If I’m being totally honest, one of the most compelling buildings I have visited on this project has been the Manchester Buddhist Centre. I hope I’ll be able to give you a flavour of this remarkable building in this blog post!
Manchester Buddhist Centre, part of the Triratna Buddhist Community, occupies a large former cotton warehouse in the centre of Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The almost derelict warehouse, built in the 1860s, was purchased in 1994 and opened in 1996, a month after the IRA bomb explosion nearby, which slightly damaged some of its windows.
Manchester Buddhist Centre, originally established in 1977, previously owned a Victorian/Edwardian semi-detached house in Chorlton, a Manchester suburb, but there was a strong aspiration to ‘bring Buddhism into the City’, and therefore, the search for appropriate, yet affordable, premises was initiated.
The substantial warehouse that the community eventually bought was originally used to store cotton sent from America via Liverpool, and which was transported to Manchester on the Ship Canal. The community are not exactly sure what stage of the cotton manufacture process the warehouse was used for – whether it housed the cotton before or after it was woven in the neighbouring Lancashire mills, or both – however, within the building are a number of significant features of this industrial heritage. Possibly the most fascinating of these are at the very top of the building, where some of the wooden beams still have the quality control marks given to them at Liverpool dockyards, prior to being transported for building.
Although complete renovation was needed to the warehouse, the overall aim was to maintain as many original features as possible, whilst at the same time making the building serviceable for a working Buddhist Centre. In order to achieve this, the renovations were undertaken by ‘stripping back’ as opposed to building onto. As one of our informants told us, this was understood to be a reflection of ‘one way of describing the Buddhist life, which is that you gradually remove the accretions – the ‘dust’, or habit – to see the inner beauty’.
As a result, many of these original features of the warehouse are integrated into the fabric of the Buddhist Centre, tying the building’s former use and its current one together in synchronicity. The original warehouse stairs, a remarkable feature, worn down in the centre after years of use are retained, as is the Victorian fire alarm which is a feature in the principal shrine room.
As one of our interviewees explained:
This building’s not just ours, it is part of the history of Manchester, and we hold it for posterity.
The initial renovations were completed entirely by volunteers, often using recycled materials, including an extensive wooden flooring recovered from a local school. It was a highly ambitious project and conducted on a tight budget. Furthermore, it was physically arduous to undertake the renovations, including the sandblasting of the painted brickwork and the beams, but was seen to be part of Buddhist practice and contributed to the development of a strong, and stable, Buddhist community, through the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’. Manchester Buddhist Centre officially opened to the public in 1996, after two years of renovations. However, building work was ongoing after this date, notably to the Earth Café, one of the businesses housed within the Buddhist Centre. Indeed, in a building of this size and age, numerous renovations are needed on an ongoing basis, including to the roof and period windows, and this is a significant financial commitment.
Yet, alongside retaining these original features, the community of Manchester Buddhist Centre have also integrated Buddhist objects into the fabric of the building. Again in the shrine room, people have placed Buddhist sacred objects – mala beads, vajra bells and semi-precious stones – into the mortar between the bricks, and under the shrine room floor there are Buddhist pictures, blessings, and mantras. This way, if the building is ever occupied by another group or community, its recent history as a Buddhist Centre will also be remembered.
Manchester Buddhist Centre is used by a large number of people each week, for different reasons, including for meditation and Buddhist courses, visiting the café or health centre, which offers yoga and alternative therapies and the Breathworks pain management project for those suffering from chronic pain and illness. The Buddhist Centre is also home to the Clear Vision Trust which produces audio-visual materials about Buddhism, including for schools (also see Bluck, 2006:155). There is also a community of people living within the building, and there is a shop, a library and offices for the people running the Buddhist Centre. Furthermore, the Buddhist Centre also hire space to charities or community groups for meetings and training days. When space was allocated for these businesses to develop, it was with the intention of fostering what was called the ‘dana economy’. Dana is a Buddhist concept meaning generosity, and, we were told, ‘there was a vision attached (to the development of the building)…that was very much about trying to change society.’
For our interviewees, Manchester Buddhist Centre is significant for a number of reasons. The first is because it acts as ‘an oasis in the heart of the city’ offering an opportunity to help people with the suffering (dukkha) they experience in life. One of our interviewees stated:
I’ve heard many people say …that nothing else helped them with the desperation that they felt. So, they may associate the building with that, and it therefore has an enormous place in their hearts.
In addition, the importance of the building lies within the fostering of community relationships:
I think that the key meaning of the building is to create community. It’s a vehicle for teaching the Dharma and creating Buddhist community.