Building Buddhism in England

English Heritage croppedEmma Tomalin and Caroline Starkey

There are over 200,000 Buddhists living in England and Wales, with around sixty per cent of those belonging to ethnic minorities.  As with the development of other minority religions in England, Buddhists have established places to practice their religion, which are now being mapped out as part of a new research project funded by English Heritage.  In this introduction to their research, Emma Tomalin and Caroline Starkey provide an overview of the Buddhist presence in England and Wales, and  explore the range of Buddhist faith buildings.

Get a pdf of this article here

Background

As part of its National Heritage Protection Plan (NHPP) English Heritage has identified the need to increase its knowledge of minority faith buildings in England as one of its priorities. While EH already has expertise about and knowledge of the protection of Churches and Synagogues, its knowledge base on the heritage of buildings and sites across the country belonging to other religious traditions is much more limited. Emma Tomalin and Caroline Starkey, of the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds, have been funded by English Heritage (EH) to carry our this research project in order to ‘scope and assess current knowledge of the buildings and relevant practices’ of different Buddhist faith groups to enable EH and the sector to develop its expertise and offer advice to those who care for these buildings.[1] Importantly, however, the project will also enable the development of a better understanding of the heritage, nature and significance of Buddhist buildings for their respective communities and users, as well as of the ways in which building use reflects and enables Buddhist practice.

Buddhism England, Gompa, Jamyang London
The gompa (shrine room) at Jamyang London

There are 238,626 Buddhists living in England and Wales according to the 2011 census, compared to 144,453 recorded in the 2001 census.[2] Since first arriving in England in the 19th century, as a product of the European colonial presence in Asia, Buddhism has taken a different trajectory to other minority faith traditions in that it has attracted a significant number of converts. In terms of ethnicity, according to the 2001 census, 38.8 per cent of Buddhists in England and Wales were white, and as Bluck points out,[3] much of the research on Buddhism in Britain has focused on these ‘white’ or ‘convert’ Buddhists, and relatively little attention has been paid to ‘ethnic’ Buddhists by comparison. Our study is contributing towards addressing this gap by examining Buddhist faith buildings from different traditions. A broad range of Buddhist traditions are present in Britain, emanating from the three main global ‘denominations’: Vajrayana (Tibetan), Theravadin and Mahayana. According to Bluck[4] the three largest Buddhist groups in Britain are the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO, now called Triratna), Soka Gakkai (SGI) and the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT).

Research methods and outputs

The research project has three overlapping phases and is still ongoing. Phase one, beginning in September 2013, involved a literature review and desk-based mapping of different Buddhist buildings across England, linked to various Buddhist traditions, in order to select a number of locations to be visited in the second phase of the research. To date, in phase two of the research, we have visited eight sites – six in London, one in Manchester and the Soka Gakkai International UK headquarters in Taplow. We have started a blog about the research and details of each of these locations will be presented on our Building Buddhism Blog. At each site we are taking photos, identifying the existence and nature of any archives, and interviewing members of the community who are knowledgeable about the particular building’s past and present use. Phase three of the project has involved an online survey, which has been disseminated via Buddhist networks, and will enable us to capture a larger cross section of buildings in our study. The project will be completed by September 2014, by which stage we will have produced a report for English Heritage and an academic journal article about the study.

What is a Buddhist ‘faith building’?

As with the development of other minority religions in England, Buddhists have established places to practice their religion. And in common with these other traditions, when Buddhists began to practice in England their first ‘places of worship’ were often located in residential houses. Although to this day Buddhists still practice in residential houses, it was only later that they were in a position to move to larger premises and to obtain planning permission for ‘adaptive reuse’ or purpose built establishments.[5]

____________________________________

“Much of the research on Buddhism in Britain, according to Robert Bluck, has focused on ‘white’ or ‘convert’ Buddhists, with relatively little attention paid to ‘ethnic’ Buddhists by comparison.”

____________________________________

The meaning of the term ‘Buddhist faith building’ is, however, rather complex and the fact remains that Buddhists in England have connections with a wide range of different types of built structure.  A ‘building’ might encompass a large, purpose built monastery, a shared office space, a school, or indeed even a monument. The language that different Buddhist groups use to refer to their buildings and space is also complex, and can range from ‘centre’, to ‘temple’ to ‘monastery’, and also incorporate terms in a variety of languages such as ‘wat’, or ‘kuti’ or ‘gompa’.

Buddhapadipa temple
The Buddhapadipa Temple, London, the first Buddhist temple built in the UK

In the study, we understand Buddhist faith buildings to have a range of functions, and to reflect a range of types. The functions of Buddhist buildings include the following, and particular locations may perform a number of these functions:

  • A space for Buddhist practice (including, but not exclusively, for meditation) and the celebration of festivals;
  • A location where cultural/community activities for Buddhists are carried out;
  • A location for education and networking activities between different Buddhist groups and traditions in England;
  • A place for Buddhist monastics to live;
  • Somewhere for Buddhists (or those interested in Buddhism) to stay in order to take part in retreats and courses;
  • A place for the education of children in Buddhist schools;
  • A space for the establishment of Buddhist businesses, where Buddhist ethical principles can be lived out;
  • The provision of a ‘secular space’ where activates for the wider community take place (e.g. ‘mindfulness’ training, which can be provided for free or is sometimes bought in by Local Authorities).

The types of building used for the above activities include:

  • Adaptive reuse of buildings for practice that may or may not also include accommodation and other facilities for monastics and visitors to use;
  • Purpose built temples for the same purpose as above;
  • Buddhist schools: these could be purpose built or forms of adaptive reuse (e.g. Kadampa School);
  • Buddhist businesses (e.g. Windhorse Trading run by Triratna in Cambridge, or the Buddhist charity shop ‘Lama’s Pyjamas’);
  • Other buildings used regularly by Buddhist groups for mediation classes (e.g. Church Halls, community centres and university facilities for faith groups);
  • Multi-purpose meditation facilities at airports, railway stations or prisons.

Key Research Questions

Ultimately, through this study, we are seeking to understand more about the meaning, function and significance of buildings used by Buddhists in England. As a result, we are focused on several key research questions:

  1. What is the significance of buildings within Buddhist communities in England? What do they mean to the people who use them?
  2. What does the built landscape look like for Buddhism in England, and how is it changing?
  3. How should we best refer to Buddhist buildings in England? What terminology is most appropriate? And what impact does this have on how we perceive them?
  4. Do Buddhist buildings function in the same way as other faith buildings? Are they controversial, and if not, why not?

This is a very timely project that has been welcomed both by English Heritage and by Buddhist communities themselves. It is important both because so little has been done to map the built landscape for Buddhists in England, but also because Buddhism is not static. As Buddhism in England grows, so are buildings acquired, used, and changed. It is important to investigate, and document these changes at a particular point in history, so that they are not forgotten.

Emma Tomalin is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies and director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life (CRPL) at the University of Leeds.

Caroline Starkey is an AHRC-funded doctoral researcher whose research analyses the relationships that British women, ordained within six different Buddhist groups, have with notions of gender equality, discipline, and tradition. She is the Research Assistant on the English Heritage-funded project ‘Building Buddhism’.

For more information about the research, visit: www.buildingbuddhism.wordpress.com.


[1] National Heritage Protection Plan 2011-15, Publication Date: 26 Apr 2012,

Year-end report and Activity Programme, May 2011 – March 2012 (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/protection/national-heritage-protection-plan/plan/)

[2] Robert Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development (London: Routledge, 2006), 16.

[3] Bluck, British Buddhism.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ceri Peach and Richard Gale, ‘Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs in the New Religious Landscape of England’, Geographical Review 93, no. 4 (1 October 2003): 482–484.

Leave a Reply