Starting life as a Victorian Fire Station, built in 1888-9 (which, following its closure was left almost completely derelict), the Triratna London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green, is an absolutely fascinating building, and the site of our second research visit of this project.
Triratna (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order or FWBO) took over the impressive Fire Station in 1975, and officially opened the London Buddhist Centre in 1978. They have undergone two major periods of renovation in this beautiful Victorian red-brick building; the first between 1975 and 1978, and the second between 2007 and 2009 where they developed several rooms to accommodate ‘Breathing Space’ – a community project established to teach mindfulness meditation techniques for people suffering from stress, depression, addiction and anxiety, for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
The building itself is highly identifiable, even on the bustling Tower Hamlets street, and is surrounded with what the London Buddhist Centre call ‘the Buddhist village’; a group of houses and businesses owned (or previously owned) and used by the local Buddhist community. The businesses include a charity shop (the wonderfully named Lama’s Pyjamas), a vegetarian restaurant, and an arts space.
Outside, and from the front, the Grade 2 listed building has retained all of its former character – the colour scheme (a beautiful fire-engine red for the old carriage door fittings where the fire engines entered and exited the station) and the external fixtures and fittings (for example, the Victorian outside gas lamp).
However, although the London Buddhist Centre and Jamyang London (our first research site) are roughly the same age, inside they do look quite different, although both have worked to integrate both old and new features of their respective buildings. Although, particularly in the new Breathing Space, the London Buddhist Centre has adopted modern plastering and colourings, the existing fabric of the building and Victorian fixtures and fittings have been integrated into the Centre in subtle, and ingenious ways.
For example, the rooms adapted for the ‘Breathing Space’ project occupy the former coal cellar of the Fire Station. The ceilings are low, the lights dimmed (when we were visiting), creating a hushed atmosphere, and a Buddhist image of a bodhisattva is painted into what looks like an old cast-iron safe.
In addition, an image of the Three Jewels (in Pali, tiratana, and Sanskrit triratna, representing the Buddha, Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha, and the Sangha – here meaning the Buddhist community) have been subtly placed into the high eaves of the outside windows, and a large lotus mural adorns a wall overlooking the outer courtyard.
Tibetan prayer flags wind their way up the side of the building and a huge wrought-iron Buddhist wheel over the entrance gateway, ushers in visitors.
Initially, the renovation work for this huge project was undertaken almost entirely by volunteers drawn from the Buddhist community and the local area. For the second round of renovations, professional builders were used (although the project was still entirely managed by Triratna members), particularly to ensure compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act – and there are lifts and accessible toilets; opening the building and its activities out to a wider audience.
And what an undertaking renovating this building is! As the building was almost completely derelict when it was taken over by Triratna in 1975 (and was an informal gathering spot for local young people, complete with graffiti), volunteers had to live in very harsh circumstances whilst the building was being renovated. Indeed, to begin, there was no glass in the window frames, and no source of heating.
In our view, it takes a great deal of dedication, vision, and commitment to make such massive projects work. As with Jamyang, the community members had looked all over London for a suitable building and had previously occupied a rented place, but hoped for somewhere larger and more permanent and suitable to the growing Buddhist community. It is, no doubt, a serious on-going concern to ensure that such a large building is kept up to scratch – and the number of things that could go wrong (leaks, being one!) must completely occupy the time of the involved community members. But, it is a labour of love, and of purpose. We were told that the aesthetics of the building are highly important here, and certainly very carefully considered, to provide the most conducive and welcoming atmosphere for meditation and Buddhist practice.
What was perhaps most interesting, and a feature of both the London Buddhist Centre and Jamyang London, was the adoption of a ‘secular’ space within the two centres, that would allow non-Buddhists to feel comfortable using the space to learn meditation techniques, without a Buddhist ‘religious’ slant. However, in order to maximise space, the London Buddhist Centre have adopted a clever way of turning a ‘religious’ space easily into a ‘secular’ space by the use of a multi-panelled triptych. When the triptych is opened it depicts and image of the Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, and attendants (monks, nuns, celestial beings and bodhisattvas). But when the space is to be used for non-Buddhist events, the panels can be closed to depict flowers on a blue background. An ingenious use of art to change the flavour of a building space.
The London Buddhist Centre is very much an active, vibrant city Buddhist centre, that exists to serve the surrounding community, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. It has been called ‘the Lotus in the City’ for this reason. So whilst the London Buddhist Centre are currently in the process of establishing and building a large, purpose-built retreat centre in the Suffolk countryside that will complement this urban centre, this former Fire Station building continues to reach out and offer support to the surrounding communities, and, indeed, seems very much embedded in them.