midday sun. We are surrounded on all sides by land under cultivation. It is green-green here — the bright verdant hue of crops in full bloom. Smaller rectangular fields of spirited yellow mustard flowers occasionally break the expanse, and I’m told that those plants will be sold to make cooking oil. There are some stands of sugarcane ready for harvest; the little girls in dirty dresses follow me around the village, gnawing at sticks of cane almost as tall as them.
Most of the villagers are out in the fields, but we meet a few people willing to sit and talk. They are unanimous — although farming life is hard, it’s the only work they know, and without their lands they will have nothing.
A woman in a saffron-colored cotton sari points to the southeast, and angrily tells me that the 500-foot tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha will go up somewhere over there. It will tower over the distant treetops, and cast its long shadow over these acres. But the people will be long gone — forced off their ancestral plots by the government on behalf of the Maitreya Buddha Statue Project.
A man shakes his head in disgust. He stands to lose his entire half-acre plot of land, as well as his house; the compensation being offered, he says, is laughably insufficient. He has fourteen dependents, including his eight children, and he wonders aloud how on earth he will be able to feed them all.
A wrinkled old man in a stained white dhoti has waited patiently, but is keen to have his chance to be heard. “I will give my life, but I will not give my land. Land is the source of life.”
“But what if they come to take the land anyway?” I ask.
“I will fight. I am seventy-five years old, but I will fight.”
Why is the planned construction of a giant Buddha statue in India causing the disenfranchisement of so many poor local farming families? How did a symbol of love come itself to cause so much suffering?
I have discovered many answers along the way. But the questions continue to percolate and multiply, haunt and prickle; they sometimes keep me awake at night.
Where to Begin?
Should I narrate chronologically? Does my story start just a few decades ago, when the late Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan Buddhist guru of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), decided that he wanted to build a statue in India of the future incarnation of Buddha, also called Maitreya, as a gift of thanks for a nation that has provided a refuge for so many Tibetan exiles?
Or would it be better to begin after the death of Lama Yeshe, when his students, his reincarnation, Lama Osel, and his chief disciple, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, decided that the statue would be 500 feet tall — bigger than three Statue of Liberties stacked on top of one another — the biggest Buddha statue in the world?
Or should I begin once the lines had been drawn in Kushinagar, and the farmers’ protest had begun?
Maybe I should begin on a more personal note when I took refuge with Lama Zopa Rinpoche many years ago. Or later — at that precise moment when I first heard about the statue and pictured the Maitreya Buddha towering high into the sky as a global antenna of “loving-kindness,” a veritable Buddhist Taj Mahal.
I began my fieldwork in India for an Anthropology Ph.D in January of 2006. I headed south from Delhi by overnight train, going deep into the state of Uttar Pradesh, pausing for a day in the grungy town of Gorakhpur,before finally heading east by rickety government bus to the Buddhist pilgrimage town of Kushinagar.
Kushinagar is where the Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism, died 2500 years ago. It is also where the Lama Yeshe’s organizations, FPMT and the Maitreya Project, are now planning to build their Maitreya statue. My dissertation was supposed to be about hope for a holy object, where I would interview locals and pilgrims about the benefits of the future statue of the future Buddha. While I had expected to find hope in Kushinagar, mostly I found fear and anger. And yes, to be fair, there is still a very little bit of hope there, too.
The Maitreya Project wasn’t just Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s dream on behalf of his guru, Lama Yeshe. For a time, the Maitreya statue was my dream too. In my early twenties, I became a Buddhist, and felt that the strength of the religion was in its genuine compassion, its meditation practices, and its solid philosophical foundation. A few years later, while getting an MA in International Development studies, I identified the Maitreya Project as an ideal case study in “engaged Buddhism,” given that the Maitreya Project will build a school and a health care facility near the statue. Truly, very good intentions. Nice warm fuzzies all around. It could have been a model in engaged, compassionate Buddhist development.
So what happened? Poor execution: a lack of transparency, a lack of real commitment to act according to their own principles, a completely top-down strategy reliant on bureaucrats and “dealers,” cultural insensitivity, and a lack of organizational oversight that is only enabled by the countless oceans and miles between “us” and “them.”
Make no mistake — it’s no picnic in Kushinagar. I know as well as anyone how hard it would be to try to earn the trust of the farmers, work with them, and negotiate with them. Kushinagar is way out of the comfort zone, and the farmers live out on the edge of that edge. However, the Maitreya Project needed to invest some time, effort, and TLC in this community; that is, the very community they claim to want to help.
The state government of Uttar Pradesh has offered to give the Maitreya Project an expansive tract of land (between 660 and 750 acres, depending on whom you ask) on which to build their giant statue. However, the tract of land isn’t owned by the state government; it’s owned by small local farmers. Villagers from seven villages (including Anirudhwa) stand to lose some or all their farmland, and many will lose their homes as well.
How many people will be affected? It’s difficult to say, partly due to the fact that extended families sometimes live under the same roof, partly due to quickly changing and contested demographics, and partly due to politics: A Maitreya Project official told me 1100 families, local newspapers were consistently reporting 1400 families, the farmers said it was closer to 2000 families; recently, a government official told me that it was actually 3000 families.
The minority who are losing their homes face additional uncertainty. They’ve been told they will be “rehabilitated,” but state officials have no plan yet to resettle them elsewhere. A government Land Acquisition Officer told me that instead of being resettled, they will be given a check to compensate them and will have to find someplace else to move, whether they agree to the terms or not.
Very few farmers have agreed to the terms, and therein lies the problem. In rural India, land is “Mother.” It feeds, it provides, it breathes. The government officials are crystal clear: If the farmers refuse to budge, then police will be mobilized to clear the land.
The state government is offering farmers compensation at various rates, but from the farmers’ perspective most of the land is being taken at around 10% of current market value (with some parcels being offered up to 50%), with the final price to be calculated after the actual land transfer. The farmers feel strongly that if the project goes ahead as planned, they will be ruined.
My interviews with non-affected Kushinagaris about current land prices support the farmers’ sense that they are being grossly under-compensated for land that is their livelihood — the land value will continue to go up, and they cannot buy anywhere near the same amount of land with the compensation settlement.
The Land Acquisition Act (LAA), an antiquated law first enacted by the British Empire in order to acquire farmland for the railway, allows the government to buy the land. But is it fair? I’m in good company when I ask this question. Across India, the LAA is under attack by social justice activists and many scholars. Even the central government is giving the LAA close scrutiny: Earlier this year, the ruling Communist party in the state of Bengal tried to use the LAA to divest farmers of land for private industrialists. When the police moved in to claim the land, dozens of local people were shot, and about a dozen killed.
In their reliance upon the Land Acquisition Act, the Maitreya Project may be on the right side of the law. But they are on the wrong side of morality. The Maitreya Project wants to build a statue of a Buddha; perhaps they should be more concerned with compassion than legislation, more eager to mediate than litigate, more prone to demonstrate kindness then incite all kinds of demonstrations.
The farmers of Kushinagar are fighting, and they have been fighting for several years now. They have blocked the national highway, cajoled politicians, set up mass demonstrations and rallies, sued the state government, and held hunger strikes. They have also threatened violence. Leaders have said that they will kidnap tourists to bring attention to their plight. The oft-repeated mantra by farmers is, “we will kill or be killed,but we will not surrender our land.”
I don’t know if they are posturing, but I do know that they seem frighteningly serious. They are being backed up hard against a wall of nails. They have everything to lose, and nothing to gain, by being polite.
A small sampling of headlines from regional Hindi press tells a story of persistent and ongoing resistance to the statue project. “Unrest among farmers affected by the land acquisition process of Maitreya Project,” reads the headline from Sahara in September 2002.
Two years later, in Dainik Jagaran, the headline ran, “Farmers demonstrate against Maitreya, Burn effigy.” In 2005, a headline from Sahara news quotes a farmer, “Murder, hanging… Whatever happens, we will not give up land.”
From Dainik Jagaran in 2006, “Farmers will fight to the finish against the Maitreya Project.” Referring to some Buddhist monks in Kushinagar who have joined in solidarity with the farmers, a 2007 headline from the Aaj newspaper read, “Buddhist Monks observe fast in protest against Maitreya Project.”
Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that everyone in Kushinagar is against the Maitreya statue. Many of the businessmen and Buddhists of the tourist circuit know that if a 500-foot statue is built in their vicinity, there will be a surge in pilgrims and visitors that will expand their sphere of influence and fatten their wallets. Given how much these statue supporters desire the project, it was particularly telling that they overwhelmingly expressed the opinion that the farmers are being done a grave injustice.
These Kushinagaris are the first to criticize the Maitreya Project for failing to work with the farmers to achieve a mutually agreeable settlement. They wonder why the Maitreya Project isn’t meeting with the farmers, working with them, negotiating with them privately for the land. Why is the Maitreya Project allowing the state government to forcibly acquire the land from poor farmers, when state officials are so often corrupt?
Many, though not all, of these pro-Maitreya Project voices are frustrated, because they feel that if the organization had been more proactive on a local level, then perhaps the statue construction might already be underway.
The farmers have more damning questions. They want to know, why is so much fertile land being acquired from the poor? Why not take infertile land nearby? Why not take land from the rich instead? Why haven’t actual representatives from the Maitreya Project ever come to meet them?
Interestingly, during their protest rallies, some farmers question whether the Maitreya Project even exists. From their perspective an organization that seems to exist only on the World Wide Web is baffling and immediately suspect. The doubters think the state is trying to grab their land for a pittance, and that the statue project is just multi-media hocus-pocus. Others believe that even if the statue plan is real, it will certainly cause unbelievable suffering to them and their families, and any benefits will only accrue to those few who have the capital and staying power to wait around for new opportunities.
Village leaders of the farmers’ organization, which is roughly translated as the “Save the Land Association,” say that the Buddha himself wouldn’t want the statue to come at the cost of so much suffering.
I have some questions too. Originally, (when the project was supposed to be in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment), the Maitreya Project said that they only needed 35-40 acres for its statue and social programs, so why are they now demanding several hundred acres? Why isn’t there a Maitreya Project office in Kushinagar? How can the Maitreya Project build a symbol of “loving kindness” on such hotly contested land? Is it “loving” to ignore the current fear and anger of the farmers? Is it “kindness” to let the state government do the dirty work of land acquisition, instead of the people involved with the Maitreya Project themselves taking responsibility to work out mutually tenable solutions with all the stake holders?
What’s most shocking is that this is not a shocking story. The only media carrying this story are regional Hindi newspapers in Uttar Pradesh, not the New York Times or Associated Press. International media outlets don’t seem to care. Why should they when poorly conceived transnational development projects are bludgeoning the local poor all over the world on a daily basis?
What makes this story particularly surprising to me is that so many of the Buddhists invested in this project all over the world are genuinely good people, but simply have no idea what is happening in Kushinagar. The Maitreya Project literature is warm and fuzzy from start to finish. Most donors and devotees have been completely left in the dark about the controversy on the ground. And those few who have heard whispers about the controversy may find it easier to ignore them because the facts are so overwhelmingly ugly that they are almost hard to believe.
Some of the farmers think that the Maitreya Project doesn’t exist, but I know better. It’s a transnational phenomenon, with staff and resources continually moving, jet-setting — lots of flashy plans, good fund-raising videos, and optimistic press releases.
FPMT, the Maitreya Project’s umbrella organization, is a transnational phenomenon extraordinaire — a product of our quickly changing, globalizing world. Lama Yeshe was a Tibetan Buddhist monk living in exile in Nepal with his disciple, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, when they were approached by Westerners to begin teaching them. Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche were two of the first Tibetan Buddhists to begin passing on the tradition to Westerners, and now there are several dozen FPMT centers around the world. So many good-hearted people in these centers…
The Maitreya Project’s neglect of the locals is a tight slap in the face of their own good intentions, and I’m afraid it will come back to haunt them. Even if the land is cleared tomorrow with little or no bloodshed, how do you begin work surrounded on all sides by angry villagers whose land was taken away from them by force?
A Maitreya Project official once told me that the state government told them to keep clear of Kushinagar until the land had been emptied of local people, in part because it would be difficult to protect the officials from angry farmers. How could a Buddhist organization agree to such a deal? While there may be no “devil” in Buddhism, the devil, it seems, is still in the details. And one can still make a deal with him.
The Save the Land Association tells me they are in trouble. The end game is approaching. The bureaucrats’ paper pushing, and the legal work, is nearly done, the elections are over, and at some point soon the police will be sent in to take the land from these many thousands of people. On June 16, 2007, many of the farmers restarted a united multi-village hunger strike.
“After elections, no one comes here. No leader comes here,” says one of the striking farmers. “They forget us and their promises. Before elections they would come, and they would promise, ‘When I am elected, then I will defeat the Maitreya Project. The Maitreya Project will go away.’”
“Now the election is over, and they forget all these promises.”
Can you imagine? They are the poorest of the poor already, and many of them are wasting away on a hunger strike, because they are really that desperate. What’s worse — No one even seems to care.
So, where does this story end? Does it end with my disillusionment? Does it end with bad decisions, bad feelings, bad karma (theirs? mine?)…?
Will the Maitreya Project continue to deflect my questions and ignore my letters to them? And how many more Buddhist friends will I lose now that I am finally placing this critique into the public domain?
Will the story end when the Kushinagari villagers are finally divested of their lands and homes? Will it end with gunshots? Heavy-handed cops? Indian politicos’ photo ops?
Will it end with a groundbreaking? More hell raising? Merit making? Countless hearts aching?
Should I be more hopeful? Will this narrative itself have the strength to take on a life of its own — will some of my readers hold the Maitreya Project to a higher standard — will you call them, question them, and challenge them to build their symbol of loving kindness with more actual loving kindness? With a new commitment to mindfulness in practice, things could still turn around in Kushinagar, couldn’t they? Or will the Maitreya Project’s public relations magicians tell us again that all is going swimmingly, in a place so very far away that even they never go there to check for themselves?
One last question: If no one is there to hear it, does the noise of thousands of voices raised in protest still make a sound?
Jessica Falcone is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She is currently spending a year in India to conduct research for her dissertation on the changing dynamics of Buddhist pilgrimage in India. This is Jessica’s fourth trip to India.