Published in North & South
Wellington's Stokes Valley begins at a busy motorway and ends at a bush-covered ridge. The only sign there's anything up there besides the requisite possum horde and occasional pole house dweller is a white and gold spire rising 10 metres out of the trees. A string of fluttering prayer flags stretches from it to a hidden anchor point away from the possums' sharp teeth.
It's the yellow AA road sign - "Buddhist Monastery" - in a quiet cul-de-sac that directs seekers of truth and tranquillity up Rakau Grove to a giant wooden gate and behind it, Bodhinyanarama, the garden of enlightened knowing.
Beyond the gate is a scene of unexpected exertion and industry: two men - one shaven-headed and in saffron robes, the other in jeans, a T-shirt and gumboots - building a set of dirt-and-log stairs up a bush-covered hill. The monk, Sucinno, directs the visitor further up the hill to see the near-completed stupa, or reliquary. Numerous relics and treasures, gifted by Buddhist faithful, will be enshrined in the stupa to help the donors on their journey to enlightenment.
Donations to Bodhinyanarama are generous and by no means limited to special projects like the stupa. The monks are not allowed to cook food or to take anything which is not freely given; so in exchange for the laity's support in worldly things - clothing, shelter and food - the monks offer guidance along the path of the Buddha. It is part of the Buddha's design for an ideal society, with interdependence between laity and monks and nuns.
New Zealand's Buddhist community numbers nearly 30,000, and it is this web of support that keeps Bodhinyanarama's four monks and one postulant supplied with food, clothing and special projects manpower.
The monastery also hosts retreats and classes on meditation, Buddhism and other spiritual activities, paid for by donation to help cover the cost of lodging and food. Once a month, a monk travels to Auckland to meet people at the city's Buddhist centre. There is also a retreat centre on the Coromandel peninsula and other meditation centres throughout the country.
Anyone can park their preconceptions at the gate and hear the monks explain the principles of Buddhism - a religion "without a god" founded more than 2000 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) in northern India. In Thailand, where Sucinno was a monk for 14 years, his role seldom called for teaching Buddhist history and tenets. Here, he says, he spends much of his time explaining the Buddha's "four noble truths": all existence is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; freedom from suffering is nirvana; and the means of attaining nirvana is prescribed in the "eightfold path" that combines ethical conduct, mental discipline and wisdom.