This May will mark the tenth anniversary of a pilgrimage made by Ven. Shengguang Shi, a Buddhist monk, from the Cham Shan Buddhist Temple in Thornhill to a site just outside of Peterborough. The 135-kilometre pilgrimage took 181 days; the monk stopped every three steps to kneel and bow, touching his forehead to the earth.
Shengguang Shi’s destination on that pilgrimage was a site near Bethany where his community had begun an ambitious project, the Wutai Shan Buddhist Garden. It was a hopeful pilgrimage; the monk prayed for the early completion of the Garden as he walked.
Now, ten years later, the foundation of the Wutai Shan Temple has been laid, and the surrounding gardens are beginning to take shape. If the project is completed as the Cham Shan community is envisioning it, the Wutai Shan Buddhist Garden will be one of four similar sites in the countryside west of Peterborough, all connected by pilgrimage paths. Together, they will form the largest Buddhist centre outside of China, a complex of temples, gardens, statues, ponds, and pilgrimage paths covering 1,300 acres.
Ven. Dayi Shi, the current Abbot of Cham Shan Temple, says that the project “will become a historical milestone in the growth of Buddhism in North America.”
The Cham Shan Temple is one of the oldest Buddhist organizations in Canada. It was founded in 1973, not long after the 1967 immigration reforms that made it easier for people from Asia, and as a result Buddhists, to come to Canada. Now, the Temple is a place of worship for thousands of Buddhists in and around Toronto, most of them of Chinese descent, and it serves as a Chinese cultural centre as well. Dayi Shi describes it as a “sanctuary,” where Toronto’s Chinese-Canadian community has been able to learn and practice Buddhism.
Even at the time of Cham Shan’s founding in the 70s, its leaders envisioned something like the Wutai Shan Buddhist Garden, a pilgrimage site and retreat centre located outside of Toronto. The site west of Peterborough was chosen when a monk happened upon it, saw that it was for sale, and perceived it as sacred. The Cham Shan community began purchasing the land, which stretches across Cavan Monaghan and Manvers Townships, in 1990.
The project is being funded by donations and private fundraising. It’s expected to cost at least $80 million, and take at least another two decades to complete. But the first of the four temples, Wutai Shan, may be complete in a matter of years.
Dayi Shi says that when the temple is completed it will provide an opportunity for multicultural exchange and the promotion of Chinese culture. He also says it will be “a beautiful haven where Buddhism can freely flourish for the public to embrace and for each visitor to find their own path to enlightenment.”
A few hundred Buddhists live in Peterborough, though none responded to requests for interviews. Some local followers may find the temples provide a new way of locating their practice geographically; others may continue on as before. Buddhism is, after all, a diverse religion in itself.
But for non-Buddhists, Dayi Shi emphasizes that the temple complex will not only serve as a place of worship. He expects people will visit for sightseeing, recreation, and study as well. In total, the Buddhist group estimates 45,000 people will visit annually. If that number is realized, it would likely result in a significant economic boost to the region.
Residents of Peterborough, meanwhile, seem almost unaware that a Buddhist group from Toronto wants to build a sprawling temple complex 20 minutes outside of town, and make it into an internationally significant pilgrimage site. In a city that is searching for ways to put itself on the map, to attract tourist dollars, and to reinvent its image, it’s curious that the temple doesn’t feature more in our discussions about Peterborough’s future.
But whether Peterborough acknowledges it or not, the temple is taking shape. As you drive west out of town along Parkhill Road, you enter a hilly country, and the views quickly become sweeping and beautiful. As you come over the last hill before reaching Ski Hill Road, you catch sight of a huge Buddhist statue, sparkling gold amid the landscape, the first sign that something new is coming to the region.
Photos by Will Pearson.