The Buddhist Society has always been a building that I enjoy visiting. Situated in upmarket Eccleston Square in London (not far from Victoria Station), the Buddhist Society is one of the first lay Buddhist societies in Europe, according to their website.
The Buddhist Society was established in 1924 by Christmas Humphreys to support interest in Buddhism and Buddhist practice in the United Kingdom, and to this day, they offer meditation classes from various Buddhist traditions (they were preparing for a lunch-time Zen meditation when we visited), talks and lectures on a wide variety of topics in relation to Buddhism, a summer school, a journal (called ‘The Middle Way’) and a well-stocked library. Currently, the Buddhist Society have approximately 2,500 members and subscribers, drawn from around the world, and also from people of varying adherence to different Buddhist groups and traditions or none.
The Buddhist Society originally occupied a series of residential houses, including first in Bloomsbury (from 1924), and later in Gordon Square (from 1952-1956), before moving to their current home at 58 Eccleston Square which (aside from the flats upstairs) is Grade II Listed. The building itself, and the square that surrounds it (including a large communal garden), was constructed sometime between 1828 and 1850 by Thomas Cubitt.
58 Eccleston Square was a residential house before being first rented, and then bought, by the Buddhist Society, and was, previously a (no doubt magnificent) family home. Whilst the Buddhist Society made changes to the building when they initially took it over in 1956, they have not changed much since then (although the library was renovated about five years ago, and there has been redecoration, maintenance and the addition of central heating), and the diverse history of Buddhism in England is writ large throughout the fabric of this fascinating building and the artifacts it houses. In the photo below, Emma is sitting on the chair used by Edwin Arnold to write his famous poem, The Light of Asia; the same chair that is favoured by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Patron of the Buddhist Society, when he comes to visit.
If you keep your eyes open, you will see some very interesting small details in the Buddhist Society – I was particularly taken with the little details, such as the door hinges and the wrought-iron stair banisters (see photo below), lovely examples of well-maintained period features.
Inside, there is a library, an office, and three very different looking shrine rooms (one of which doubles as a lecture room). Downstairs is a kitchen , and storage for the archives (including all the copies of the Middle Way Journal, and reel-to-reel tapes of lectures that have been given here over the years).
There are also three very different shrine rooms that can be used by members for meditation, and play host to a wide range of interesting artifacts, Buddha and bodhisattva statues and pictures, paintings and thankas, many which are historically significant.
Both the large and small shrine rooms were recently decorated, including some fabulous wall-paper (see below), which was chosen as it looks like a lotus image; significant in Buddhism. And only three years ago, after a legacy was bequeathed to the Society, was central heating installed. Unsurprisingly, on-going costs to maintain the building are high – they recently repainted it outside and have to constantly be aware of issues in relation to upkeep, including clearing out the drains at the top of the house.
Although commonly referred to as the Buddhist Society – actually, some who visit also call it a temple; and it was remarked that it feels like a Buddhist temple because of the ever-present smell of incense – well, as we were told, they have been burning incense here since 1956!