It would be difficult to guess that the small office of Maitreya Project International (彌勒大佛工程台灣辦事處), hidden away in the warren of alleys off Nanking East Road Section 4, was an important cog in an international project to build the biggest Buddha statue in the world. Their presence is unremarkable, but their ambition, to erect a statue that will stand 152.4m tall in the town of Bodhgaya, India, is enormous.
Taiwan's participation in the project goes far beyond the country's small size and isolation, being the source of over one third of the funding.
"The largest supply of funds comes from the US," said Peter Kedge, the director of the project, "but Taiwan's contribution has been over 30 percent."
"The very idea to make the image so big came from an architect in Taiwan," Kedge said, adding that they settled on the round number of 500 feet (152.4m) during a visit by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche to Taiwan five years ago.
Lama Zopa is the spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a leading sponsor of the Maitreya Project. Since that visit, many Taiwanese have donated money and time to the project. Kedge said Taiwan had played an important role in sustaining Buddhism, in large part because of its considerable financial resources. "From my observation, when Taiwanese make a commitment, they make it with directness."
While declining to name any names, Kedge said that much of the support came from individuals rather than institutions. According to Monica Choying, at an event last November during a visit by Lama Osel, who is believed to be the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, the initiator of the Maitreya Project, the organizers raised US$100,000 in a single evening.
Kedge, an engineer who has worked extensively in the UK and Hong Kong, is one of a growing number of Western Buddhists active around the world in the name of the religion. "Thirty years ago, when I first became interested in Buddhism, you could find perhaps five or six English books on the subject [in bookstores in Nepal]. Now there are thousands of titles available," Kedge said.
He said no definitive figures were available on the number of converts to Buddhism, but pointed to the huge increase in publications as proof at least of growing interest.
For this reason, the Maitreya Project has been careful to avoid associations with any one country or sect within Buddhism. While the inspiration for the project came from Lama Thubten Yehshe, the statue that he proposed is intended to express the qualities of the Maitreya Buddha -- compassion and living kindness -- for people of all sects. Kedge pointed out that, probably for the first time in such a project, much of the artistic work will be carried out by people not of Asian decent. "I am glad we chose British contemporary religious artists," Kedge said, adding that the Buddha would adhere to the traditional proportions, but would not be clearly recognizable as belonging to any specific regional style. The prototype is the creation of Denise Griffin, who began work on the figure in Taiwan in 1997.
Despite the use of high technology in many aspects of the project, the construction of such a massive religious image seems to harken back to an earlier age. Kedge agrees. "In ancient times, the skyline was dominated by monuments to religion, but now the essential human qualities that they represented are being overshadowed by the demands of an urban, industrialized lifestyle."