Amaravati Buddhist Monastery: Building Buddhism in brightness and spaciousness

 

Amaravati 2Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, in the Thai Theravāda Forest tradition, is located near Hemel Hempstead and consists of a purpose built temple alongside buildings that were previously used for a school for children with learning difficulties (St Margaret’s School) and, prior to this, an (unused) summer camp. The summer camp was built with donations from the Canadian Government in 1939, but war broke out before the buildings could ever be used for their intended purpose. Instead, when children were being evacuated from London during the war, the site was used to accommodate them. As a result, there is a bunker on site, large enough for two hundred children, although this was closed up when the buildings were later requisitioned for the school.

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Buddha statue in front of closed WW2 bunker, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery

The buildings in the monastery complex are varied and consist of inherited and adapted Canadian cedar wood ‘scout huts’ (intended for the summer camp dormitories), as well as a purpose-built Buddhist temple and cloister which was completed in 1999.

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The monastic community, assisted by the English Sangha Trust (the committee of lay supporters), purchased the land that the monastery now occupies in 1983. At this time, their main community base was at Chithurst House (also known as Cittaviveka Monastery) in West Sussex.  Whilst this house and site had been renovated to suit the purposes of the community, they were growing and more space was required, including for retreats for lay people.  However, it was perceived that the Local Authority might be resistant to any additional development at Chithurst, and therefore it was deemed necessary to find an additional base, and one which was located reasonably close to London.  At the time that plans were drawn up for the potential move, the vision was to set up a monastic community and retreat space with an ‘ecumenical ethos’ partly in response to global events (such as the Arms Race) in the early 1980s which had kindled a spiritual curiosity amongst some people, which the Abbott at the time (Ajahn Sumedho) wanted to support.  St Margaret’s School, which had been closed for several years, was found in 1983 and Amaravati, which literally translates as ‘deathless realm’, was opened to the public in 1984.  As Bluck explains for Ajahn Sumedho, the founder of Amaravati:

this was neither missionary work nor ‘spiritual property development’ but reflected the need to balance the simple monastic life with providing lay people with ‘access to spiritual teachings, and places to learn and practice meditation…Donations were invited for parts and materials costing over £700,000, though four-fifths of the overall funding came from Thai supporters (2006: 26).

Right from the first day that the community moved in there were 30-40 people living on site, in the scout huts which had not been refurbished since the closure of St. Margaret’s School. As a result, all of the existing buildings on the site needed considerable attention, including in relation to the old boiler system, which was extremely expensive to run. In addition, none of the huts were insulated and the process of insulating around 5,000 square meters of wall and roof took between six and seven years. However, as it cost a great deal of money to purchase the land, very little was left for renovation and therefore most of the work was done slowly and on a shoe-string by volunteers drawn from the lay and monastic communities. Interestingly, unlike other places that we have visited, Amaravati opened its doors to visitors from the very first day they took possession of the buildings and land.

What was previously the teacher’s accommodation became the sīladharā (nuns) residences, one dormitory block became the lay retreat centre and another became the monks’ residence.  The former gymnasium and assembly hall became the community’s meditation space.  When the community took over the buildings, they were described as rather ‘utilitarian’ and somewhat ‘bleak’. Our interviewee stated:

there was this ambiance of it being like an Army barracks; or when people came up the drive, they thought “Is this the monastery?” They could see you dressed (in robes) (and they’d think) “Well, this must be a monastery, but it looks…was this a prison?”

After all the inherited buildings were renovated, in the 1990s discussions began about building a temple and meditation hall.  The community used a professional architect, Tom Hancock, who had previously built the Milton Keynes and Battersea Peace Pagodas, and who had studied architecture in both Japan and Britain. We were told that, the Abbott, Ajahn Sumedho, hoped for a temple which was a cross between Thai and English architecture, and that created an inspirational space that when people entered, helped the mind to ‘go quiet’.  The engineering of the temple, which was constructed using a traditional English oak frame (and no nails) was engineered by Scandinavian company, Ove Arup, and built by an English firm who specialised in building in oak.

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Surrounding the temple hall is an open cloister, more commonly seen in Christian monastic building, but used here for walking meditation.

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The monastic community do not directly solicit donations or charge for teaching as this is a breach of the vinaya (monastic rules) that they follow.  As a result, they were exceptionally cautious and the temple was built and paid for in three distinct phases, so that time could elapse between phases and further money could be raised without amassing debt. Donations were given for the temple from across the world and closer to home, including from Thailand, Europe and from British followers.  The temple building was completed on the 4th July 1999, and subsequently dedicated and opened.  As Bluck (2006:27) writes, some 2,500 lay visitors and ‘150 monastics of several Buddhist traditions’ from many countries witnessed the opening…Sharp (1999: 7) commented that after 20 years this ‘proper Buddhist temple with traditional English monastic cloisters’ showed how the Forest Sangha had ‘grown, flourished and taken root in the foreign land’ .

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However, also according to Bluck, ‘while Forest Sangha monasteries are adapted from existing buildings, traditional Thai iconography appears in furnishing and decoration, often reflecting financial donations from British Thais. The exception is the new Amaravati temple, whose deliberate use of British and Thai architecture gives a visual message of the fusion of the two cultures. Artefacts used in lay groups reflect the aesthetic preferences of individuals rather than copying a Thai style…Despite its Thai iconography, the Amaravati temple is a bold attempt at British Buddhist architecture’ (2006: 47-48).

Indeed, the temple is a highly significant and iconic building for Buddhism in Britain – both because of the aforementioned mixture of Thai and English architecture and imagery, and because of the effect of the temple design on the psyche. As our informant explained:

when we were just in the sheds, you know it was okay, it (had) a utilitarian quality to it, but when you’re in a space that really encourages both those qualities of balance and integrity and brightness and spaciousness, then, in a very active and in a symbolic way, then it makes a big difference.

Amaravati is used for monastic training as well as lay retreats, family summer camps, festivals, celebrations, teachings and public talks. There is also a large and well-stocked library.  Lay support is drawn from Thai, Sri Lankan, and Cambodian communities amongst others, as well as ‘white British’ Buddhist converts.  The term monastery is preferred, however, in the early days, they had used the term ‘centre’, but the Abbott was concerned that this did not reflect the true contemplative purpose of the buildings, for the monastic community and for retreats.  Therefore ‘monastery’ was adopted, and the central building referred to as the ‘temple’.

Further work is now planned to the monastery over a thirty-year period, and includes rebuilding the ‘scout huts’ with more environmentally-sound structures, as well as a nursing facility that would support ageing residents, including the former Abbott, if he returns to Amaravati from Thailand.

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