The golden mielie fields of Bronkhorstspruit, 40km east of Pretoria, are a rather unexpected setting for a Buddhist Temple. This might explain why certain visitors have been attracted to the ornate Nan Hua Temple thinking it is a casino.
Mail & Guardian – 12 April 2002 – Situated on 15-hectares of land donated to the Taiwanese Fo Guang Shan (Pure Land) Buddhist Order by the Bronkhorstspruit City Council in 1992, the temple is the first and only Buddhist seminary in Africa.
Perhaps the most unexpected surprise for any visitor is the sight of the seminary’s novices. Drawn from countries as distant as Brazil, Congo, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, these bald-headed initiates have all come here to study the Buddhist way of life.
Yet it is not singularly Buddhist history and conduct that is the lure for many of these young men. For Krugersdorp-born Andreas Morwe, the seminary initially offered to cater to his childhood interest in the martial arts. As the 23-year-old, however, freely admits, his studies soon opened him up to new insights. “Buddhism is about love and compassion. Once you realise this, you don’t need the things offered by the martial arts.“
“I came here because I wanted to know about Chinese culture and language,” says Hobi Ramenanaliga. Born in Antananarivo, Madagascar, the young novice gets to study Mandarin everyday. Other subjects that underpin his intensive three-year monastic orientation include chanting, meditation, sutra, computer studies, physical education and English.
“It’s very hard,” admits Ramenanaliga. He is not simply referring to the monastic routine either. “Most of my family don’t accept me being here,” he says. “My mother’s side of the family is Catholic, my father’s side Protestant.“
Although novices are free to contact their distant families by letter or telephone, beginners may not return home during their three-year training period.
According to 24-year-old Ramadan Hammed, from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, teachers actively discourage contact with families. Purifying the mind through Buddhist practice is a fundamental precept on which their training is based, and is viewed as a way of preparing novices to become committed teachers of Dharma (universal truth) on the African continent.
“People don’t break down so much as they want to break out,” said one third-year novice. Having started out in a class larger than twenty, he is now one of four novices left from his year. Filial duties are one of the chief reasons novices leave, the young men often summoned home to take on the onerous duty of being breadwinner to a large family.
Yet it is not simply family commitment that prompts novices to voluntarily leave. The memory of a past life, girlfriends, drinking; many find it hard to promise themselves never to indulge in these activities once they have entered the seminary.
It is a requirement that all novices renounce their old sense-desire-based lifestyles, this renunciation symbolically re-enacted in the annual Head Shaving Ceremony. Held every April, the ceremony marks the moment first-year novices relinquish all attachments to a material world. For many it is a sizeable leap of faith, for example, Tanzanian-born Martinique Bendera effectively turning his back on a potentially lucrative career as an electrical engineer.
For the promising novice, however, there is the reward of a further four years study at one of 16 Fo Kuan Shang Buddhist colleges in Taiwan. Established by the Venerable Master Hsing Yun, Pure Land Buddhism is based in Taiwan. It is noted for its active missionary spirit and emphasis on education. Its Taiwanese educational colleges aside, the order has also established the Hsi Lai University in Los Angeles.
The Nan Hua Temple represents part of an ambitious new initiative in Africa. While largely funded by the Fo Guang Shan Order, the Bronkhorstspruit temple has also benefited from contributions made by some of South Africa’s 14000 resident Taiwanese immigrants.
Contemporary Buddhism’s marked presence in South Africa reflects greatly on the initiatives of the Asian diaspora currently in the country. Alongside the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, other African Buddhist groupings include Therav‚da (Burmese and Vipassana), Zen (the Kwan Um school), Nichiren (especially Soka Gakkai in Ghana) as well as Tibetan groupings (Kagyupa and Gelugpa).
Despite its marginalised status in South Africa, Buddhism does claim a surprisingly long history. The first known Buddhists in this country were three Thai bhikkhus shipwrecked in Cape Town in 1686. The arrival of Hindus in KwaZulu-Natal early in the last century also saw conversions to Buddhism in the 1920s and 1930s.
Unlike South Africa’s Burmese community, largely immigrant doctors who helped establish a Buddhist temple in KwaZulu-Natal, the Fo Guang Shan’s plans are markedly more ambitious. The Nan Hua Temple is a multi-million rand project. The first temple building, completed in 1996, cost R60-million and currently serves as a museum, temple and administration office.
The main temple, which will only be complete in 2003, is being constructed at a cost of about R150-million, and will allegedly be the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere.
Asked whether this new wave of missionary zeal does not unsettle him, especially given the sad history of religious colonisation in Africa, novice Andreas Morwe came back with an interesting reply. “My feeling is that Buddhism is taking us back to being an African. If you go back three centuries, you will find that we once ate natural food and led a simple life in Africa. But because of Westernisation, or globalisation, we got mixed up. This is a return to that simple life.“