Land of Beautiful Vision

Have you ever wondered how those tribes in the Amazon feel about being studied by anthropologists? I gained some insight into what it must be like while reading Sally McAra’s new book, as I took part in many of the events that form the basis of her study, and was one of her informants as well. For those unfamiliar with contemporary anthropology McAra’s open discussion of her involvement in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) Sangha and their stupa building project, as well as her personal exploration of Buddhism as a spiritual path may come as a surprise. The book emerged out of her involvement rather than the other way around. Sally says “even after deciding to undertake this research in 1999, I attended retreats and talks more as a participant than observer” (p.9). While it is underpinned by reference to anthropological theory throughout, there are also her subjective observations and personal responses to what she was observing. In the same way I find myself torn between adopting the usual impersonal academic tone by referring to my friend as “McAra” or “the author”, when we have been friends for many years and the subject matter itself is intensely personal for me. In the spirit of Sally’s openness I must confess before proceeding that I have no background in Anthropology and cannot begin to critique this book on the terms on which it was written – it began life as a master degree thesis in Anthropology.

The FWBO have been active in New Zealand since 1971. The dream of owning a bit of land and going there for holidays is part of the New Zealand way of life. The land that became known as Sudarshanaloka – the Land of Beautiful Visions – was bought in 1993 by the FWBO with the intention of creating a place of retreat. The original idea had been to build a large retreat facility but soon the focus changed and what got built was a 7m tall stupa. The fundamental question that Sally addresses is ‘what did a group of descendants of British settlers think they were accomplishing by building a huge white concrete monument in the “clean green” bush in New Zealand in the late 1990’s.’ The book is structured around the idea of a “conjuncture” in which various somewhat disparate factors come together to create a crisis that is resolved by a re-visioning of the situation in positive terms. The stupa emerges out of this re-visioning and becomes a symbol of it.

Although the situation seems simple at first – or did at least to those of us participating in the project – Sally reveals it as nuanced and complex. Hidden players come into the light, such as the indigenous people of New Zealand who were the original guardians of this land. Now dispossessed their presence is only felt when they object during the process to get planning permission to build the stupa. The land itself is a player, as is the environment – elemental forces make themselves known through felt ‘presences’, cataclysmic weather events, and landslides (not mentioned in the book). The people involved in Sudarshanaloka take an animistic view of the land and its features particularly the pūriri tree. This return to “pagan” roots, real or imagined, is self-conscious and, to some extent, at odds with FWBO narrative of rejecting the “cultural baggage” of Asian Buddhism. Aspects of “indigenizing settler narratives” also suggest themselves to Sally:

In the narratives about Sudarshanaloka I also hear an anxious wish to belong to this land. In this context, through their creative interactions with the place, the human actors reinvent themselves with discourses of ‘indigenizing Pākehā Buddhism’ (p.78-9)

McAra highlights the poignancy of the descendants of colonists struggling for a sense of identity and belonging – something I feel very keenly. I am quoted in the book as saying that living in England I am a foreigner, despite having English ancestry. But I am not an indigenous person in New Zealand either, and have often been in literal conflict with the Māori who are. Convert Buddhists, such as we are, bring another foreign element into the mix – an Asian religion and culture foreign to our peers. To some extent Buddhism provides a sense of identity and a lineage in which we can be rooted. However as Sally reminds us the FWBO is a radical Buddhist movement, which sees itself as the beginnings of an alternative “new society”. There is tension here between the narratives of place and the narratives of separateness, and these find some resolution for the informants in the creation of a “spiritual home” at Sudarshanaloka.

The story is largely told in the voices of three people: Diane Quinn (now ordained as Prajñalila), Taranatha, and Satyananda. These three were trustees of the trust that owned the land, and Satyananda lived in the old farmhouse on the land. They were chosen as the main characters because their “accounts provide the most telling insight into how personal engagement with the land became an essential part of the story of transforming self and place“ (p.12). Sally often chips in with her own reactions to what is being said, or with comments on her interpretations of event, which helps to make us aware of her presence as anthropologist, as a special kind of observer, not wholly caught up in the process as her main informants generally are. While the main informants seem to offer an internally coherent story about the project and its aims, less central informants, such as myself, are more likely to be sceptical about the unfolding narrative when they come into it.

Within the overall metaphor of the conjuncture Sally examines the role of three symbols which index the various ideas and myths which go to creating the sense of place and purpose at Sudarshanaloka. The stupa itself, an old pūriri tree, and the charred remains of a once great kauri tree.

Initially it is the pūriri tree that is the focus of the group’s attentions in creating a sense of a sacred place. A Buddhist shrine is installed under it, claiming the land for the Buddha so to speak. This creates a tension that is narrated as a sense of unquiet or a felt presence that is somewhat hostile, though not perhaps malevolent. Along with the death of Denis – an important early team member – this tension creates the conjunction, the subsequent re-envisioning of the land, and our relationship with the land. The Buddha figure is removed and placed in the stupa, while a “pagan” shrine is left in its place.

The old kauri log is initially given an air of taboo. I would have sawn it up and sold the valuable wood, but order members encouraged me to think of the stump more symbolically. The log represented the past, rather rapacious, attitude to the land that has been exploited for gold, timber, and then farmed. By preserving the stump a symbol was created to express the desire to relate more sensitively to the land. Ironically in revisiting the land in 2003 Sally is surprised, as I was, to find the story about it has shifted. The log had in fact been sawn up into timber, some of which was turned into bowls and sold.

The stupa of course is at the heart of this story. Seventeen tons of concrete, startling white against the dull green of the New Zealand bush around it, or the blue sky above, who would have thought of making something so useless in pragmatic New Zealand? The decision to build a stupa instead of a more utilitarian structure – such as a retreat hut, or the planned retreat centre – is the more important aspect of this story. Sally dwells on the significance of the stupa as a Buddhist symbol, but also on the identity of the stupa with the relics of the person interred within it. In this case the stupa houses some of the remains of Dhardo Rinpoche, one of the teachers of the Sangharakshita, the founder of the FWBO. Traditionally the stupa invokes the presence of the Buddha or some important Buddhist saint, a very important aspect of Buddhist practice across most traditions. For many FWBO Buddhists the stupa is Dhardo Rinpoche. However as Sally brings out, the stupa is also a symbol of occupation, a proclamation of the FWBO presence at Sudarshanaloka.

The over-all approach of the FWBO at Sudarshanaloka can be characterised as bricolage – a term that has negative connotations in some contexts but which is not intended as pejorative. It refers to a quality of eclecticism in the approach which draws on Buddhist mythology and custom, Jungian psychological discourse, Neo-pagan narratives, and even traditional Māori myth and custom. The Buddha did say that whatever conduces to liberation is the Dharma, and it seems that the FWBO have interpreted this very liberally.

Sally nicely balances her various roles as participant, observer and commentator. The use of jargon is comparatively light and it is always well explained so that the book is perfectly comprehensible without a degree in Anthropology, though the primary audience is undoubtedly academic. Despite the thread of critique that runs through the book it is obvious that Sally has many sympathies with the FWBO in New Zealand, and with what was being attempted at Sudarshanaloka. At the time I was not aware of Sally as a special observer. As she notes in the book however, many people who attended the stupa consecration ceremony were standing back taking photos rather than being wholly “in” the ritual, as though they were documenting it. So perhaps an Anthropologist would not have stood out. Reading Sally’s account was a powerful evocation of the times, and of my own involvement in Sudarshanaloka. I found Sally’s commentary caused me to reconsider some aspects of the story. I suspect I rather naively took on many of the attitude of those in the lead without much critique. I have never known what to make of talk of “spirits” residing in trees for instance. It is a common enough belief in rural India, even today, but does it have relevance in 21st Century New Zealand? The three main informants for the book present a remarkably coherent and internally consistent story about what was going on. To the extent that I did not accept such stories, I was an outsider also, but was attracted by the idea of a “special” place. It made me aware of the tension that I often feel as a Buddhist between the superstitious elements of the religion and my education in the sciences.

There are one or two subtle points that are missed by McAra’s account. For instance it is clear to me, having recently been through the same process, that Taranatha is strongly influenced by the rituals created for the men’s ordination retreats at the Guhyaloka Retreat Centre in Spain – also an isolated valley, and also the site of a stupa containing some of Dhardo Rinpoche’s relics. It might have been interesting to explore the parallels between the valley where Taranatha was ordained and where he was making his spiritual home.

This is a valuable book. It is beautifully presented in hardback on acid-free paper. Photographs in the text have reproduced well. It is a public and authoritative account of the project that absorbed so much time, energy and resources for the New Zealand FWBO Sangha. It also gives us a different view of ourselves – not entirely outside, but definitely reflective and seeking to make sense of observations in the broad context of anthropology and it’s theories. By referring to these academic norms it will allow others to appreciate more fully the New Zealand situation, and the difficulties faced by settler communities. Despite the evidently unequal power relationships with indigenous people, we settlers do not feel very settled as yet. We are left with a powerful longing for belonging.

Sally McAra
Land of beautiful vision : making a Buddhist sacred place in New Zealand.
Honolulu : University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.
(Topics in Contemporary Buddhism Series)
ISBN-13 978-0-8248-2996-4
ISBN-10 0-8248-2996-4
UK £27.50 (Amazon); USA $45.00 (Amazon)