BUDDHISM IN UNITED
Hard is it to be born a man; hard is the life of
mortals. Hard is it to gain the opportunity of hearing the Sublime Truth, and hard to
encounter is the arising of the Buddhas. ~ Dhammapada 182
Organised Theravada activity in the UK may be
separated into two distinct strands with areas of overlap. There were the ethnic viharas
by the Thais, Burmese and Sri Lankans and to a lesser extent Indian followers of Dr.
Ambedkar, and a native western one.
The Sri Lankans
The Sri Lankans were very vigorous with eminent
dhammaduta monks residing in the UK for long periods of time. Among the first of these
were the indefatigable Ven. Narada who lectured extensively in 1949, leading to the
opening of the London Buddhist Vihara in Knightsbridge, in 1954. In 1957, the
distinguished scholar, Ven. Dr Saddhatissa replaced him and remained in London until his
decease in 1990. During his tenure, the vihara moved to its present premise in Chiswick.
Ven. Saddhatissa lectured widely, not only in the UK but also in Europe, and the USA,
besides writing, editing and translating numerous works. Presently the head of the vihara
is another notable scholar, the Ven.Vajiragnana.
The Thais established the Buddhapadipa temple with
government funding in 1966. The first incumbent was an energetic bhikkhu the Ven. Sobhana
Dhammasudhi. He soon gathered around him a number of enthusiastic western converts.
However, in 1971, he left the monkhood, adopted the name Dhiravamsa and eventually left
for the USA where he continues to teach meditation. In 1975 Buddhapadipa vihara moved to a
beautiful house located in four-acre grounds in Wimbledon.
Samanera ordination at Forest Hermitage, Warwick.
Photo by Forest Hermitage.
The Burmese opened their first vihara much later in
1978 in Birmingham. It's senior incumbent, the Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma is a remarkable
bhikkhu who is not only a scholar of Theravada and Mahayana but is also proficient as a
meditation instructor and in dhammaduta. He trained with the Indian teacher SN Goenka and
was appointed by Mahasi Sayadaw as a teacher. He conducts regular retreats in the UK as
well as in several countries in Europe. Other Burmese viharas include the Tisarana Vihara
with the respected Ven. U Nyanika as abbot and the London Burmese Vihara. In recent years,
followers of the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition has established a vihara cum meditation centre
in the village of Billinge in Lancashire.
And of course the British
The native British sangha had a more difficult
start. One of the earliest first British bhikkhus was Allan Bennet who was inspired by
Buddhism after reading Sir Edwin Arnold's epic poem "The Light of Asia". He
ordained as a bhikkhu in Myanmar in1902 and led a mission to England in 1908. However,
after six months, he returned to Myanmar. In 1914, he disrobed on account of ill-health
and returned to the UK where he continued in his dhammaduta work. Osbert Moore also
discovered Buddhism from a book while serving in the army in Italy. He left for Sri Lanka
after the war, ordained in 1950 as bhikkhu Nyanamoli and trained under Ven. Nyanatiloka at
the Island Hermitage. Before his premature death, he translated the Visuddhimagga and most
of the suttas in the Majhima Nikaya. Another ex-soldier, Lawrence Mills was ordained as a
samanera by Ven. Saddhatissa in the UK. He then went to India to teach Ambedkar's Buddhist
converts and then to Thailand where he received bhikkhu ordination as Ven. Khantipalo.
After 11 years in Thailand he went to Australia where he helped establish Wat
Buddharangsee and later Wat Buddha-Dhamma in New South Wales. He wrote several books but
later disrobed to practise Dzogchen, a technique of meditation of Tibetan Buddhism.
Monks chanting at stupa in field of snow, Amaravati.
Photo by Amaravati.
It was William Purfurst who was most
determined to set up an English sangha. He came into contact with Buddhism through the
Burmese monk Sayadaw U Thittila who like him, was serving in the volunteer services in
London during the Second World War. Receiving permission from his wife, he left for
Thailand and on Vesak 1954, ordained under the famous abbot of Wat Paknam as the Ven.
Kapilavuddho. Apparently a gifted student, he was authorised to return to the UK later in
the same year to teach. Residing in the Sri Lankan vihara in Chiswick, he set up the
English Sangha Trust in 1955 which has as its objective, the establishment of a native
bhikkhu sangha. Later that year he went to Thailand with three samaneras who after
receiving bhikkhu ordination in 1956 returned to the UK. However, in the following year,
due to increasingly weak health, he was compelled to disrobe. In the following years, two
of the other bhikkhus also disrobed leaving only the Ven Pannavuddho. The Ven. Pannavuddho
also left for Thailand and has remained there, living with the famous Ajahn Maha Boowa in
his monastery in N.E. Thailand. Thus, the Ven. is presently the seniormost British
bhikkhu. In 1967, after a period of ten years, Ven Kapilavuddho ordained again and burst
onto the scene, taking over a vihara in Hampstead, building, teaching and even ordaining a
few samaneras. However, this was short-lived. Again as a result of ill-health, he disrobed
and died in 1971. One of the samaneras he ordained and who later disrobed was Alan James
who continued to teach, and later set up his own Buddhist organisation Aukana with
meditation centres and live-in communities in Wiltshire.
On the invitation of the English Sangha Trust, Ajahn
Maha Boowa and his pupil Ven. Pannavuddho visited the UK in 1974, an event that left a
deep impression on those that met them. Two years later an American bhikkhu, Ajahn Sumedho
(Robert Jackman) stopped over in London on his way back to Thailand after visiting his
parents in the United States. Ajahn Sumedho was a disciple of the Ajahn Chah, a deeply
respected Thai master who, for several years, had been training western bhikkhus at his
monastery in N.E. Thailand. While in London, he met the Chairman of the English Sangha
Trust who then later decided to travel to N.E.Thailand. His purpose was to meet the two
Thai masters to request that bhikkhus be sent to the UK. In response, Ajahn Chah decided
to visit the UK in 1977 accompanied by four of his western disciples, including Ajahn
Sumedho and the British Ajahn Khemadhammo (Alan Adams). When Ajahn Chah later returned to
Thailand, these western bhikkhus stayed on in the UK in the vihara in Hampstead.
Monks chanting at stupa in field of snow,
Amaravati. Photo by Amaravati.
Ajahn Sumedho soon proved to be an exceptional
leader with noble qualities that endeared him to a vast following of lay disciples and
inspired many to take on the robe. One morning, when he was walking on alms round, he
encountered a lone jogger who, intrigued by the sight of a bhikkhu, stopped him for a
conversation. Subsequently he attended a ten-day retreat led by Ajahn Sumedho and later
made a gift of an entire forest covering 108 acres in West Sussex to the British sangha.
With the purchase of a nearby house in 1979, Cittaviveka Forest Monastery was established.
A neighbouring cottage was bought in 1981 to house the nuns. The new British sangha grew
vigorously with bhikkhu ordinations held almost every year. With the increase in the
number of bhikkhus, branch monasteries were then established in Harnham near the Scottish
border in 1981, in Devon in 1983, and Amaravati a vast complex north of London in 1984. In
subsequent years, associated monasteries were established in Switzerland, Italy, New
Zealand and the USA. In the meantime Ajahn Khemadhammo founded a vihara, initially on the
Isle of Wight and in 1985, he moved to the newly established Forest Hermitage at Warwick
in the heart of England.
~ The Buddhist Handbook, John Snelling. Inner
~ Cittaviveka, Ajahn Sumedho. Amaravati
Source: Dhammaduta (
Update : 01-12-2001