Buddhist Buildings in England
A faith that has repurposed a significant number of historic buildings.
There are about 190 Buddhist buildings in England, representing a diverse range of traditions. A research project commissioned by Historic England and carried out by the University of Leeds is helping establish an understanding of the character and significance of this heritage.
Founded by a 6th-century BC prince of the Sakya people, Siddhartha Gautama (later known as Gautama Buddha, ‘buddha’ meaning ‘awakened one’), Buddhism helps its followers towards an enlightened state that escapes the cycle of suffering and rebirth – a middle way, as it is called, leading to a state of being known as nirvana. Buddhist practice varies between different traditions but at the core of the faith are the fully realised being or Buddha; the Dharma (teachings); and the Sangha (the community, often monastic in nature).
Buddhism comes to England
Buddhism first came to England in the 19th century. As a result of the British colonial presence in Asia, Buddhist texts were translated by academics and the first converts appeared.
By the outbreak of World War I British converts were emerging as teachers; the faith continues to have a significant following among native British as well as immigrant communities. Indeed, immigration did not have a substantial impact on the development of Buddhism in England until the second half of the 20th century, when communities from various Buddhist countries have been established and, at the same time, teachers from the Buddhist world have founded monasteries and attracted significant numbers of Western converts.
Since then Buddhism has steadily expanded and the latest census (2011) showed a 72 per cent increase in the number of those describing themselves as Buddhists over the previous decade.
Each of the three main Buddhist traditions (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) has communities in England. Buddhist practice stretches beyond the limits of those describing themselves as Buddhist, however.
Buddhist buildings in England serve a number of functions in addition to providing facilities for religious practice; these include cultural and community activities for the Buddhist diaspora, spaces for monastic living, and facilities in which those interested in the faith can stay, experiencing meditation and mindfulness for themselves.
Bringing historic buildings back to life
Some distinctive and impressive new structures now form part of the English Buddhist landscape. However Buddhist communities are distinctive for having, in terms of the proportion of buildings relative to the size of the faith itself, taken on a significant number of historic buildings.
This has brought these buildings physically back to life while adding a new dimension to them. The variety of buildings that results is a physical embodiment of the diversity that is such a distinctive feature of Buddhism in Britain.
The first Buddhist buildings in England were Theravadan. The London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick was founded in 1926 and moved to its current location in 1994, occupying a building which was already listed at Grade II. It was the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and, like many later buildings in this tradition, it sits in a suburban location.
Also within the Theravada tradition, but with a contrastingly rural location, is the Thai Forest Sangha. Established in Hampstead in 1978 by an American-born monk, in 1979 it purchased Chithurst House (Cittaviveka) in order to get closer to the ideal of a forest monastery. The house was semi-derelict and both it and a nearby cottage (renamed Aloka Cottage) required significant restoration before they became the base for male and female monastic communities respectively. As part of the community’s expansion, additional facilities including a meditation hall have been developed and the site has been afforested.
An example of the combination of re-use and new build can also be found in the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, near Hemel Hempstead. Founded in 1983, it is also in the Theravadan Thai Forest tradition; indeed it was an offshoot from Chithurst House.
The complex itself was originally developed as a summer camp funded by the Canadian government in 1939; left unused at the outbreak of war it provided accommodation for children evacuated from London, for which purpose a 200-person air raid shelter was added. After the war it became a school for children with learning difficulties.
The Canadian cedarwood huts remain in use, adjacent to a purpose-built Buddhist temple and cloister completed in 1999. As at Chithurst, the old complex required considerable renovation. The experience of meditating in the old drab gymnasium drove the community to commission something new that would provide a more inspirational environment and also reflect both English and Thai traditions.
The temple and cloister at the Amaravati monastery thus mark the first attempt to explore the possibility of a distinctively British Buddhist architecture.
The stupa (in East Asia the pagoda) is the most characteristic devotional structure of Buddhism, its form symbolising many of the faith’s core philosophical and cosmological ideas.
Examples of this kind of building, new to the English landscape, can be found in Wimbledon (Wat Buddhapadipa) and in Birmingham, where the temple caters for a relatively small and dispersed Burmese community.
Its large Burmese-style stupa (1998) was the first building on the site, and is constructed of pre-cast concrete but decorated in a traditional style, largely by two Burmese craftsmen. Subsequently two houses – the vihara (monks’ quarters) and the Dharma hall (where Buddhist teachings are given) were constructed.
A striking range of historic buildings
The range of historic buildings adopted by Buddhist communities is striking. In Knaphill, Manchester an old religious building, Brookwood Hospital Chapel, is now a temple for the Dhammakaya movement; the hospital’s former mortuary provides living accommodation for the monks.
In the same city, the Triratna Buddhist community occupies an old cotton warehouse. Historic buildings occupied and adapted by the Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhist tradition include, in Walworth (London) the Tibetan Kagyu Samye Dzong, which occupies an impressive Victorian Grade II-listed bath house and swimming pool. The same group had already renovated a redundant public library in Bermondsey.
In south London, the Diamond Way, a lay Buddhist group following the Tibetan Karma Kagyu lineage of lamas, purchased the derelict Beaufoy Institute in 2011; it had been built in 1907 as an industrial school for poor boys. Empty for 15–20 years the building was on the English Heritage Building at Risk register.
An especially interesting reflection of British social history can be found encapsulated in the renovation of the Kennington Court House, Lambeth (Grade II listed).
Gelug, the newest of the Tibetan traditions of Buddhism (founded in c 1400), developed a profile in England in the 1990s. A small but significant Gelug group is the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, created in 1975 by two Tibetan Lamas – Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche – who had been teaching Westerners about Buddhism in Nepal. Their second foundation in Britain is called the Jamyang Meditation Centre and to house it they purchased the former Victorian courthouse, saving it from being converted into flats. Large-scale renovation was required on the recently listed building after its purchase in 1995.
The building started life as a police court, designed by police surveyor Thomas Charles Sorby (1836–1924); it later became a magistrates’ court. The complex expanded to include a fire station and a workhouse, the latter operational until 1922. When the magistrates’ court was relocated the buildings became a maximum security court, in the 1960s and 70s providing high-security accommodation for a number of high-profile IRA prisoners before their trials. The fabric of the building bears witness to this period, as many of these prisoners wrote their names on its walls and doors. When radiators were removed as part of the renovations further graffiti were discovered, along with notes written by prisoners to their loved ones. These notes, and pictures of the renovation work (which included removing bulletproof glass from around the judge’s bench), have been kept in an archive at Jamyang London.
The former cells now provide accommodation; many of their historic fixtures and fittings have been renovated and kept. They sit alongside the new gompa (shrine room), large Buddha rupa (statue) and other rooms open to the public.
This article can only refer to a tiny proportion of the buildings built, renovated and cared for by British Buddhists.
For a fuller treatment, see the online report from the survey of Buddhist buildings in the further reading section below. Such buildings are a material testament to the huge effort that has gone into rebuilding and renovating what have often been dilapidated and unloved buildings.
These structures act as guardians of existing heritage and the history it encapsulates. They also provide inspirational new places that have made a real contribution to British cultural life.
Dr Linda Monckton FSA is an architectural historian who joined English Heritage, now Historic England, in 2003, first as a Senior Investigator and then later as Head of Research Policy for Places of Worship. She is currently an Historic Environment Intelligence Analyst in the Research Group. She has published widely on religious buildings from the middle ages to the present day.
Tomalin, E and Starkey, C 2016: A Survey of Buddhist Buildings in England. Swindon: Historic England.
Batchelor, S 1994 The Awakening of the West:The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Kay, D N 2004 Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation. London: Routledge Curzon.
Oliver, I P 1979 Buddhism in Britain. London: Rider.
Gale, R T and Naylor, S 2002 ‘Religion, Planning and the City: the Spatial Politics of Ethnic Minority Expression in British Cities and Towns’. Ethnicities 2 (3), 387–409.
Peach, C and Gale, R 2003 ‘Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the New Religious Landscapes of England’. Geographical Review 93 (4), 469–90.