As so often happens with empirical research, you come across some of the most interesting things by accident.
We had been told about a major building renovation underway around the corner from Jamyang London, being undertaken by the Diamond Way community in Britain. Diamond Way are a lay Buddhist group following a Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, established by Lama Ole Nydahl. They are a large international Buddhist movement, and operate a number of groups across the UK, Europe and beyond, but this renovation would create a major centre for their community and activities in Britain. Formerly the Beaufoy Institute – an industrial (or ‘ragged’ school) for poor boys, built in 1907 by the philanthropic Beaufoy family – Diamond Way purchased the huge, but almost completely derelict, Grade 2 listed building from the English Heritage ‘at risk’ list in Spring 2011 (it had been empty for 15-20 years). They plan to open it formally to the public for Buddhist activities in 2014. We have been lucky enough to witness these extensive renovations first hand, giving us a unique insight into the complex process of changing an existing historic building into a usable Buddhist centre.
And this particular renovation, like those undertaken at Jamyang and London Buddhist Centre, is certainly no small feat. The community expect to keep the building for a long time, wish to make it their UK ‘home’, and, furthermore, aim to renovate it to a very high standard. The meditation halls provide evidence of this commitment to building quality, as the photographs below show.
We were completely captivated by the beauty of the renovated ceilings and the use of colour, and the interspersion of intricate Tibetan thanka (silk paintings, of sacred images such as bodhisattvas) with Edwardian architectural features: a fascinating aesthetic interaction between the history and culture of Tibet and England.
What the photographs don’t really show is the scale of this place – it is absolutely huge. Just a very brief tour round had us going in and out of multiple rooms and up and down stairs, getting lost and more than a little spatially challenged as the space unfolded. Renovating a place of this scale to a high standard is also exceptionally painstaking work. This is a very precisely planned renovation, including repairing individual tiles to carefully maintain the existing fabric of the Edwardian school, but also having to ensuring its use and fit for purpose for a Buddhist community. And, like London Buddhist Centre (and indeed, Manchester Buddhist Centre, which I will discuss in a future post), most of the work is being done by volunteers, some from the Buddhist community (drawn from all over Europe), and some from the wider Lambeth area, who have come in to help.
And what is most interesting, is that this herculean effort is, indeed, the point. Buddhist practice doesn’t start when the building is completed. Building and Buddhist practice are carefully intertwined into the renovation plan and the work being done at the Beaufoy Institute. Having the ability to be present with what is, learning from and paying attention to the challenges as they present themselves, as well as committing to foster and develop the skills of community members (through working in teams), is seen as an important part of personal and communal development by this group, and perhaps one facet contributing to the development of ‘right effort’ (Sanskrit, samyag-vyāyāma/ Pali, sammā-vāyāma), as described in the Buddhist Eightfold Path (ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo). The Diamond Way community in the UK had spent 10 years fundraising and searching for an appropriate building, and the renovations will take some time to complete in entirety. The idea of all this effort taking place in a building that, throughout its history, also housed great effort with its industrial school seems not so much a change of purpose, than a continuation.
The building itself has been visited by Lama Ole Nydahl, and also blessed by the 17th Karmapa, who is recognised by this community as Trinley Thaye Dorje. And the significance of the building is that it provides, as the community themselves highlight, a home, and ‘a space for mind’ where people will be able to meditate daily, in a bustling London cityscape.
While the initial planning permission submitted by this community was met with both support and some concern, the Trustees of Diamond Way UK say they are keen to ensure that this historic building remains accessible to the wider community of Lambeth. They have started a programme entitled ‘Friends of the Beaufoy‘, and have had open days and tours, art exhibitions, a Christmas market, and participated in local events. Therefore, the idea of ‘a space for community’ is broadened beyond the Buddhist community affiliated with the Diamond Way. Indeed, there is also a blog about the renovation of the building, run by the Diamond Way community themselves, and the Beaufoy Family have offered the community their archives, in order to maintain the history of the building into its present use.
We both look forward to seeing this renovation unfold.