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Biggs, Buddhists, Brisbane

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By Andrew Biggs

There’s nothing like a challenge from a cynical sibling to plunge yourself into a new adventure.

Greetings from sunny Brisbane, capital city of Queensland, Australia, and hometown of your favorite columnist. I have been here for a week; a quick family visit that coincided with Khao Pansa, the beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent.

It’s also a time when often the most hopeless of alcoholics stops drinking for a whole quarter of a year.

One of my Thai friends is such a person, whose breakfast consists of a cigarette and a shot of rice whiskey. Come to think of it, it’s also his lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late-night snack.

Well, come Khao Pansa he just stops and the transformation is remarkable. His gray hair turns black, his wrinkled face loses a good 10 years, and he is lucid in his conversation. Three months later he’s back to being a drunk, which means technically he is not only a functioning alcoholic, but a part-time one as well.

It was last Saturday, the eve of Khao Pansa, as I sat enjoying my second or perhaps third Bundaberg Rum and Coke at a trendy bar overlooking the Brisbane River, that I started to regale family members of the traditions of Buddhist Lent. It was during my anecdote about Thais going dry that a cynical sibling of mine asked how I would be celebrating the Buddhist tradition. Would I, too, be venturing into the stark reality of three-month teetotal-dom?

“Certainly not,” I exclaimed. “I’ll be going to a temple.”

“What … here in Brisbane?” my cynical sibling asked with an Australian guffaw — the worst kind.

It never occurred to me that my hometown might actually have a Buddhist temple or two. A few phone calls later and I was buzzing with excitement, nothing to do with that Bundaberg Rum either.

There is a thriving Buddhist community in Brisbane. Not only that — there’s a temple a mere 15-minute drive from my birthplace!

This would have been unheard of in my childhood. I grew up in Sunnybank, and yes, the community was as Twin Peaks as its name implies. It was completely Caucasian, an offshoot of the White Australia policy that controlled, or rather strangled, Australian immigration for decades right up until the 1970s.

When I was growing up Sunnybank had one Chinese family. Skip 40 years into the future and Sunnybank is the Asian hub of Brisbane.

It is a vibrant, culturally diverse, exciting part of town. Every race and color is represented, and best of all, by the second generation they greet you with “g’day”, shout “strewth!” when they’re surprised, and follow Australia’s national religion — the Holy Order of Australian Rules.

It is here in the southern suburbs of Brisbane where the newest Thai temple in the country is being constructed.

Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia. In the last 20 years it has seen an 80 per cent growth in followers with just over half a million Australians claiming to be Buddhist, or about 2.5 per cent of the population.

The first Thai temple in Brisbane was on the second floor of a shophouse. It progressed to a home and then a temple, but had to be knocked down when the land was repossessed to build a motorway. In 1995 they purchased 10 acres of a former stud farm in bushland not far from my old stomping ground.

They named it Wat Thai Buddharam. To get there, you drive through semi-rural roads past the warehouses of supermarket chain Woolies. At a T-junction there is the sign, both in English and in Thai. I admit I got a warm feeling seeing Thai script in the Brisbane boondocks.

But the place is not exactly your cookie-cutter Thai temple. The first thing that strikes you is — where are all the trimmings? The yellow-and-brown building almost resembles a Christian church without the cross. It’s not ugly, but there are no ornamental roof tiers; no gables; no bejeweled snakes, giants, Garudas or swans; no dangly golden bits that tinkle in the southerly winds.

What happened?

“The local community,” says the abbot, “wasn’t exactly happy with us setting up here.”

Cholatish Chanhorm, 47, is a Thai monk who has spent the last 18 years in Brisbane. Now a naturalized Australian, he speaks as diplomatically as possible when asked about the early opposition.

“Locals objected to the original architectural plans,” Abbot Cholatish explained. “They said the character of the area would be eroded by building a temple.”

One wonders how exactly the character of industrial bushland could be eroded by a beautiful Thai temple, but do not be too harsh on the locals. They know not what they do.

This area is not that far away from Pauline Hanson’s base. Back then the locals were probably very well-meaning but maybe not possessing a world view. Just this week while I was here, there was a protest not far from the temple over the relocation of a bank branch, requiring locals to use internet banking services instead. “Many of us here don’t know how to use the internet,” one lady with short cropped hair in a sunfrock told news cameras: “I mean, I know how to read my emails, but I gotta get someone to show me how to reply!”

The issue went before the Planning and Environment court in 2003. “It was the old attitude of – you’re in Australia now. Act like an Australian!” said one Australian temple official. “the plans were un-Thaied.”

It has taken almost two decades but the temple, and its four monks, and the Thai followers, have won the hearts of the locals. We are often frightened of what we do not understand, while at the same time, thankfully, the Australian character diversified to embrace foreign things like Thai temples.

There are now plans to build a very ornate ubosoth or ordination hall on the grounds in a deep bronze color. It is modernistic Thai temple in design and quite stunning — best of all, the plans have been passed with the support of the local community. They even blend in to the rustic surroundings! That gives me another warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

“We get on well with the local community now,” the abbot says. Then after a pause: “Well, there’s still one woman who perhaps opposes it, but as for the rest …”

Sunday morning at Wat Thai Buddharam was a wonderful experience. A large proportion of Brisbane’s 5,000-plus Thai community came out to celebrate Khao Pansa. I took my mother and siblings along, including the cynical one.

The majority of that Thai community are women. “They either own Thai restaurants or work in them,” explained one member. Indeed, on Khao Pansa day, there was a clear shortage of men to haul the giant candles used in the ceremony.

But how nice to see a community of Thais, and their Australian spouses, engaging on this happy occasion.As for the new ordination hall, it will be completed some time in the next five years. It costs 5 million Australian dollars to build, of which the temple has raised around 10 per cent. “Any donations are very welcome,” says the abbot in what must have been the understatement of the morning.

I wish them luck in their endeavors. I left the temple happy knowing that Buddhism has spread its saffron robes even to the outer suburbs of Brisbane, encompassing as well as fitting into the local community.

And incredibly, one week later, I have not had a single alcoholic drink. Who knows if I’ll last the full three months. Whatever you do, just don’t tell my siblings. They’ll just get all cynical on me.




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