A look at how Buddhism has spread in Britain and its unique British shape.
By Diana St RuthLast updated 2005-08-18
A look at how Buddhism has spread in Britain and its unique British shape.
According to the 2001 census there are 151,816 Buddhists in Britain. However, that does not take into account those who regard themselves as Buddhists as well as Christians, or Jews, or Taoists, or anything else. The census form made no provision for such people to be counted. There are also those who refuse to label themselves as 'Buddhists' because it runs counter to the principle of selflessness or egolessness. They prefer to think of themselves as free spirits. Irrespective of how many Buddhists there are in Britain today, there is unquestionably a growing interest.
Buddhism first found its way into Britain in the 19th century through translations of scriptures from the various schools in different parts of the east. In 1879 Sir Edwin Arnold compiled an epic poem, The Light of Asia, describing the Buddha's life. This was to become a classic and is still in print today.
The limited number of books available in those early years was enough to inspire a few to begin actually practising Buddhism as a way of life. One of those, Allan Bennett, went to Sri Lanka in 1898 and returned as Ananda Metteyya, the first Englishman to be ordained as a Buddhist monk (Bhikkhu) of the Theravada tradition.
In 1907 a number of people got together and formed The Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland. This was succeeded in 1924 by The London Buddhist Society, founded by Christmas Humphreys. It was the first really successful organisation in Britain to provide a platform for all schools and traditions of Buddhism. It stood alone for almost fifty years as the focal point for Buddhists in Britain.
Sixties Britain brought eastern religions into fashion for the first time, including Buddhism. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 eventually led to the exodus of thousands of Tibetans with the Dalai Lama in 1959. This brought lamas to the west. These two factors in particular led to the mushrooming of new Buddhist groups. As a result, today almost every Buddhist tradition is represented in Britain.
The main differences are cultural. A few temples and monasteries in Britain almost entirely replicate their counterparts in the east. If one were to go to Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, in London, for example, there would be very little to distinguish it from a temple in Thailand. Even so, there will be differences.
It is unlikely that a Theravadan monk from Southeast Asia or Sri Lanka, for example, would be able to walk down a road in Britain in his saffron robes carrying an alms bowl, without getting some kind of surprised reaction from passers-by. And it is extremely unlikely that anyone would actually put food into that bowl for his daily meal, as is customary in the east. In Britain, therefore, food is taken to the temples by supporters, or cooked on site.
Whatever the tradition of Buddhism in Britain, however, the teaching has generally remained faithful to its origins. It could be said, therefore, that the essence of Buddhism, its practices, and teachings, are the same in Britain as in the east, but not necessarily its cultural customs.
Some Buddhists regard themselves as converts, i.e. have actually renounced or rejected the religion they were born into, and taken up Buddhism. Others, however, do not feel this sense of rejecting anything.
Buddhism does not demand a commitment to it alone, to the exclusion of anything else, and there are many who happily harmonise more than one faith or way of life within themselves. For example, there are westerners of the Judaeo-Christian traditions who maintain their faith yet supplement it with the practice of Buddhist meditation.
There are also people who were only ever nominally Hindus or Christians or whatever, but felt as though they were embarking upon a spiritual path for the first time on taking up Buddhism. These people, too, would have no deep sense of converting from one religion to another.
There is much preparation and excitement around the Buddhist festivals that take place in British temples and monasteries at various times of the year. Food is prepared at or taken to the temples, and gifts are presented by lay people to the monks of money, sometimes robes, household goods, and food for the kitchen storeroom.
These are not only special holy days of chanting and teachings, but happy, social occasions enjoyed in the way that Christmas or Easter is enjoyed, for example, by practising Christians.
Traditional festivals and ceremonies do not always rank highly, however, among western Buddhists. This is not to say that westerners do not attend them or enjoy them, but there is often no cultural connection. Whatever the case, this is an opportunity to make offerings to support the temples and monks in their way of life.
The types of Buddhism practised around the world can be vastly different. After all, it has been evolving and developing over twenty-five centuries in a variety of cultures. Therefore, there have been temples, monasteries and centres of all kinds set up in Britain over the last hundred years. Some of these have their roots in Sri Lanka, China, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and Tibet.
A few of these centres have been established specifically to serve their own ethnic communities, though they are generally open to everyone. The monk or nun incumbents will probably engage in daily devotions and practices, as well as giving teachings, blessings and ceremonies for the laity.
There are also centres that combine particular Buddhist practices and traditions with a western culture. Westerners who have been ordained in Japan or Thailand, for example, have returned to the west to set up training monasteries in Britain. These centres regard themselves as inheritors of authentic traditions. Inevitably, however, cultural adjustments have been made. Some chanting might be in English, for instance, and the sexes are treated on a more equal footing.
Yet other groups in Britain are principally concerned with the practice of meditation, while paying little attention to the rest of the Buddhist teachings or cultural trappings. They do not chant, bow, or have much by way of Buddha-statues, for example. Neither do they emphasise the study of scriptures. They rather stress the basic meditation techniques of mindfulness and awareness in daily life.
In contrast to this, there are a few organisations which give a platform to all schools and traditions of Buddhism from around the world. There is no intention by them of adapting or adjusting anything, and yet they may also be open to the organic development of what could eventually become a British form of Buddhism.
There is no principal Buddhist Society or group in Britain, nor one which can speak for Buddhists as a whole, though attempts have and are being made to create such a body.
Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, Hertfordshire. This is one of a group of monasteries founded in 1979 by Ajahn Sumedho, an American-born Theravadan monk of the Thai Forest tradition. Amaravati houses both monks and nuns, has a retreat centre for lay people, a library, and is open to visitors for occasional talks and personal practice.
The Buddhist Society, London. One of the first Buddhist organisations in Britain founded in 1924 by the late Christmas Humphreys, QC. It offers talks and classes on all schools of Buddhism and has a library.
Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London. A Tibetan organisation of the Gelugpa tradition, under the direction of Geshe Tashi Tsering. Courses of study and practice are taught at all levels.
Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, Dumfriesshire. A centre founded in 1967 by two refugee Tibetan abbots, now under the guidance of Dr Akong Tulku Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe Losal. This is a monastery as well as an active centre offering courses of study in Buddhism as well as other topics.
Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, Northumberland. A training monastery of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, founded in 1972 by an Englishwoman, the late Rev. Jiyu-Kennett, and now under the direction of Rev. Daishin Morgan. It is open to lay guests.
Wat Buddhapadipa Temple, Wimbledon, London. This was the first Buddhist temple in the United Kingdom. It was set up with the objective of creating a centre for the dissemination of theoretical and practical Buddhist teachings in Europe.