It’s a little known fact that a unique, world-first Buddhist village is under construction just outside Bendigo.
On the site of the old Sandhurst Town tourist attraction in Myers Flat a long term vision is slowly taking shape.
Many would know of the Atisha Centre, a place of Buddhist teaching, which has existed for three decades and the monastery which was built 10 years ago.
Others may be familiar with the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion, a colossal, white monument which began construction in 2003.
But very few would know that plans for the 210-acre site also include 60 houses, an aged care facility, a primary school, hotel, park, restaurant, museum, solar farm and community vegetable garden.
In the words of site owner and devoted Buddhist Ian Green, it will be a “little Buddha city” and a project of this scale has not been done anywhere else in the world.
How did such a project come to be here?
Australia, not to mention Bendigo, is hardly the geographical or spiritual centre of Buddhism.
Ian Green and his wife are Buddhists and they moved to Bendigo in 1981.
The Greens owned and ran Sandhurst Town but progressively donated more land for the development of a Buddhist community.
Shortly after the establishment of the Atisha Centre a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Lama Yeshe, visited and had a vision of a Buddhist community that catered for people’s spiritual, educational and social needs.
Lama Yeshe visualised the whole concept – a monastery, the Great Stupa, aged care facility and everything else.
He drew a picture of the Great Stupa in the sand and entrusted his vision to Ian Green, who promised he would bring it to fruition.
Mr Green did not realise he would still be working on it 34 years later.
The centrepiece of the vision is the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion.
The building is quite a sight to behold – a shining white East Asian structure so at odds with what one would expect to find down a dusty track in the Australian bush.
Known as a ‘pagoda’ in East Asian countries - a stupa is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of monks, and is used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.
The Great Stupa’s exterior is about three years away from completion but the interior will take much longer because there are 80 shrine rooms, a library, statues and frescos to be built.
Mr Green does not believe he will see the Stupa completed in his lifetime.
Its construction has cost $10 million so far and another $10 million is needed.
You just can’t imagine the numbers of people that will come to (Bendigo) as a Buddhist pilgrimage place.
This is where another incredible project comes in: the Jade Buddha statue.
The statue supplies about 50 per cent of the money needed to pay for the Stupa's construction, while the other 50 per cent comes from tourism at the Great Stupa.
In the early 2000s Mr Green purchased a large boulder of jade stone from Canada and had it shipped to Thailand where it was carved into a likeness of the Buddha.
In 2009 the statue began a world tour, showing in Buddhist temples, museums, stadiums and shopping centres.
Visitors are not charged money to see the statue so revenue is raised through donations and the sale of jade jewellery made from off-cuts of the original jade boulder.
So far the statue has been to Vietnam, Australia, USA, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, Switzerland, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore and Malaysia.
It is now back in the USA until mid-2016, then it will go to South Korea. It will tour for another five years, at least, before it reaches its final destination inside the Great Stupa.
Not only is the international tour an effective revenue raising exercise but it is also establishing Bendigo as a serious Buddhist attraction.
Mr Green estimates that eight million people have seen the Jade Buddha.
“And most of those people who go to see it know, or we tell them, the Jade Buddha will eventually end up inside the Great Stupa in Bendigo,” he said. “Of course they’ve never heard of Bendigo, so I say ‘near Melbourne’, and they all say, ‘when the Jade Buddha comes back to Bendigo, I’m coming to see it’.
“Now even if only half, or 10 per cent of these people come, you just can’t imagine the numbers of people that will come to (Bendigo) as a Buddhist pilgrimage place.”
So, while local residents may perceive their city is best known to outsiders for its gold rush past, art or good food and wine, a very different reputation is gaining momentum.
Work has not yet started on the "little Buddha city" but a model of the future site is on display at the visitor centre.
Construction of the residential area, or the ‘Lama Yeshe Village’, will start this year and there is already a waiting list of 30 people who are keen to move in.
The new dwellings are attracting a variety of buyers from retirees to young families.
Environmental sustainability is a key feature of the new homes, which will be built in terrace style in blocks of six to improve insulation quality. They will have solar panels and double glazed windows.
Those who move into the Buddha city will not own the land, just the house.
“That way we will retain forever some sort of control over who lives here,” Mr Green said. “The idea is that we want people to be in accord with the Buddhist values. At the end of their life, ownership reverts back to the Stupa with the proceeds going to the person’s estate.
“As much as possible we want this place to be an example that others might follow in developing sustainable communities. We don’t want people locked up behind high walls either, we want them in a pedestrian friendly environment. We want them relating to each other.”
Despite the Buddhist focus, marketing manager Dee Nissanke says the community will welcome anyone.
“We are not saying it’s just for one community or one group, this place is open for everyone,” Mr Nissanke said.