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.