In May, a Buddhist monk called Ven. Shengguang Shi will mark the 10th anniversary of his pilgrimage to a site just outside of Peterborough from the Cham Shan Temple in Thornhill. In 181 days, the monk walked 135 kilometres. He would kneel, bow, and touch his forehead to the ground every three steps.
On that pilgrimage, Shengguang Shi visited the Wutai Shan Buddhist Garden, a community-sponsored venture near Bethany. On his pilgrimage, the monk wished for the early completion of the Garden and prayed for its early completion.
The Wutai Shan Temple was built ten years ago, and these days it has a foundation, and it is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Wutai Shan Buddhist Garden will be one of four similar sites west of Peterborough, all connected by pilgrimage paths, if the project is completed as the Cham Shan community envisions it. In total, they will cover more than 1,300 acres, and together will be the largest Buddhist centre outside of China.
In the words of Abbot Dayi Shi, the current head of Cham Shan Temple, the project “will become a historic milestone in the expansion of Buddhism in North America.”
One of the oldest Buddhist organizations in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada is the Cham Shan Temple. It was established in 1973, not long after the immigration reforms that allowed more Asian immigrants to enter Canada, eventually leading to more Buddhists coming to Canada. Thousands of Buddhists in and around Toronto worship at the Temple currently, many of whom have Chinese ancestry, and the temple is also a cultural center for the Chinese. It has served as a refuge for Toronto’s Chinese-Canadian community to learn and practice Buddhism, according to Dayi Shi.
Its founders, who founded Cham Shan Temple in the 1970s, envisioned it as a pilgrimage site and retreat center outside Toronto, similar to the Wutai Shan Buddhist Garden. Sacred grounds were chosen toward the west of Peterborough when a monk stumbled upon it, saw that it was for sale, and recognized it as sacred. From 1990 to the present, Cham Shan has owned land in Cavan Monaghan Township and Manvers Township. The land has been in private ownership that was purchased by Cham Shan.
A combination of donations and fundraising is being used to fund the project. At least 80 million dollars are expected to be spent and the project will take two decades. It is likely, though, that the first of the four temples, Wutai Shan, will be completed within the next few years.
Upon completion, the temple will host multicultural exchanges and help to promote Chinese culture, according to Dayi Shi. The Buddhist center will be a place of liberation where the public can freely embrace Buddhism and where visitors can discover their path to enlightenment.
The Buddhist population in Peterborough is around 100, though none of the interview requests were answered. It may prove useful to some local followers to have temples near their houses of worship; others may not and carry on as before. The religion of Buddha is, in itself, a diverse one.
The Cham Shan Temple complex will serve not only as a place of worship, says Dayi Shi, but also as a place of social engagement. Throughout the year, he expects people to come here to sightsee, relax, or study. Approximately 45,000 people are expected to visit every year, according to the Buddhist group. The region is likely to see a significant economic boost if that number is realized.
Thornhill’s residents seem oblivious to the fact that a Buddhist group from Toronto wishes to build a sprawling temple complex twenty minutes from town as well as designate it as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists worldwide. Curiously, the temple does not feature more prominently in the discussions about Thornhill’s future at a time when the city is seeking ways to make itself known and attract visitors.
No matter what Thornhill says, the temple is coming into being. Along Parkhill Road, heading west through town, you’ll enter a hilly country, where the landscape becomes expansive and sweeping. The first sign that something new is coming to the region is a huge Buddha statue, shining gold in the landscape as you go over the last hill before reaching Ski Hill Road.