Although we’ve yet to discern the exact statistics, it certainly feels like Buddhist communities in England are attracted to old, often Victorian buildings. Many groups, such as Jamyang London, Diamond Way, London Buddhist Centre and Fo Guang Shan have taken over impressive Victorian/Edwardian buildings that were typically almost completely derelict and dilapidated, and transformed them into buildings that you actively want to spend time in. In fact, we would go as far as to say that these groups are doing the wider communities (and we include us here) a pretty big favour in taking on huge renovation projects (which are often managed by volunteers, and financed either by mortgages or donations), taking them off the building ‘at risk’ registers and maintaining them to a very high standard. Even if you, as a community member, never step foot in one of the renovated buildings, it is surely better that they are cleaned up, tidied up, and maintained, for the sake of the heritage of the area and the wonderful history they contain.
A question that has been going round our minds is whether Buddhists in England are more attracted to attending meditation groups and ceremonial in older, renovated historical buildings as opposed to brand, spanking new purpose built places. A difficult one to answer (and there would be multiple answers from the 247,000 plus Buddhists in England and Wales), but, the sense of connection with other beings (both alive and dead) that one gets from being in a building steeped in history surely helps realise a sense of pratītyasamutpāda or dependent origination – the idea that everything that arises does so because it is dependent or conditioned by something else. I certainly feel more aware of the different people that have also drawn breath when I am in buildings with a historical pedigree, and this does give me pause for thought.
Of course, the attraction to taking over old buildings might be more practical, too. The fact remains is that as a Buddhist community, you typically need space, especially as you grow. A big hall, or room for communal meditation or ceremony, and the focal point of the shrine. A disused church might be the obvious first port of call, but as a non-Christian group, Buddhist communities are not permitted to operate from former Church of England churches, which limits their possibilities. There seem to be a number of large, Victorian buildings that might be on the ‘at risk’ register which meet the important criteria of space, especially in London, and the groups can, within the limitations of the building listing, make them their own. These buildings often take an awful lot of initial and on-going effort to maintain, however, which makes their transformation into thriving Buddhist centres all the more impressive.
This reflection raises an important question, however. Namely, what do these buildings tell us about the communities that inhabit them? We’ve recently begun to reflect on this question – and have written a guest blog post for English Heritage’s own blog – ‘Heritage Calling’ – and you can see it here.