In regional Victoria, work is under way on a ‘wonder of the Buddhist world’

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Key points

  • Work is underway in Bendigo on a “wonder of the Buddhist world”. 
  • The ceiling painting will measure 20 metres by 20 metres. 
  • The mandala is due for completion in 2025. 

When Guy Lawson gets to work, time just melts away – and that is precisely the point.

Lawson is leading a group of painters and volunteers who are creating a vast painting they hope will be among the biggest and most important contributions to Buddhist art in the modern world.

Guy Lawson at work on the Kalachakra Mandala in Bendigo. Credit: Joe Armao

About five days a week, they labour inside the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion, an enormous Buddhist temple adorned with Tibetan iconography on the outskirts of Bendigo.

Lawson’s team is working on a Tibetan-style Kalachakra Mandala, an artistic representation of the universe with geometric designs and striking colours. Mandalas are often used by Buddhist monks as tools for meditation.

Once complete, the artwork will measure 20 metres by 20 metres. It will be fixed to the ceiling of the temple, where thousands of people come to pray before the towering Buddhist statues, some of which are still under construction, every year.

Lawson said the work was time-consuming but ultimately meditative and rewarding.

The design for the Kalachakra Mandala that will be fixed to the ceiling in Bendigo’s Great Stupa of Universal Compassion. Credit: Joe Armao

“It frees the mind,” he said. “Time vanishes. You just get absolutely transfixed by the whole process.”

Lawson, who is the stupa’s resident painter and lives onsite, said mandalas were typically about one square metre. But this work will consist of 100 individually painted panels in total.

About 25 volunteers were helping to paint the mandala, but not all of them were Buddhists, he said.

“We have people who just love the place and love art. They just want to contribute.”

Great Stupa of Universal Compassion chairman Ian Green, who has visited many Buddhist sites around the world, said this Kalachakra Mandala would be the biggest he had heard of by a long way.

“It will be a wonder of the Buddhist world,” he said.

Green said the ceiling mandala would hold enormous symbolic value to Buddhists who look up at it.

“It’s the design of a perfect universe. It’s a mental map that paints itself on the mind.”

Green said the mandala would be completed by 2025.

Artists working on the project. Credit: Joe Armao

According to 2021 census data, just over 1440 people identify as Buddhist in the Greater Bendigo region.

But Green said the temple received many visitors from around Australia and the world, including people who had no strong religious affiliation.

Among them is Bridget Allan, who moved to Bendigo in 2020 and began painting as a volunteer at the stupa last November. Although she is not Buddhist, Allan said she had found solace in her volunteer work, particularly during stressful periods.

“I really needed something spiritual, I guess,” she said. “That’s what drew me out there in the beginning.”

A Kalachakra Mandala.Credit: Joe Armao

Allan teaches meditation and found that painting the mandala and Buddhist deities at the temple had provided a new dimension for her practice.

She said the slow and careful brushstrokes helped to focus her mind and remain present.

Fellow volunteer and artist David Bradtke said working on the mandala had helped him learn new skills after decades of painting.

“Even though I’ve been painting for years, those skills with fine brushes and details are just growing as I gain confidence,” he said.

The ceiling space where the mandala will be fixed. Credit: Joe Armao

Bradtke, who usually volunteers on the project twice a week, said working as part of a team had been particularly satisfying. He was recently working on the mandala with a small group and was struck by how quiet it was.

“We were painting in absolute silence unless we wanted to swap notes on colour or tone,” he said. “It was just the most profound experience.”

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