As she does every Sunday afternoon, Cecilia Chao slips off her shoes before stepping onto the heated floors of the Cham Shan temple. The 19-year-old glances at the four beaming gold Buddhas from the entrance of the main hall. Even after nine years, Chao’s eyes widen at the sight, as if it was her first time seeing the extravagant structures. The gentle rhythm of the pinyin, a Chinese wooden percussion instrument, and some fast-paced, muttered words of prayer from focused devotees are the only noises inside the sanctuary.
The temple, located at Bayview and Steeles, is about the size of three football fields, but still not spacious enough for all the devotees who visit the temple. According to Reverend Shan ping, media spokesperson of the temple, there are over 1,000 volunteers and 3,000 regulars. The counts of visitors fluctuate around Chinese New Year, from about 8,000 to 10,000. “Some days we might have three to four [student] groups, from 35 to 100 students.” An occasional visitor of the temple, Ted Yip, says a new and bigger location would be great. “This one is already pretty full, it gets busy here,” says Yip.
The shortage of space is what inspired Cham Shan’s current project: expanding to a more spacious area in Peterborough. The new complex is expected to be 20 times bigger than the Bayview location. The plans are set, but what Cham Shan needs is financial support—an estimated $100 million — an amount that the donation box alone cannot collect.
Tom Cheung, a team leader of the Peterborough fundraising project, says this will be the temple’s biggest expense for now and the next 20 years. The temple raised around $500,000 in the last couple years—less than one per cent of what is needed. He says, “We have to borrow money from the bank.”
The congregation is now finding other ways to gain people’s interest. There is a list of items devotees can pledge, ranging from a bluestone block for $25 to a pagoda of Buddha for $5,000. In one corner of the main hall, a woman is focused on writing a prayer of about 200 Chinese characters onto a bronze roof tile. She says that she pledged the tile, about the size of a textbook, for $100. Ten thousand of these personalized tiles will cover the roof of the new temple.
Down a flight of stairs beside the main hall, people stop by a desk to make specific donations. Rose Pan, a grade 12 student, volunteers here every Saturday as the cashier. She says, “People come here because the ones who always donate know we keep a record here for tax receipts.” Pan says one page usually fills up during her shift, each page worth about $600 to $1,000.
The Cham Shan community originated from three monks who came to Canada about 45 years ago. The Bayview location, which is also the headquarters of all Cham Shan temples, consists of an eye-catching gate, two decked-out main halls, a memorial hall and two oversized gong bells. “I definitely think they [Cham Shan] have a reputable position among the temples,” says Chao. “It’s esthetically very pleasing to the eye.” The organization bought additional properties in other parts of Ontario and developed various temples, learning centers and library facilities.
The new complex in Peterborough will follow classical Chinese architectural methods, using high-quality rosewood. The wood alone costs about $10 million and must be imported from Lao. The installment of the wood will cost about $100,000 per month. The temple has already paid contractors more than $1 million in the past three years. Aside from the Peterborough project, donations must cover the temple’s heating, lighting, repairs and property taxes. Monks need to be paid, too, since they have no other income.
In a smaller memorial hall beside the main temple, a whole wall is dedicated to displaying the vision and progress of the Peterborough project. Kam Cheung, another team leader, points to the “recognition” wall on which hundreds of golden nameplates are hanging. Each represents a significant one-time donation, starting at $500. About 21 nameplates are hanging under the $100,000 group; the highest engraved with $160,000. Cheung says although the project is grand, she is encouraged because she sees many people helping out. “I’m not rich, but even I bought one Buddhist statue for $600,” she says. “If you are Buddhist, you will understand.”
Diane Chen, a general administrator of the temple, agrees that volunteers are more than willing to pay out of their own pockets. “I always pick up supplies for the temple with my own money,” says Chen. “We all do.”
The temple’s services are not only for its disciples, but open to the public and student groups from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Visitors do not have to contribute a set amount of donation; the amount is up to the individual.
Before leaving her Sunday ritual, Chao crinkles in a $5 bill into the temple’s donation box. “There’s no pressure [to pay], but that’s how much people believe in the religion itself,” says Chao. “This money comes from citizens, you know, normal people who want it to look a certain way. We invest in it because we believe in it.”