Our research journey begins at Jamyang London. Situated a stone’s throw away from Kennington Tube Station, this Buddhist centre, part of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (or FPMT) in the Tibetan Gelug tradition, occupies a Victorian former courthouse, which later became a high-security court in the 1960s and 70s. This is a particularly fascinating building which has been lovingly, and painstakingly, restored by community members, volunteers, and local tradespeople.
According to Jamyang London’s website, their building ‘is the oldest surviving intact Victorian Police Court in London’ which also, later, housed people suspected of IRA involvement before their trials (more about this later). Previously occupying a residential semi-detached house, the community members of Jamyang London took over the Grade II listed building in 1995 with a great deal of work to do, including removing bullet-proof glass from in front of the judge’s bench and replacing it with a resplendent Buddhist shrine (see picture below), and renovating the ‘cells’ which formerly housed prisoners awaiting their trials. We can only imagine what it must have felt like opening up those cells, thinking about all the things that had transpired over the years within the walls of the old courthouse.
Perhaps what was most fascinating to us, was the story of the renovation of the individual prison cells, which are now hotel accommodation for those visiting Jamyang, or London. When volunteers removed the old radiators for renovation, they found notes stuffed in the cracks between the radiator and the wall, written by prisoners to their loved ones. These notes have been kept in the archive that Jamyang London holds, and provide a highly personal insight into the heritage of the building that this Buddhist community now occupies. And it is this heritage which inspired one of the senior members of the community to nickname the change from courthouse to Buddhist centre as a move from ‘incarceration to liberation’ – highlighting that the Buddhist path can offer relief from suffering (dukkha/duḥkha), leading to mental ‘liberation’ for those who follow it.
As you can see from the photographs, much of the fabric of the old courthouse has been maintained by Jamyang London. The heavy wooden doors to the cells (which include a spy hole for the guards to see in) and signs which advised which entrances solicitors and witnesses should take, are well preserved.
But that is not to say that this building isn’t very much a place for Buddhism complete with eye-catching Buddha and bodhisattva statues, a library full of books about Buddhism, and a large reclining Buddha in the courtyard (which is also a cafe, open to the public, with lovely cake!) with a bodhi tree growing outside.
But what is very interesting, is that Jamyang London also have what they call a ‘secular’ space, which is able to be rented out by community groups for meetings (or used for Jamyang London’s community programmes), that doesn’t have an overt Buddhist ‘presence’. This is exceptionally interesting to two scholars of religion, concerned with the way that the religious and the secular intersect in contemporary Britain. We are going to reflect further on this issue, and will dedicate a blog post to considering it in more detail.
Jamyang London have a large geographical catchment area, and serve a variety of different communities in diverse ways. They run Buddhist programmes (for those interested in Buddhist teachings and practices); they run community programmes (including an 8-week ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme with the Maudsley Hospital, and the popular ‘Caring for Carers’ and ‘Dying Well’ programmes) and get involved in inter-faith activity in Lambeth and also host visits from schools from all over London. They also run special events for the Tibetan and growing Mongolian and Nepali communities. In terms of what they call their building – ‘centre’ is the most popular term, although specific rooms (such as the shrine room) are often referred to using their Tibetan names – such as ‘gompa‘.
Of course, amongst all of the community focused activity, it is important to note that maintaining a building like this comes with significant challenges. The roof of the building had to be replaced in 2000, to cite one example of the on-going renovations required to maintain this place to a high standard. But even after a short time in Jamyang London, with every corridor turn piquing our interest, we quickly realised how glad we were that they continue to make such an effort to preserve this wonderful building, and put it to use in supporting individuals and communities, from Lambeth and beyond.