Saffron robes, dragons, and tai chi at home in Africa

Rising from the cornfields and pasture lands that stretch out to the horizon here is a complex of buildings as out of place as a lotus blooming in the desert.

Six spires, topped with bells, jingle with each shift of the wind. Green- and gold-colored ceramic roof tiles with dragon motifs glint in the harsh midday sun. Inside the main building, about two dozen young African men from villages in the Congo, Tanzania, and South Africa, learn Chinese, martial arts, and Buddhist principles.

This, the first and only Buddhist monastery in Africa, is both a monument to the success and impact of immigrant communities in this "rainbow nation," and a sign that the ambitious plans of a number of Buddhist sects to spread their teachings to Africans could be realized in this lifetime.

"We want Buddhism to be as popular here as it is in China," says May Chick, a staff member at the Nan Hua Buddhist Temple and Monastery. "Buddhism took 600 years to take hold in China," she says. "If it takes 1,000 years to take root in Africa, that's okay. Time is not important."

Neither, apparently, is expense.

The first building, a very large guesthouse that serves now as a museum, temple, staff quarters, and offices, was completed - at a cost of $6 million - in 1996. The main temple, a sprawling structure bigger than a football stadium, will cost more than $15 million. It is scheduled for completion by 2003.

In addition, the 20-acre compound includes 50 small cottages for elderly believers, an orphanage, and a dormitory for the monks. Funding came from Zen Buddhist temples in Taiwan and some of South Africa's 14,000 resident Taiwanese immigrants. Once this complex is complete, there are plans for a second monastery in Central Africa.

And so saffron-robbed Buddhist monks embark on the same fertile ground worn for over a century by Protestant and Catholic missionaries, Muslim believers, and more recently, by young Mormon missionaries.

To garner attention to a faith most Africans have never heard of, the Nan Hua Temple sponsors community events and charity work. Temple members counsel prisoners and once each month deliver packages of food and clothing to the needy. The scale and design of the monastery ensures steady foot traffic of curious neighbors; a few hundred wide-eyed tourists visit the temple each week.

Paid advertisements in papers throughout Africa attract potential monks. The method and message may be unconventional, but the response has been overwhelming. The temple receives about 600 applications for each of its ads-many from people who had previously never even heard of Buddhism.

Sitting cross-legged in an ornately carved Chinese-style chair, rubbing his shaved head, Symon Masauko recounts why he responded to one such advertisement in August 1999. He had just failed Malawi's college entrance exam. He says he was trying to figure out what he would do with his life. But, he adds with a mischievous smile, to his parents and casual observers it looked more like he was trying to waste his life. Drinking, smoking, and partying took up much of his time.

A trip to the local library piqued his interest in Buddhism. And a lecture from his father about discipline convinced him to give monastic life a try.

Now, about 1,000 miles from his homeland, Mr. Masauko is up at 5:30 a.m. each day, and leads a "clean life" (no meat, no alcohol, no smoking, no women, and no television besides CNN and the Discovery Channel). He hopes to finish his three-year stint as a novice, then go to Taiwan for further training.

Buddhism first arrived in South Africa with slaves and indentured servants from India at the turn of the century. These laborers in the coastal sugar-cane fields never acquired the means to either build a temple for their own worship or to proselytize effectively. Eventually most converted to other faiths.

Today's more educated and financially successful Buddhist immigrants funnel some of their gains into this increasingly high-profile effort to spread Buddhism to black and white Africans.

South Africa's Burmese immigrant community, about 100 doctors who fled instability in their homeland with their families in 1988, has established a Buddhist temple - a modest ranch home on an acre in KwaZulu Natal Province.

"We're not Taiwanese businessmen," says Maw Naing Oo. "We can't afford big temples. But we do as much as we can."

They have one resident monk - imported from Burma (now called Myanmar). Since its opening in 1997, three South Africans and one Rwandan have attended intensive Buddhist classes there along with dozens of Burmese immigrants. A few have gone on to become monks.

South African Lesiba Mothoa, who once planned a career in politics and law and is now a novice at the Nan Hua Temple, says that Africa is ripe for Buddhism.

"There is chaos," says Mr. Mothoa. "There is hatred. But there is also hope here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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