Buddhists unveil plans during gratitude tea

Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society focusing on major organic farming developments

MONTAGUE — The growing Buddhist community unveiled plans for their future here over the weekend, which includes everything from major organic farm developments, increased monastic training and learning ways to keep cars from sliding off ice-covered roads.

The Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS) held a gratitude reception at its Montague academy where over 150 Islanders packed the hall to get the latest update about a religious community that has drawn both praise and raised concern among locals.

Since arriving almost four years ago and purchasing the old Lobster Shanty restaurant and pub, the Buddhist group has spread like wildfire. There are roughly 150 monks in rotating study and about 25 lay people to assist and administer the operations, and plans are afoot to sell P.E.I. produce abroad and even bring the Taiwanese symphony orchestra in for a performance.

They’ve built a monastery in Little Sands, paid a healthy sum to Aliant for high speed Internet to be connected (to the ire of residents who can’t access the service), and have purchased numerous older farms acquiring almost 1,000 acres of farmland in the southern Kings and Queens region.

For some residents, the spectre of change and the cultural differences have created both intrigue and suspicion; like lobster fishermen off Wood Islands who hear the gong ringing over the water at 4 a.m. when the monks rise for the day. But it was clear here Saturday that a majority welcomes the newcomers, who are largely from Taiwan.

“I think it’s great they’re here and I think they add to the community,” said well known businessman George Beck, who operates the Home Hardware in Montague and attended the afternoon session.

While society president Venerable Liu provided insights into the Buddhist goals, it was Venerable Frank who had the audience laughing with tales of cultural adjustments — especially newcomers coping with icy Island roads.

“Yes, we are working on our driving techniques,’’ he said.

“We are putting heavy emphasis on monks and volunteers. We want nice habit or right knowledge, not only to protect our lives, but your lives as well. And since we protect life, even raccoon’s life, we will drive more gently and politely.”

But cultural adjustments aside, it was made clear the Buddhist group is focusing on major organic farming developments that will see crops sold from Truro to Taiwan. Already the group is signing contracts with farmers to grow non-genetically modified soybeans for sales in Taiwan estimated at hundreds of thousands of tonnes.

“We are not here to take advantage of this Island, we are here to introduce some of our successful experiences and see if we can do some contributions,’’ said Venerable Frank. “The reason we are successful is because we have a group of people with the same idea and we work together so we have hope.”

In a video presentation, Venerable Liu said the world is becoming polluted, over populated, and facing global challenges like never before.

“We believe the world will face death by hunger, death by poison or death by war,’’ he said. “To resolve this, our Master says to promote organic farming. We must heal the mind and heal the land.”

Venerable Frank said monks don’t have money, but the society does because people who want to save the earth donate money and the Buddhist groups use it to buy and preserve agricultural land. The group now has about 1,000 acres of regional farmland here and is planning a Canada Week in Taiwan to feature organic products grown on P.E.I. in the future.

They plan to sign contracts with farmers in May or June to grow organic products that will be shipped to Taiwan in October for sale in the 86 chain stores they operate in the island nation of 23 million people.

“We want to promote organic farming for us to eat better and to sell our crops to those who will buy,’’ he said. “If we buy food with pesticides and chemical fertilizers we have chronic diseases and die early. When we use chemicals, what’s the result…. lots of cancer.”

The group espouses efforts to relieve poverty, preserve land, provide welfare and education programs, promote peace and diversity in all cultures and religions, and protect animals. All life is respected in Buddhist society and swatting mosquitoes is even taboo.

The group has already set up a small Dundas area holding with horses and cattle that will live out their natural lives untouched.

“Our intention through purchase and leasing land is to help out farmers willing to grow healthy crops organically,’’ said Geoff Yang, executive director. “We will do things that need to be done if others aren’t willing to do it, but if they are doing it, we will not infringe.”

P.E.I. businessman Joe Spriet, past chair of the 2009 Canada Games and long-time tobacco grower, attended the Buddhist tea and appreciated the similarities. He was one of a number of Belgian and Dutch background farmers who relocated from Ontario to grow tobacco in P.E.I. during the late 1960s. That commodity turned into a cash cow for at least 20 years before fizzling out in 1990.

“I think these people are on the right track,’’ he told The Guardian. “It’s a lot more expensive to grow organic food, but if they can identify markets for such produce and make the sales, I think it’s great.”

Fresh market farmer Rose Viaene from Belfast told the crowd her Riverview Market in Charlottetown suffered financial loss last year from the construction of two roundabouts built on Riverside Drive.

“We couldn’t sell our vegetables because no one could get to the store anymore,’’ she said.

“But a monk came to the store and we told him our plight and two weeks later they came to our farm and bought everything. It was because of them we were able to go on this year.”

Viaene encouraged Islanders to get to know the Buddhist newcomers and welcome their arrival.

“These people are here out of the kindness of their hearts and for all beings regardless whether raccoons or mosquitoes,” she joked with the crowd. “And yes, I don’t swat them anymore…I only blow at them now.”

Courtesy of The Guardian. Steve Sharratt. Published on January 16, 2012