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Buddhism in the United Kingdom

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Buddhism has a small but growing number of adherents in the United Kingdom. According to a Buddhist organisation, this growth has in recent years been predominately the result of conversion.

In recent census takings in the UK, there were about 1.2% of the people who registered their religion as Buddhism.

The earliest Buddhist influence on Britain came through its imperial connections with South East Asia, and as a result the early connections were with the Theravada traditions of Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. To begin with, 150 years ago, this response was primarily scholarly, and a tradition of study grew up that eventually resulted in the foundation of the Pali Text Society, which undertook the huge task of translating the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhist texts into English. The Buddha himself became well known as a moral and spiritual leader with the publication in 1879 of Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. Alongside this came the start of interest in Buddhism as a path of practice. This was pioneered by the Theosophists, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, and in 1880 they became the first Westerners to receive the refuges and precepts, the ceremony by which one traditionally becomes a Buddhist. they were also later received into the Hindu religion.

Through the early twentieth century the Theosophical and Theravadin influences continued, particularly with the foundation in 1924 of London’s Buddhist Society. In 1926 the Theravadin London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick was founded. A slow trickle of westerners travelled to Asia to take monastic ordination, mainly as Theravadin monks; and a few Asian monks came to live in Britain.

The rate of growth was slow but steady through the century, and the 1950s saw the development of interest in Zen Buddhism. In 1967 Kagyu Samyé Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre was founded by Tibetan lamas and refugees Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Akong Rinpoche. It is in Eskdalemuir, Scotland and is the largest Tibetan Buddhist centre in Western Europe, and part of the Karma Kagyu tradition.

The Manjushri Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Conishead Priory located just outside of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria is a large New Kadampa Tradition Tibetan Buddhist centre. The priory established by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1975 claims to be 'the mother centre from which around 1100 Kadampa Buddhist centres have been set up worldwide'.

A Theravada monastery consisting mainly of Westerners following the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah was established at Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in Sussex, and has established branches elsewhere in the country. A lay meditation tradition of Thai origin is represented by the Samatha Trust, with its headquarters cum retreat centre in Wales. Soto Zen has a priory at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland.

Also in 1967 an Englishman who had spent time in the east as a Theravadin monk founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the first home-grown Buddhist movement. He was followed by other westerners who had studied in the East, and by Eastern teachers, particularly refugee Tibetan Lamas, and under the influence of these teachers a large and diverse British Buddhist world has emerged.

As well as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order there are other Buddhism-based new religious movements such as the New Kadampa Tradition and Sōka Gakkai International.

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