The London Buddhist Vihara

Introduction

The London Buddhist Vihara was founded in 1926 by Anagarika Dharmapala, who was one of the prominent leaders of the 19th century Sinhala Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka. Although this temple was officially declared open in 1926, the early roots go back to the latter part of the 19th century, especially to the meeting of Anagarika Dharmapala with Edwin Arnold, the author of “Light of Asia”[1] and the editor of the Daily Telegraph in 1893, returning after attending the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.[2] At this time, as London was considered the most important city in the world as the capital of the British empire, Anagarika was determined to share the joy of ‘Dhamma’ with English people and especially with the citizens of London. This happened in the context of the increased interest of Western intellectuals in Buddhism in the 19th century.

At the beginning in 1926 a lady called Mrs. Mary Foster was the main benefactor of the Vihara and she financed the setting up of ‘Foster House’ in Ealing, the first Theravada Monastery to be established outside the Asian continent, the continent of its origin. This Vihara was very soon shifted to a more convenient and central place in Gloucester Road and it remained there until the outbreak of the 2nd World War. Then the monks went back to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and again it was reopened in 1954 at Ovington Square, Knightsbridge, with the help of many Sinhala people. In 1958, when the lease expired, the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust, the custodians of the Vihara, bought a property at 5, Heathfield Gardens in Chiswick for the functions of the Vihara. The Vihara was opened at these new premises on April 24th, 1964. On May 21st, 1994 the Vihara shifted to its present location, The Avenue, Chiswick, with more space and convenience. [3] 

Presently the temple is open daily to the public from 9.00 am to 9.00 pm and there is a monk or layperson available to guide newcomers with information about the temple. This gives the opportunity to anybody who wishes to meditate or to be involved in an act of worship personally in the serene atmosphere of the temple. For the usage of students and other interested people, the temple maintains a library in the lecture hall. The library consists of the Buddhist Canon in English and Asian languages, ola-leaf manuscripts (the ancient form of Sri Lankan books, like papyrus), bound periodicals, books on Buddhism and related subjects.[4] The temple has a bookstall with books and pamphlets regarding Buddhism and related subjects. Often the visitors are welcomed with Sri Lankan hospitality by being offered a cup of tea or coffee and with a friendly chat even if it is the first visit of the group or an individual.

Voluntary membership with lay leadership

From the 19th century up to date there are many Westerners who have been associated with this temple. Since Buddhism is a religious philosophy that does not have religious rituals such as baptism or confirmation which make people members of the religious congregation, it is difficult to give an exact figure for membership of the temple as can be done for many Christian churches. The types of association by Western people vary from that of an integral member of the temple community to one who practises Buddhist philosophy in his/her day-to-day life in a very personal manner. Even if the participation of devotees in the activities of the temple varies from a few days a week to once or twice a year, all of them are considered as the disciples of the Buddha. According to a residential monk of the temple there are about 1000 Sri Lankan families and 200 British individuals who regularly take part in the activities of the temple. [5]

As this temple is a direct result of the transformation of lay Buddhist leadership in Sri Lanka, lay leaders have been playing a prominent role from the very beginning of its inception in the UK. The founder of this temple, Anagarika Dharmapala, was one of the main leaders who took upon himself a new role Anagarika, a lay celibate between “lay” and “monk” in Buddhism.  He emphasised the role of lay people in protecting and propagating Dhamma or the Gospel of Buddhism. In a way this temple was able to pioneer the new role to be played by the lay people in European Theravada Buddhism in the context of extensive lay participation in the protestant Christian churches in the UK.

Among lay people in this temple, women have a prominent role and take part in many activities. Many women get involved in the traditional Sri Lankan duties of women such as preparing and serving food and decoration of the temple with flowers. There are some other women who serve in various committees of the temple and work hand in hand with men. Apart from the above activities some women deliver speeches, especially on the issues of women in Buddhism. In these speeches they often highlight the contribution of women in the past and encourage contemporary women to go forward by following their example. The climax of the activities of women is the annual “Sanghamitta day” in December, the day when Sri Lankan Buddhists celebrate the introduction of women’s ordination to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta, the daughter of Emperor Ashoka of India, in the 3rd century BC. [6]

Defined more by the people who form it than by the territory they inherit.

Since this is the first Buddhist monastery in Europe, and the first to be established outside the continent of its origin, it has forged many links and associations with many prominent Buddhist individuals and organisations all over the world. Often other Buddhist immigrants look up to this temple for guidance and inspiration in their endeavours in the UK and other European countries. The respect that this institution gained throughout the years has been increased by its harmonious integration into British society. This temple is often defined as the basic model for Buddhism in the UK and Europe. In some scholarly expositions the basic model adopted by this temple, the “London Vihara Model,” is used to analyse other Buddhist establishments in Western countries. [7] In the above context this temple is defined as an institution of Universal Buddhism with associations to British and Sri Lankan persons who contributed to the establishment of this temple.

However, the majority of the members who regularly take part in the activities of the temple live in and around London, and mainly around the Chiswick area.  For special occasions people come from many parts of the UK, as this temple exists as the symbol of the existence of Sri Lankan Buddhism in the West. It is evident that this temple is often associated with the founder Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist revival of the latter part of the 19th century in Sri Lanka by the Sinhala Buddhists living in the UK. This has happened through their association of regaining Buddhist power by Sri Lankans through the work of Dharmapala and the Buddhists revivalists of the 19th century in Sri Lanka.  Therefore this temple exists as a local temple in the Chiswick area but with a global emphasis due to its association with many people all over the globe.

Systematic fund raising and system of trustees

This temple is managed by the Dharmapala Trust based in Sri Lanka, and the activities of the temple are carried out by lay devotees headed by the chief monk, assisted by other residential monks of the temple. The main custodians of this temple live in Sri Lanka with a representative in the UK. However there is a group of people who see to the day to day running of the temple without official appointments as office bearers.

There is a registered charity called the Rahula Trust, which is handled by a group of trustees comprising 4 lay people and 2 monks of this temple. Although this is not under the direct management of the Dharmapala Trust the enthusiastic monks and lay people of the London Vihara started this charity with the intention of helping unprivileged people all over the world. This charity sponsors poor children in countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka and assists an African country through a Jesuit priest. The charity gets donations from people belonging to many socio-religious contexts and through various means. Funds are raised through such activities as sponsored marathons and cultural shows put on by some young university students in the UK.  Scholarships of this charity are given only considering the poverty and academic capabilities of children regardless of their faith, race, sex or nationality [8]

Clergy 

All the clergy in the temple are celibate monks and do not work for a salary or a regular personal income. Lay people meet the material needs of the monks through alms called Pirikara and once they are offered they belong to Sangha or the order of monks. Throughout the year, according to a roster, the lay devotees offer daily meals to the monks, which is an integral part of the relationship between the lay people and the monks.

The activities of the temple include wedding blessings and pastoral care such as visiting the sick and needy at homes or in hospitals and officiating at funerals of the devotees. Often people come to the temple to offer Dhana or food to monks in memory of their dead loved ones. The structure of the way in which these ministries are performed is very similar to a Christian minister looking after a parish in the UK. By prior arrangement schools and educational groups can visit the temple to have an exposure to the temple and Buddhism. On request the temple administration is prepared to be involved in activities such as interfaith groups, which bring various ethno-religious people together. 

Although lay participation is very prominent, the monks, headed by the chief monk, have the final authority on all matters of this Vihara apart from their authority on spiritual and doctrinal matters. Monks are looked upon as mentors and gurus who are considered as vehicles of Dharma proclaimed by the Lord Buddha.  The monks are expected to be unblemished, living in an ideal community where they share everything in common. The fulfilment of the above factors by the monks functions as guidelines for lay people in their day-to-day life. All the monks of this Vihara are professionals with various qualifications and experiences who have lived and worked in the UK, Sri Lanka and some other countries, serving various communities.

Ethnic tendencies

Although the main aim of the founder of this temple was to share the joy of Dhamma with Western people, today it has become one of the main responsibilities of the temple to cater to the cultural and religious needs and wants of the Sinhala Buddhists in and around London. This has mainly happened since the mid 70s with the increased number of Sri Lankan immigrants settling in and around London who have been educated in Sinhala and brought up in the typical Sri Lankan Sinhala culture. Up to a certain extent this group has changed the whole outlook, which was philosophically centred and dominated by Sri Lankan and white British people whose first language was English right from the inception of this Temple in 1926.

However the temple still makes many efforts to accommodate white British people and some other Buddhists from other countries as well. All the activities of the temple are held in both Sinhala and English. In this temple English is often used as the main language as the vast majority of participants are fluent in English whether they are of Sri Lankan origin or otherwise. The temple is always conscious of keeping the tension and balance between universality and particularity of Buddhism and it organises its activities accordingly. The temple has taken measures not to organise exclusive inward-looking Sinhala ethnic activities, which may exclude other Buddhists other than Sinhala Buddhists. For instance this temple does not have an exclusive Sinhala New Year festival in April, which is a common feature in other Sri Lankan temples in and around London. Instead of having a Sinhala New Year festival they have the prize-giving of the “Dhamma school” in April which includes some aspects of the Sinhala New Year. [9]

Multi-functional activities with religious and cultural reproduction

It is a matter of interest to observe the pattern of the activities of this temple in London. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7.00pm there are classes on Buddhism with an introduction to Buddhism for beginners, an advanced Buddhist doctrine class and a course on Theravada Buddhism respectively. These courses are affiliated to the University of London. On every Wednesday at 7.00pm there is a session on meditation (Bhavana) with instructions and practices, and these meditation classes are conducted for both beginners and more experienced people. Monthly retreats are held on the last Saturday of every month from 2.00pm to 8.00pm except in August and December. The usual programme for these retreats is as follows.

2.00-2.15 Introductory talk

2.15-3.30 Sitting meditation practice

3.30-4.00 Walking meditation practice

4.00-4.10 Tea

4.10-5.00 Sitting meditation practice

5.00-5.30 Walking meditation practice

5.30-6.00 Dhamma talk

6.00-6.30 Tea & refreshment

6.30-7.30 Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness)

7.30-8.00 Questions and answers: Discussion [10]

Annually the following festivals are organised by the temple with the emphasis being on their religious significance over and above Sri Lankan cultural aspects, thus allowing any Buddhists to take part in the celebrations.

April             - Rahula Dhamma day (children's day)

May              - Vesak celebration – Buddha day

June              - Poson celebration 

July               - Esala celebration  - dhammacakka day

September     - Founder's day

November     - Kathina celebrations

December     - Sanghamitta day celebration  [11]

In April a festival is organised for Buddhist children living in the UK. This festival is named after Rahula, the son of Gauthama who later became the Buddha, the enlightened one. This festival gives the opportunity for the temple community to reflect on and contemplate the future of Buddhist children. Hence this annual festival addresses the anxieties and aspiration of these children with guidance in order to face the challenges of their day-to-day life. Also this festival is used to think about children throughout the world and remind the devotees of their responsibility towards them. 

Vesak, the celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Lord Buddha, is celebrated as the Buddha day. By celebrating this festival the birth stories, the sermons of the Lord Buddha with his main teachings and the important aspect of his ministry are remembered through talks, sermons and meditations in a festive atmosphere as a festival of light.

The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC by Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashoka of India, is celebrated in June as Poson, with an emphasis on the development of the Sinhala culture with Buddhist philosophy.  This introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka became significant with the decline of Buddhism in India where gradually Sri Lanka became one of the main countries to be considered as a protector and preserver of Buddhism in its original form. This festival also has become important in the context of Sri Lanka as the seat of Theravada Buddhism where Theravada scripture was later written in Pali. With the above emphasis this festival is celebrated at the London Vihara, reminding the devotees that they have a responsibility not only to enjoy the joy of Dhamma but also to preserve it and proclaim it for the benefit of many people through out the world. [12]

The founder of this Vihara, Anagarika Dharmapala, is commemorated with gratitude in September every year, reminding the present generation of their responsibility to carry out the work started by him. At this festival two main aspects of the life and work of Dharmapala are remembered. Firstly, his contribution to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is analysed by showing the steps that he took to make Buddhism meaningful in the colonial era in Sri Lanka. Secondly, his courageous efforts with Westerners who had been fascinated with   Buddhism in proclaiming Buddhism to the Western world at a time when the majority of Christians believed that ultimate truth lies in Christianity and tried to Christianise the rest of the world, is critically evaluated in order to learn lessons from the past to face the future with courage and determination. 

The Kathina celebration is a traditional rain retreat in Asia, and at the end of this retreat gifts are offered to monks, especially the robes, which are usually rendered by lay people and usually never bought by the monks.  As in Buddhism lay people are expected to look after the material needs of the monks, this celebration has become important in order to fulfil one of the main needs of the monks, the provision of robes, which symbolise that they are the vehicle of Dhamma. This is highlighted in a Sinhala saying where people say that they venerate the robe as they venerate monks. This festival is also significant as the Buddhist monks are not allowed to wear any other dress other than the robes after their ordination as a monk. Considering the above important factors, the annual Kathina celebrations are held at the London Vihara, giving the opportunity for lay people to offer gifts to monks to strengthen the relationship between lay people and monks which is very necessary for the survival of Buddhism in this European land.

In the 3rd century BC Sanghamitta, the daughter of Emperor Ashoka of India, introduced the ordination of women to Sri Lanka. When she came to Sri Lanka, she brought with her a sapling of the Bo tree under which the Lord Buddha was enlightened. This was planted in Mahamevna Uyana in Anuradhapura, then capital of Sri Lanka. After 2300 years this tree is still alive in the same place it was planted. Buddhists all over the world show their respect to this tree and they have venerated this holy tree for 23 centuries.  By celebrating this festival the devotees at the London Vihara show their respect for this tree, which is the oldest tree with a recorded history in the world. Although women’s ordination introduced by Sanghamitta gradually disappeared from Sri Lanka, with the current increased interest in women’s activities, this old festival has become more meaningful to highlight the importance of women’s rights, which were there right from the beginning of Buddhism.

This temple is always sensitive not to have any ritualistic activity, which could hinder the Buddhist philosophy and deviate from the main teachings of Buddhist thought as expounded by the Buddha and recorded in the “Tripitaka,”[13] the holy scripture of Buddhism.

The temple publishes a journal called “Samadhi” covering sociological, doctrinal and cultural issues of Buddhism. However the name of the temple’s original journal, “The British Buddhist,” became “The Wheel” in 1935, and when the journal was enlarged in 1968 it was renamed as the “Buddhist Quarterly”. Once again in 1970, the journal was published under a new name, “Buddhist Forum”.[14]

Every Sunday a service is held from 5.00pm to 6.00pm. Those who attend the Sunday service are provided with a sheet giving a transliteration of Pali verses in Roman script and a paraphrased translation of Pali verses in English.  Every Sunday in the afternoon at 3.00pm, before the service, a Sunday school is conducted, and children aged 4-16 years are encouraged to attend that. Those children in the Sunday school are prepared to sit for the examinations conducted by the organisation called Y.M.B.A. (Young Men’s Buddhist Association). These examinations are held in both the English and Sinhala medium.[15] The increased interest in getting through this examination in English, even in Sri Lanka, has encouraged the British-born Sinhala Buddhists to prepare themselves for this examination. Sri Lankan papers, published both in London and Sri Lanka, often praise the students who successfully pass this examination, as a great achievement. Through this examination British-born Sinhala Buddhists have a sense of belonging to the Sinhala and Buddhist communities although they live thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka. As a result of getting through this examination they improve their knowledge of Buddhism, which directly affects their philosophy of life in the UK. On Sundays at 2.00pm a Sinhala class is also held to enable the children to be more conversant in Sinhala, as the 2nd and 3rd generations of the immigrant could easily drift away from their mother tongue.

Place of worship and denied honour in the host country

All these above activities clearly show the shift in the functions of traditional Sinhala Buddhism in order to address the issues faced by Sinhala Buddhists and other Buddhists in and around London. As this Vihara was a direct result of the Buddhist revival of the 19th century, which challenged the monopoly of Christians as having the one true religion, this temple has become a place of hope to preserve their honour as both Sinhala people and Buddhists. Also this temple exists as a symbol of Sri Lankan pride because of the role played by these Buddhist revivalists in the independence movement in Sri Lanka. In the above set up when Sinhala people and Buddhists do not get the honour that they expect in this host country, this temple has been acting as a place of consolation for over 75 years to have a glimpse of the honour that they would get in their home country. [16]

The monks who have been associated with this temple have founded all the other Sri Lankan temples in and around London. Therefore this temple functions as the mother temple, whose basic structure has been used with some changes and transformations by all the other Sri Lanka Buddhist temples and some other Buddhist temples in and around London. This factor has given Sri Lankans a unique honour as the inventors of the basic model of the Western Buddhist temples in Europe. [17]

The devotees of this temple are proud of the fact that they believe in a rational religion that does not necessary ask the believers to depend on a supernatural being for help, guidance and blessings. It is their view that Buddhism is the most suitable religion for modern society, which entirely places the redemption on the preview of the potential of human beings and teaches effectively the protection of the environment with the necessity to preserve all kinds of life including that of animals. In the above set up and with the increased interest of the educated white British people towards philosophical Buddhism, the devotees of this temple consider it an honour to pronounce Buddhism as their religion.

Second generation of immigrants and religious activities.

Although this temple has existed in London for more than 75 years, today the active Sinhala members of this temple belong to the first generation of immigrants from Sri Lanka. Their children, who were either born in the UK or emigrated to this country when they were small, take active part in the temple and enjoy their Dhamma School and Sinhala classes with occasional cultural activities such as Sri Lanka dance and drama preformed on special occasions of the temple. It is evident that these young children enjoy the company of the members of this temple belonging to Sri Lankan and European origin. Generally these children are not familiar with the popular ritualistic aspects of Buddhism such as Bhodi puja, the offering made to the tree under which the Lord Buddha was   enlightened. Where this second generation of immigrants are concerned the fact that most of the activities are done in English has become a “pull” factor in attracting them to the Vihara. The fact that this temple is able to explain the origin of their forefathers with their socio-cultural background has become useful for these second generation immigrants as they have to come to terms with the differences they experience in the host country, especially in their schools or among their colleagues.  [18]

[1]Light of Asia” is a long Victorian Poem written by Edwin Arnold on the Life of the Lord Buddha.

[2] 75th Anniversary Magazine (2001), London Buddhist Vihara.

[3] London Buddhist Vihara Website - <>http://www.londonbuddhistvihara.co.uk/ >

[4] London Buddhist Vihara Website - <>http://www.londonbuddhistvihara.co.uk/ > and Observation.

[5] From a discussion with a residential monk of the London Vihara. 

[6] From Participant Observation.

[7] Gunasekara, V.A. (1994), An Examination of the Institutional Forms of Buddhism in the West  with Special Reference to Ethnic and Meditational Buddhism, The Buddhist Society of Queensland, PO Box 536, Toowong Qld 4066, Australia.