International Journal of Heritage Studies

IMG_1100Emma and I are pleased to announce that our second article linked to the ‘Building Buddhism’ project has now been published by the International Journal of Heritage Studies.

The article is entitled: Buddhist buildings in England: the construction of ‘under-represented’ faith heritage in a multicultural and post-Christian setting.

It is available from:  (the first 50 visitors can access a free copy).


We hope you enjoy reading it!  Caroline and Emma


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Emma and I are really pleased to announce that our first journal article based on the research we have conducted for ‘Building Buddhism’ has now been published by Contemporary Buddhism.

The article is available online, and although it usually requires a subscription, the first 50 people to have a look online can download the article for free.

We really hope you enjoy reading the article (another article is soon to be published by The International Journal of Heritage Studies, and we will keep you posted when that is available too).

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London Buddhist Centre entrance and mural


Happy Reading!


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Building Minority Faith Heritage : Research, Innovation, and Opportunities in Britain and Beyond – A Research Day


We are holding a research day, on Monday 4th July 2016, that may be of interest to many of you who read our blog. The details are below! We hope to see you there.

Building Minority Faith Heritage : Research, Innovation, and Opportunities in Britain and Beyond
4th July 2016
University of Leeds, Fairbairn House Main Building Upper Chapel LR (1.04a)
71-75 Clarendon Road, Leeds LS2 9JT
In this exciting and multi-disciplinary research day, we will be considering what minority religious heritage looks like in contemporary Britain and beyond and new definitions of ‘heritage’ in so-called ‘post-Christian’ societies. We will be exploring how place, space and faith interact in super-diverse contexts and how the lens of the built environment helps us to better understand the complex place of religion in the public sphere. Finally, we will discuss opportunities for the academy and public heritage bodies to successfully interact in production of ‘impactful’ research. 
ALL WELCOME (please RSVP to Dr Caroline Starkey
Speakers include: 
Dr Linda Monckton, Historic Environment Intelligence Analyst for Social                               Impacts, Historic England.
Professor Emma Tomalin, Dr Caroline Starkey and Dr Jasjit Singh ‘Building                         Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism in England’        
Dr Richard Gale (University of Cardiff) and Dr Andrew Rogers (University                           of Roehampton), Title TBC (Drs Gale and Rogers have written extensively                         on faith, space and planning in contemporary British contexts)
Dr Claire Dwyer, UCL , Title TBC (Claire is currently researching the transnational geographies of new suburban faith spaces in the UK and Canada)
Clare Canning, University of Leicester, Title TBC (Clare is researching Sikh                           Gurdwaras in Britain, with a focus on Leicester)
Dr Anna Halafoff (Deakin University, Australia) ‘Buddhist Buildings in                                   Australia’
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Is a Football Ground a Buddhist Building? Some thoughts on Leicester FC

I’ve just written a blog post on ‘Religion in Public’, the blog for the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds about the Buddhist monks that have been blessing Leicester FC’s ground and players – you can see the blog post here.  Apparently, the Thai owner and Chairman of the Club has asked the monks to bless the pitch and he has also built them a separate room for match days, where they are able to meditate, presumably to generate some positive energy for the club and players.  This has got me thinking – should we be including Leicester City’s King Power Stadium in our mapping of Buddhist buildings in England? What do you think?


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From Westbourne Park to Vogue: The West London Buddhist Centre


The old home of the West London Buddhist Centre

West London Buddhist Centre was of interest to us primarily because, at the time we visited, it was in the process of moving from a smaller, Victorian property to a modern building designed specifically for their needs, on the ground floor below luxury flats.  West London Buddhist Centre, affiliated with Triratna, bought its current building in Westbourne Park, West London, twenty years previously.  Prior to this, the community owned another building on New Portobello Road, and before this, had rented rooms in houses for group meetings and meditation.  The building they occupied at the time of our interview was not considered ideal when originally purchased, in the main because of its small size, and the community had made several earlier attempts to relocate but had not found a suitable space that could also be used as a ‘non-residential institution’ (D1) in planning terms and which was also affordable in affluent West London.

According to our informant, designing a building from scratch is ‘unprecedented in (the Triratna) movement’ as more commonly, Triratna Buddhist Centres have been located in adapted existing buildings, such as the fire station in Bethnal Green for the London Buddhist Centre, which we wrote about in an earlier blog post.  Working with a professional architects firm has allowed the West London Buddhist Centre to make its mark on the building, and enabled the community to get, as far as possible within the limits of the space, exactly what they think will suit, and reflect the needs and temperament of their community members.


The new West London Buddhist Centre under construction!

This has included taking a rather minimalist approach, involving more muted colour schemes, fewer images of the Buddha or Tibetan thankas, for example. What is most interesting, perhaps, is the process that West London Buddhist Centre has been through with their architects firm.  They have worked together to design a building that includes an open, public, space, but that as one moves deeper into the building, the space becomes smaller, more private, and quiet, as if in an inner sanctum. It was explained to us that this mirrors the process of meditation, moving from a loud, busy mind, to one which has been quietened and stilled. However, all of these conceptual decisions, as well as the plans for decoration, have been part of a much larger process of consultation within the community, to ensure that the new building space reflects the needs of as many as possible. Furthermore, the community does not plan to only use professionals to assist them in developing the space, but also to draw on volunteers as well. We were told that this was important to build and strengthen a sense of community.

The West London Buddhist Centre plans to use the space to host larger events, and will have a dedicated yoga studio. The community will offer a wider range of events, including a more ‘secular’ mindfulness course, which, it is anticipated, will take place within the studio. The result of which will, no doubt, be a widening of its membership and a broadening of the community.

What was indeed fascinating to us, as scholars of religion in contemporary Britain, was the fact that the new building was featured in the July 2014 edition of British Vogue! In this article (see below) the fact that a Buddhist centre was moving into the building was being used as a selling point by the property developers – how interesting that proximity to a Buddhist group is something that ‘enhances the value’ of the property in modern Britain!


At the time of writing this blog post, West London Buddhist Centre had relocated to their new home -and you can see some photographs of the finished interior on their website:

We can’t wait to visit again to see the building and how it is being used!

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From Building Buddhism to Building Hinduism…..


Here at the Centre for Religion and Public Life, Emma and I have been busy writing up our research about Buddhist buildings in England into a final report and some academic journal articles.  Once the report is finalised, our aim is to put a link to it on this blog so that our findings can be widely accessible (we will let you know about the journal articles too!).  We have thoroughly enjoyed this piece of research and felt well and truly welcomed by all of the Buddhist communities which we came into contact with.  It has been a privilege to delve into the fascinating histories of such a range of different communities, and get a glimpse of the ways in which the built environment shapes and is shaped by Buddhist communities. We think there is much more to find out, and many more groups to visit and we hope that this is not the end of Building Buddhism!


Whilst we investigate the possibility of future research into Buddhism in the UK, we have started an exciting new research adventure with Historic England into Hindu, Jain, Zoroastrian and Bahá’í buildings in England.  We have started another blog – Building Hinduism – which we really hope you will have a look at. We will be adding blog posts, including our reflections and some amazing photographs that we have collected on our travels – do follow us!

Thanks for reading – we hope you have enjoyed it as much as we have.

Emma and Caroline







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‘Where Do We Start? Right Here…’ Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, Northumberland


In 1970, the Northumberland farm buildings and land that were to become Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey were purchased by the early disciples of Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett, the founder of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.  The burgeoning Sōtō Zen Buddhist community (Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition) was initially run by American followers of Jiyu-Kennett, who had previously established a monastic training community at Shasta Abbey in California.  Jiyu-Kennett, a British woman, had taken Buddhist ordination in the 1960s, first in Malaysia and then in Japan, and had spent some time in Japan training at Sojiji monastery, a principal temple in the Sōtō Zen Buddhist tradition, before returning to the West to establish the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives in the Serene Reflection Meditation tradition. The land that was purchased for the new Buddhist community in Northumberland had been a farm and a hippy commune, and the built structures that were there were basic (at best), and in a poor state. What was to become the monks’ meditation hall, was a stone cow shed, with no windows, and also with outside stairs and which needed a complete re-build.

We were told that when Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett came to visit the site, the volunteers who were working on the buildings were slightly overwhelmed by the task ahead of them.  They asked her ‘Where do we start’? In response, Kennett picked up a broom, began sweeping, and said ‘right here’.


In the early days, the renovation and building work was done by lay and ordained community members, and within a very tight budget. Later renovations and building work were done with an architect, drawn from the community, who helped to plan the extensions and the additional buildings that were constructed. However, the Abbot of the Abbey is a trained surveyor, and therefore was able to draw up plans for the complex. Nonetheless, both the monks (which in this community, refers to both ordained men and women) and the lay people who volunteered also learnt to undertake jobs themselves, including plumbing and bricklaying.   Learning new skills and participating in the building and renovation work was seen as integrated into the Buddhist practice of these community members, and although we were told that they ‘didn’t come here to build a building’ but came to focus their minds on meditation, the building work itself became part of the meditation practice, and thus building and Buddhist practice in this setting are intricately intertwined.

The land (and the farm buildings on it) was chosen partly due to reasonable cost, and partly because of its location in remote, and rural Northumberland countryside.  We were told that having a monastery removed from the urban metropolis is certainly in keeping with the idea of a Zen monastery as being located somewhere where one has to make an effort to travel to.  The land itself is located in an Area of Outstanding Beauty, which was once a centre for lead mining, and also agricultural farming.


There are currently a number of buildings on the Abbey complex, including a monks’ meditation hall, a main ceremonial hall, a dining room, bathrooms, and also an extension, built in the 1990s, which houses guest accommodation and a large kitchen.  There are a number of former outbuildings which have also been renovated over the years, including a tool shed and work-room, and also a relatively newly constructed monks’ accommodation block (which was built after the community were left a legacy), with office space and a library. Also, further away from the main buildings there is a small retreat hut.  In the grounds of the Abbey, there are cemeteries (for monks, and also for pets) and also gardens.   The buildings were renovated and built over a number of years, to accommodate the needs of the growing monastic community, and the lay supporters.   It is fair to say that the successful development of the land and buildings at Throssel Hole has been the result of a great deal of effort, and also of vision – turning a run-down farm into a thriving Buddhist monastery. Throssel Hole keeps quite a large archive, including a number of old photographs of the buildings both before and after the various stages of renovation.


The buildings themselves are currently used to house a monastic community and to provide space for their Buddhist training as taught by Jiyu-Kennett, and this includes a number of lay people, postulants (those prior to ordination) and monks (male and female).  There are retreats run almost every weekend (including annual family weekends), as well as festivals and ceremonies.  The community host a number of school visits throughout the year, akin to several of the other Buddhist communities involved in this research. Most of the community members both lay and ordained, are converts to Buddhism, although, at least in the early days, the monastics also supported the Chinese community in Britain by facilitating funerals before they had established their own places of worship.



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Stately Homes and Staircases: Madyamaka Buddhist Meditation Centre, Pocklington

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The Madyamaka Buddhist Meditation Centre, part of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) within Tibetan Buddhism occupies the former Kilwick Percy Hall, in Pocklington, near York, and 42 acres of surrounding land. The building is predominantly Georgian and is Grade II* listed.  However, we were informed that the origins of a building on this land stretch back further into English history (and include a mention in the Domesday Book).  The earliest part that is currently still standing, the basement, was built in 1574.

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Kilnwick Percy Hall and the surrounding grounds were significantly redeveloped in 1720, and again in 1840, passing to different families during this period.  The house itself was occupied by the Government during the Second World War and, as a result, was also significantly adapted. Interestingly, just prior to the Second World War, the house was again re-modeled, including severing in two the large, central staircase, and relocating it to the side of the house. We were told that this was done to raise funds, as half of the staircase was sold locally, and made into furniture.  I joked on twitter, some months ago, that alongside the much-loved warehouse stairs in Manchester Buddhist Centre, this split staircase is certainly in my top ten favourite staircases in Buddhist centres in England!

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The NKT bought the house in 1986. It had previously redeveloped a large house in the Lake District, and was looking to open another centre.  Madhyamaka is one of 1,000 NKT centres worldwide. When the NKT took over the building, it was in a significantly dilapidated state. They undertook their renovations predominantly with volunteer labour, but have worked with professionals (including heritage professionals), particularly in advising on the renovations of particular aspects of the building, including the wooden floors in the entrance hall and the large, external stone pillars. They also used professionals for tasks such as the replacement of the sixty-year old boiler system. However, volunteer support is vital, and in order to keep up with the maintenance, the NKT run week-long work weeks where volunteers will come and live in the building and assist with the tasks that need to be achieved.

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The renovated Bed and Breakfast accomodation

In renovating this building for use as a Buddhist centre, the NKT placed a great deal of emphasis on sympathetic restoration of the house, including in the large former ball-room which has particularly ornate decorative features.  The house and the surrounding grounds remain open to the public, and the focus here is both on the history of the house and it’s current usage.  Given the age and historic significance of the house, an on-going issue for this community is appropriate, and skilled, maintenance and meeting the costs of heating bills in particular.  The NKT fundraise for this purpose, and also have a number of businesses integrated within the house and grounds which also provide an income, including a gift-shop, a World Peace Café, and a Bed and Breakfast.

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The building currently has a number of uses for this community.  There are approximately thirty long-term residents, both lay people and ordained monks and nuns, alongside Buddhists who also rent the flats in the building and the three cottages in the grounds.  The building hosts a number of meditation classes and courses and festivals and retreats, which attract a national and international audience.  The community also has a particular focus on family involvement, running children’s meditation classes and mothers and children’s groups, as well as an annual family retreat.  The building is significant to the NKT as it was the second Centre that was adapted, and was referred to as a ‘hub’, both for activity, but also training teachers that later went on to start additional Buddhist centres and meditation groups.  The community typically adopts the term ‘Meditation Centre’ when referring to Kilnwick Percy Hall, although occasionally use ‘temple’ in addition.  Tibetan words such as ‘gompa’ are used less frequently, and when they are, it is generally only between the residents.

Additionally, the NKT also uses the building for a number of ‘non-Buddhist’ purposes, including being open for people who want to walk around the grounds, see the house and use the café, regular history tours, and an annual summer fair – retaining the traditions of a large country estate. The rooms can also be hired out by non-Buddhist groups.  There is a strong sense that the NKT wants the building still to be very much part of the local community, and it appears that much effort is expended to foster strong connections.


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The stupa at Harewood House: A Yorkshire-Bhutan Co-Production

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Although a stupa might not be considered a building in the same way as a monastery, we included the stupa at Harewood House in our research as an example of the different types of structures that are important to Buddhists.  A stupa is a repository for relics and sacred items, and is a focus for veneration, respect, and meditation across the Buddhist world.  Whilst stupas in all shapes and sizes are a common feature in Buddhist countries from Thailand to Tibet, they are far less common in England.  Indeed, the stupa at Harewood House is likely to be the only Bhutanese stupa in the UK at present and is therefore worthy of focused attention.

Harewood House is a Grade I listed stately home between Leeds and Harrogate, and is the seat of the Earl of Harewood, David Lascelles.  The Earl of Harewood had been interested, and involved with Buddhism for a number of years, and although he had considered building a stupa since the 1980s, it was not until he first visited Bhutan in 2002 when the idea became a reality. There he met a Bhutanese skilled craftsman, in his 70s, who he invited to come to the UK and build a stupa in the grounds of Harewood House. A team came from Butan and building work on the stupa commenced in April 2004, and was completed by the end of the summer in the same year.

The stupa at Harewood House was constructed in a traditional Bhutanese style although using English materials, notably Yorkshire stone, despite the reservations of the Butanese builders who felt it should be whitewashed and made out of concrete, as in Bhutan. It was decided that, in keeping with the environment, the stone used would be kept unpainted.  Nonetheless, in all other senses it is the ‘real thing’ as explained to us by the Earl of Harewood: ‘somebody asked me about the process, to describe it. And they said, ‘oh so you mean that it’s like a folly?’ And I said ‘well actually, no. I may be foolish doing it, but it’s not a folly, because it is the real thing.’ It’s absolutely done as it would be.’

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Its construction consists of a series of five built-up sealed chambers, within which are placed statues, images and other blessed items, including small relics, in this case some bone fragments.   Many of these items were purchased in Bhutan and Nepal, and shipped to the UK for the purpose.  These ritual objects, we were told ‘empower the stupa’ and allow the benefits of the blessings to multiply and ‘radiate out into the world’. Whilst the design was Bhutanese, the physical building work was completed by local builders.  Running through the middle of the stupa is the wooden trunk of juniper tree, referred to as the ‘life tree’, which connects all the sealed chambers together. The stupa itself is located in an area of the grounds out of view of the house, which housed a number of plants native to the Himalayan region, and is called the Himalayan Garden.  Indeed, the stupa itself, which has now been standing for 10 years, looks very much a part of the landscape.

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We were told that the stupa is used by Buddhists, who will make circumambulations, but is also enjoyed by non-Buddhists who visit the house and the gardens and learn something of the teachings of the Buddha.  The stupa is significant, we were told, because it ‘embodies the enlightened mind of the Buddha…What all Buddhists aspire to’.


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Birmingham Buddhist Vihara

Birmingham Buddhist viharaThis temple caters for a relatively small and dispersed Burmese Buddhist community, members of which travel from different parts of the country for festivals and ceremonies. The site houses a large Burmese style pagoda, completed in 1998, and also two houses – the vihara (the monks’ quarters) and the dhamma hall (where Buddhist teachings are given and there are rooms that can be hired by other groups). The total complex was founded by a well-known Burmese Buddhist teacher and spiritual leader, Bhante Rewata Dhamma. He arrived in England in 1975 and his ‘idea was to use Birmingham as a springboard to get Buddhism into the West’. In the early years he shared a house with a Tibetan centre and ‘so, a couple of days a week, it was a Mahayana Temple, and a couple of days a week it was a Theravādan temple.’ He approached Birmingham City Council for some land and the present site was available. However, because he had a strong Burmese following, and most of the Burmese in England are professionals, they donated quite generously and he was able to set up the pagoda and vihara on the current site. According to the website of the community:

The pagoda is an oriental style of sacred tower. In Buddhism, it is also called a stupa or caitya. The building of pagodas dates from the time of the Buddha’s passing into nibbāna, around the sixth century BCE. At that time, the Buddha’s body was cremated and only fragments of the bones remained. These sacred relics were divided among the rulers who were his devout followers. They placed them in golden chambers in their respective countries and built pagodas over them so that people could venerate and pay homage.

The pagoda symbolises peace, compassion and other exemplary qualities of the Buddha. As such, Buddhists venerate it everywhere. With the spread of Buddhism, pagodas were built in all those countries where it became established. The pagoda is the earthly manifestation of the mind of the Buddha and, as such, stands as a prime symbol of Buddhism. The Dhammatalaka Pagoda [‘reservoir of truth’ Pagoda ] will fulfil three purposes: it will be a shrine for Buddhists to perform their traditional ceremonies; a focus where non-Buddhists can learn about Buddhism; and a sanctuary where both may find peace and tranquillity (

The pagoda was the first building to be put up and is in a traditional style. It is made from pre-cast concrete that has been decorated afterwards with much of the remaining decoration (e.g. around the windows and around the top of the walls, as well as the pillars in the porch way) being made on site by two experts that came over from Burma. Our interviewee explained that ‘in 16 years I think that we’ve repainted it four times. But recently, it was…gold leaf, yes. That didn’t last very long. But we use a very expensive gold paint now. I think that it was two years ago that we painted it. And in a couple of years it will be needing it again.’

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