The London Buddhist Vihara, Chiswick

Chiswick is home to one of the oldest Buddhist temples outside Asia. Certainly the oldest Theravada Buddhist community in Britain, the London Buddhist Vihara in Bedford Park was established by a Sri Lankan monk Anagarika Dharmapala in 1926. ‘Vihara’ means a Buddhist monastery – a place for contemplation, worship and religious learning.

Why does Chiswick claim that distinction? In the interwar period Buddhism was losing ground to Christianity in the East, as a result of the influence of the British Empire amongst others. Anagarika Dharmapala decided he would do something about it and travelled widely not only in India, where Buddhism’s ancient sites were falling into dereliction, but throughout Europe and America, bringing the teachings of Buddha. Born into a wealthy family, he was for a long time a lay preacher, who later in life became a monk. Those were idealistic times and despite the colonial ego which we love to relive in films and novels, on his travels he met Europeans and Americans who found the ideas inspiring. His speech to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 is thought to have been the first time the teachings of Buddha were delivered to a Western audience.

Photographs: Anagarika Dharmapala, Helena Blavatsky, Col. Henry Steel Olcott, Sir Edwin Arnold and Mary Foster

Among the people he met, his fellow travellers, spiritually and philosophically, were scholars such as Helena Blavatsky, the Russian émigré who started the Theosophical Movement in New York, and with it an awakening of interest in the ancient religions. She and co-founder Col. Henry Steel Olcott, the American military officer, journalist and lawyer, were the first Westerners to convert to Buddhism.

It was his great friend Sir Edwin Arnold, Editor of the Daily Telegraph, who invited him to London for the first time in 1893 when he was in his twenties. Arnold was also a poet, known best to his contemporaries for his collection of volumes The Light of Asia, an interpretation of the life and philosophy of the Buddha in English verse. He was evidently very supportive of this young Sri Lankan. Dharmapala’s own journals show that he admired the British people and found them on the whole to be a tolerant bunch.

By 1926, by which time he was approaching 62, Anagarika Dharmapala decided to settle temporarily in England and with a generous donation from an American benefactor, Hawaiian Theosophist Mary Foster, he was able to bring a monk over from Sri Lanka and set up a temple initially in Ealing. According to newspaper accounts, Foster had travelled to what was then known as Ceylon to study with the Buddhist monks at Anuradhapura.

Above: Bhante Pannavamsa at the London Buddhist Vihara, Chiswick

Sri Lanka has a special place in Theravada Buddhist culture because although Buddha came from what is now Nepal and the most sacred Buddhist place in India is Budhgaya in Bihar, it is in Sri Lanka that his teachings were first written down. Theravada is the Buddhism practised by followers of Buddha in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and is different in some respects to the Buddhism of China and Japan.

The London Buddhist Vihara moved premises in west London several times before settling in Chiswick, initially in Heathfield Gardens in the early 1960s and then moving to the Grade II listed Dharmapala Building, formerly the Bedford Park Club, at the southern end of the Avenue in 1994, and there it has remained.

Fast forward to 2018 and at time of writing the temple has five monks in residence. The head monk Bogoda Seelawimala Thera is the Chief Sangha Nayaka of Great Britain. As the head of the religion in this country he is called on to represent the Buddhist community, for example as Buddhist chaplain at the London Olympics, at state functions such as the Royal Wedding, and as a member of the Inter Faith Network, promoting the understanding of different religions.

The most recent monk to join the community is Bhante Pannavamsa, from Colombo. Fluent in Sinhalese and English, as are many Sri Lankans, he came here to study at Oxford University, at the graduate-only Kellogg College. He told me that having trained as a monk in Burma for eight years he wanted to pursue the science of the brain.

Above: Bhante Pannavamsa at the London Buddhist Vihara, Chiswick

All Buddhist monks renounce worldly goods. They own merely a razor, a bowl and their clothes and receive their meals from the community. Bhante teaches Mindfulness and goes in to schools and HM High Down Prison in Surrey, where Mindfulness teaching can help inmates cope with anxiety and depression. He says Buddhists don’t proselytise but they do raise awareness of the essential tenets of their religion. I asked him what he thought about Mindfulness having become so trendy. ‘I was born trendy’ he says, with a disarming giggle. Secular Mindfulness classes have popped up all over the place and sharp-shooters in the US army are apparently taught mindfulness to help their concentration. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, and the Vihara’s monks continue to teach this tradition alongside Buddha’s moral foundations.

He told me he actually finds English people more receptive to the concept of self-discipline. People are interested in the idea of a religion which doesn’t have rules as such, as it relies on morality, concentration and wisdom to allow the individual to see things in a more enlightened way. When he goes in to schools, young children ask him things like ‘Why do you wear those clothes?’ and ‘have you got underwear on underneath?’ but young adults tend to ask more about how Buddhism relates to relationship difficulties, drugs and alcohol issues. His standard answer to the question of whether he misses alcohol is that he doesn’t need it. ‘We are high on life’ he says, brandishing his can of Tango.

The London Buddhist Vihara at the Dharmapala Building, The Avenue, W4 1UD is open daily from 8.30 to 11.00am and 2.00 to 8.00pm. The temple offers a range of classes in Mindfulness and Buddhism on most weekday evenings as well as a monthly meditation retreat on the last Saturday of every month. These are free of charge, but they welcome donations.

www.londonbuddhistvihara.org