Buddhism has its origins in the life of Siddhartha Gautama, a 6th-century BC prince of the Sakya people living in the Himalayan foothills. He is known by many names, such as Sakyamuni and Guatama Buddha.
‘Buddha’ is a title meaning ‘one fully awake’, able to see reality as it is. After years of ascetic practice, he realised that there was a Middle Way open to all.
Followers gathered around him and became his disciples who spread his message across Asia, where Buddhism remains an important religious, cultural and intellectual tradition.
Buddhism has not only shaped whole civilisations and cultures, it has also been shaped by them. As a result Buddhist temples, monasteries and shrines exhibit a rich diversity, something that can be seen in England today.
Buddhism in England
Buddhism came to England in a variety of ways as a result of the British colonial presence in Asia and trading with the Far East. Travellers became enchanted with Buddhist teaching, culture and art. They brought Buddhist texts to the UK, which were translated by academics and the first English practitioners appeared.
The first ordained English Buddhist monk was Allan Bennett. In 1900 he travelled to Sri Lanka and in 1901 went to Burma (now Myanmar) to become a monk, being given the name Ananda Metteyya. In 1908 he set sail for England to establish a sangha (monastic community). He was a founder of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland which closed in 1926, three years after his death.
Buddhism also came into the country through migration. Among the first of these were people from the Indian sub-continent and surrounding regions, such a Myanmar (Burma), and Hong Kong. In the post Second World War period, Japanese Buddhism came into the country through visits by renowned teachers and, increasingly, through popular culture. From the 1960s, as a result of the annexation of Tibet by China, Tibetan Buddhists also started to come to the UK via India. These communities represent the three main traditions of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.
These strands of Buddhism account for the rich Buddhist presence across the UK and this is reflected in the historic buildings they have adapted and those built since the early 20th century, of which around 190 are in England.
There are two main Buddhist organisations in the UK. The Buddhist Society was the first, formed in 1924. In 1993, the Network of Buddhist Organisations was founded, reflecting the growth in diversity of Buddhist traditions in Great Britain during the intervening period.
What is a Buddhist temple?
Buddhist buildings in England serve the needs of their communities and the traditions they come from. Generally, there will be a meditation hall or shrine room, where followers practice meditation and celebrate Buddhist festivals. In most, the focal point will be a statue of the Buddha on a stand (known as a Buddharupa), often surrounded by other images, candles, incense, flowers and offerings. As you see below some are very simple and others ornate. Attached to a temple there may also be a monastery, teaching rooms and a place for visitors to eat.
What was the first Buddhist temple in England?
The first Buddhist buildings in England were of the Theravadan tradition, which is found predominantly in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and South East Asia. The London Buddhist Vihara was founded in 1926 by a Sri Lankan monk named Anagarika Dharmapala. First based in Ealing, the Vihara has moved location several times over the years and has occupied a listed building in Chiswick since 1994.
It was the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and, like many later buildings in this tradition, it sits in a suburban location.
What was the first purpose-built Buddhist temple?
The Wat Buddhapadipa, or simply the Buddhapadipa Temple, in Wimbledon was the first purpose-built Buddhist temple in the UK and the first Thai Buddhist Temple ever built outside Asia. The community was set up by the London Buddhist Temple Foundation in 1965 and was first located in East Sheen before moving to Wimbledon in November 1976.
Building work started in 1979 and was completed in 1982. The architect was the renowned Praves Limparangsi (1930 to 2018), named as National Artist for Architecture in 1989 by the Thai Ministry for Culture.
The vibrant paintings inside the temple hall depict the life of Buddha painted by artists Chalermchai Kositpipat and Panya Vijinthanasarn. If you look closely you will spot well-known figures from history as well as the artists themselves – it was a common technique in traditional Thai mural paintings to contrast scenes from Buddhist tradition with contemporary life. Try to find the dog lying down next to a woman sitting on a chair next to a thatched cottage.
More historic temples in England
The majority of temples have been adapted from buildings with former uses. Some are in listed buildings, with Buddhist communities supporting and caring for these important historical places.
Some Buddhist communities have designed purpose-built temples, adding to the rich architectural story of England. Below you will see examples of both.
Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre, Southwark, London
In 2006 Kagyu Samye Dzong renovated Manor Place Baths in Walworth, built in 1895 and listed at Grade II, to use as a temporary home until their new Bermondsey location was ready. The meditation centre was open from 2007 until 2015.
In June 2009, the group bought Bermondsey Public Library as their permanent home. The Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist centre has been offering a respite and spiritual guidance to the public since it opened in June 2010.
The Peace Pagoda, Willen, Milton Keynes
The Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake, Milton Keynes was built in 1980 by monks and nuns from the Nipponzan Myōhōji, a small Buddhist order of the Nichiren tradition founded by Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fujii (1885 to 1985). Fujii was dedicated to the building of peace pagodas around the world.
Fujii started the project of building the Peace Pagodas in Japan in 1947, with two built in Hiroshima and Nagasaki where atomic bombs killed 150,000 people. In the wake of subsequent disasters, the Peace Pagodas were built in Europe, Asia and the United States to comfort those affected and to promote world peace and harmony.
There are more than 80 Peace Pagodas around the world built as part of advocacy for world peace and non-violence. This Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes was the first of its kind to be built in the Western hemisphere. Every year there is a floating lantern ceremony at the Peace Pagoda to commemorate the devastating event at Hiroshima in 1945.
Milton Keyne’s Peace Pagoda enshrines sacred relics of Lord Buddha presented from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Berlin, and the frieze tells the story of the Buddha, from his birth 2,500 years ago to his death at Kusinagara. It sits next to the Buddhist Temple which regularly hosts services and spiritual events for the local community.
Madhyamaka Kadampa Meditation Centre, York
The 18th-century, Grade II* listed Kilnwick Percy Hall has been home to Madhyamaka Kadampa Meditation Centre for 30 years. It has its origins in the New Kadampa Tradition with its roots in the Tibetan (Vajrayana) tradition.
The house that we see today was built in 1790 by York architect John Carr, for Robert Denison, a wealthy Leeds wool merchant. In 1837 he came up with the idea for what is now known at The Great Yorkshire Show. During the Second World War, the hall was requisitioned by the Army and supposedly used for sorting Forces mail (which may have been a cover for Special Forces training.) Parts of the hall were later demolished by the then owner Henry Whitworth who could not afford to run or sell the house.
In 1986 the group purchased the hall, together with 40 acres including the lakes, woods and pastureland. The stable block and the coach house block have been converted into accommodation, including the Wolds Retreat Bed and Breakfast.
Buddhist Vihara and Peace Pagoda, Birmingham
The Dhamma Talaka Peace Pagoda is believed to be the largest purpose-built pagoda in Europe. The pagoda’s name means ‘Reservoir of the Teaching’ a reference to its location behind the Edgbaston Reservoir. It is modelled on the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar (formally known as Burma).
The respected scholar and meditation teacher, Agga Maha Pandita Rewata Dhamma was invited to England in 1975 and established a Buddhist monastery in Birmingham as his base. He planned the Peace Pagoda to enshrine the Buddha relics owned by the former Burmese royal family, which opened in 1998.
The monastery attached was built in the summer of 2002 to house monks and visitors who come on retreat to the Vihara.
London Diamond Way Buddhist Centre, Lambeth
In 2011, The Diamond Way, a Buddhist group following the Tibetan Karma Kagyu lineage of lamas, purchased the derelict Beaufoy Institute, which had been empty for 15 to 20 years.
The Beaufoy Institute, a Grade II listed building, was built in 1907 by Mark Hanbury Beaufoy as an industrial school for poor boys. Beaufoy was part of a prominent vinegar-making family with a factory in Vauxhall. It has a rich history with its roots in the Ragged School movement of the early 19th century but was requisitioned for use by women manufacturing munitions during the Second World War. It returned to use as a school after the war, before being eventually acquired by Lambeth Council.
Volunteers from The Buddhist Centre have brought the building back into use and it is now a meeting point for the local community.
The Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London
The Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park was the second to be built in the UK, after the Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes. Built by monks, nuns and followers of Nipponzan Myōhōji, it was offered to the people of London in 1984 by the order’s founder Buddhist Monk Nichidatsu Fujii. 1984 became the Greater London Peace Year.
The pagoda has a double roof and four large gilded bronze sculptures of Buddha on each of its four sides showing some of the Buddha’s mudras, hand gestures that symbolise some of the events in the Buddha’s life and indicate a specific characteristic: birth, contemplation leading to enlightenment, teaching and death.
Reverend Nagase, who is responsible for the upkeep of the pagoda today, helped build the UK’s first Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes and in 1984, joined the 50 volunteers building Battersea Park’s Peace Pagoda.
Thai Forest Sangha, Chithurst near Petersfield
The Thai Forest Sangha was established in the village of Chithurst, West Sussex in 1979 by an American-born monk known as Ajahn Sumedho (born Robert Karr Jackman) a disciple of Ajahn Chah. The Sangha purchased Chithurst House (Cittaviveka) in order establish a forest monastery, in contrast the suburban monasteries that had grown up in England.
The Thai Forest tradition is one branch of the Theravada Buddhist tradition which follows the Pali Canon, believed to be the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha.
The complex itself was originally developed as a summer camp funded by the Canadian government in 1939; left unused at the outbreak of war it provided accommodation for children evacuated from London. After the war it became a school for children with learning difficulties. The Canadian cedarwood huts remain in use, adjacent to a purpose-built Buddhist temple and cloister completed in 1999.
The house was semi-derelict and both it and a nearby cottage (renamed Aloka Cottage) required significant restoration before they became the base for male and female monastic communities respectively.
Jamyang London Buddhist Centre, Lambeth
Jamyang London Buddhist Centre was established in 1978 and moved to Lambeth in 1995 after outgrowing the original building in Finsbury Park. The centre provides a space to study and practice Tibetan Buddhism, following the lineage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The founders purchased the Grade II listed courthouse, built in the Victorian era, to accommodate their growing community. The building started life as a police court, designed by police surveyor Thomas Charles Sorby (1836 to 1924) and later became a magistrates’ court. The complex expanded to include a fire station and a workhouse, the latter operational until 1922.
Notes and photographs of graffiti from prisoners have been kept in an archive, with former cells now providing visitor accommodation. Historic fixtures and fittings sit beside the new gompa (shrine room), a nine-foot Buddharupa (the focal point of the meditation hall) and other rooms open to the public. In this way, preserving the built heritage whilst adapting it for use as a Buddhist community.
London Fo Guang Shan Temple, Westminster
London Fo Guang Shan Temple was established in 1992 and located in a former parish school and Church House, a Grade II listed building, of 1868 to 70 designed by Gothic Revivalist architect William Butterfield.
It is one of two British branches of Fo Guang Shan Monastery, an international Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist organisation and monastic order based in Taiwan that practices Humanistic Buddhism.
Share your knowledge
Do you have more information about any of the Buddhist temples mentioned in this article, or do you know about another Buddhist temple in a historic building? Add your contribution to the Missing Pieces Project.