When we said we were visiting a well-established Taiwanese Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple just off Oxford Street in London, most people we spoke to were more than a little bit curious. Off Oxford Street? A Taiwanese temple? Where?
And yet, there it is – 30 seconds walk away from Top Shop and Nike Town, occupying an amazing Gothic-style Grade 2 listed Victorian building (designed by William Butterfield, and built in the 1860s) which was previously owned by All Saints Church (an Anglican church part of the Oxford movement, which is opposite). The building that FGS occupy used to be the clergy training facility.
Fo Guang Shan are a large, international, Taiwanese Buddhist movement (‘a big family’ we were told) who took over the building in 1992. At this stage, it was not as derelict a building as those taken over by Jamyang or Diamond Way, but it still required (and still requires) adaptations to make it fit for purpose, and ongoing maintenance which at the time we visited, they were currently fundraising for, and also had support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The London temple is one of 23 temples across Europe, in countries such as France and Germany, and there is also another sister temple in Manchester.
The building is currently used for a variety of purposes, including accommodation for a small group of Buddhist nuns from Taiwan, a large meditation hall and several small shrines, including one to Gwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion.
The internal decoration, including the bodhisattva statues and images, were made in and shipped from Taiwan, and whilst you are reminded of the Victorian heritage of the building when you are walking up the stairs to the meditation hall and shrine rooms (see picture below), once you are in the hall, you are very much transported elsewhere. Indeed, the decoration within the main hall is a veritable feast for the senses, yet, at the same time, is calming, quiet and meditative. The temple is used for meditation and retreats, for cultural events, festivals, marriage ceremonies and classes, including a Sunday School (called, the Little Bodhi Garden). And whilst the building was relatively quiet when we visited, the meditation hall fills up completely at festival times (such as the birthday of the Buddha), retreats, and Lunar days.
Fo Guang Shan are a ‘socially engaged’ Buddhist movement (which they refer to as ‘Humanistic Buddhism’), and the community members of this temple are involved in a number of activities to support local people, predominantly, although not exclusively, the Chinese communities (FGS are in close proximity to China Town and participate in Chinese New Year celebrations in Leicester Square). Activities include community work with local older people, various inter-faith events, and some Chaplaincy work in prisons.
Some of the ceremonial activities undertaken in the meditation hall are conducted in Chinese, in support of the needs of the local community. Whilst FGS did highlight that they had community members of different ethnicities, most of their supporters are drawn from the local Chinese communities. Here, there is a discernible difference between FGS London and the other organisations we have visited thus far on the project who are, for want of better terms, mainly supported by ‘converts’ as opposed to ‘ethnic minority’ Buddhists. These are not terms that should be adopted uncritically (and you can turn to Robert Bluck’s book, ‘British Buddhism’ for an introduction to the debates around their use), but, at this stage, we think that we can see some differences in the uses of buildings and their aesthetic and architectural style depending on the origins of particular Buddhist groups and the communities from which they draw their principal support, alongside the ongoing links that they have with organisations based outside the UK.
So, we are already beginning to see that the development of a particular style of Buddhist building in England is shaped by the type of building available to a group, the needs of the community they serve, and also the links that they have outside the UK. A complex picture of development, adaptation, significance and purpose.
Interestingly, Fo Guang Shan reflect this integration within some of the literature that they have produced about their temple, giving further evidence to our supposition that Buddhist buildings are intricately connected to Buddhist practice in this context. In one of their leaflets, FGS write “The choice of this address and our very Buddhist practice in an Anglican Church building is an interesting manifestation of our beliefs…It brings us close to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, and allows us to connect and integrate with the contemporary life in the UK”. Further evidence (not that we needed it!) of the validity of analysing religious communities through the lens of their buildings.
As a little aside, after our trip to FGS London, we popped into All Saints Church opposite, former owners of the FGS building. And an absolutely fascinating aside it was – similar outside architecture (Victorian, red brick, gothic, same architect), but very different inside, indeed – have a look at some of the photographs on their website.
All Saints, according to their website, have recently been nominated by English Heritage “as one of the ten buildings that have changed the face of Britain.” And they provide a link to an article of interest.