Kate Andrew, our Regional Project Officer in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, writes:
I was fortunate, in my role as a school governor, to be able to join the Key Stage 2 pupils from Great Witley VA Primary School as one of the adult helpers on their visit to the Buddhist Vihara in Birmingham. The pupils were visiting as part of their programme to study world religions; I was keen to visit as I had never been to a Buddhist site before, I wanted to find out what a Buddhist place of worship consists of and whether there were any potential synergies with the Maintenance Co-ops project. The site in Birmingham that the school visited contains the Dhammatalaka Peace Pagoda, Peace gardens, accommodation for the monks and a fairly newly built teaching facility.
The site is operated on the principles of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, from Burma, which shares its beliefs and traditions with Buddhist practice in Thailand and other parts of southern Asia. Due to links with devotees of other Buddhist traditions, statues and symbolism from the traditions of China and Tibet were also housed at the site. Our visit was led by Robert Black, one of the Trustees of the facility. Robert explained the history and beliefs of Buddhism generally and Theravada Buddhism in particular, the symbolism, the devotional activities that take place in the shrine room and the life and daily routine of monks. We finished our visit with a short meditation session and achieved a sense of composure, silence and concentration from all 80 or so children and the adult helpers.
The golden pagoda is a miniature replica of Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, Burma. In Burma, pagodas are built directly on the ground, but due to space constraints, the Birmingham pagoda is built on top of a brick octagonal shrine room, which provides a devotional space. The focal point of the shrine room is a large marble statue of Buddha originally from Burma, replete with a halo of colour and pattern-changing LED lights – apparently very popular with Burmese Buddhists.
The founder and original spiritual director of this community was Sayadaw Dr.Rewata Dhamma who came to the UK in 1975. The site, close to Edgbaston Reservoir, was acquired in 1990, architects plans were drawn up and work on the mouldings and decorations started in 1994, by two visiting Burmese artists. The not-quite-completed site started to be used for events in the autumn of 1996 so has now been in use for eighteen years. The Burmese communities in Leeds and London are significant benefactors and gather for major festivals at the site, but on a day to day basis, Western converts to Buddhism are the main users.
It was interesting to see that the site shares many common issues with places of worship of any denomination – both old and new. Firstly, in order to accommodate the congregation of users, it is a large space, so is difficult and costly to heat – the local solution adopted seemed to be small oil filled electric radiators to provide some background warmth. The floor is made of teak parquet blocks, protected with large rugs. The congregation (and our school pupils) sat on the rugs, floor cushions also provide some insulation. The large windows provide daylight and an opportunity for solar gain, but on a sunny day in early March, the room was chilly and I was pleased to have been provided with a chair to sit on. A central chandelier inside the dome of the pagoda and devotional candles also provide light sources.
The main entrance to the pagoda is guarded by two white and gold painted Burmese Chinthes, or lions, presumably cast in concrete. The main door is approached through a tiled, white painted porch supported by concrete pillars; there were also two side entrances with smaller porches. Visitors are required to remove their shoes in the porch, as a sign of respect, but also to reduce the traffic of dirt into the room.
Two Chinthes (lions) guarding the entrance
Although uniquely Burmese in design, the pagoda roof has a very large surface area that drains to a gutter behind a parapet. Rainwater removal via domestic sized rainwater goods is occasionally an issue, judging from green algal stains behind at least one downpipe and the joins between porch and main building provided some architectural challenges. The pagoda is painted with gold coloured paint; other areas were painted white – maintenance of painted finishes must be a concern on a building of this size. The carved Burmese teak doors are protected by the porches, but on exposed elevations, show signs of weathering. A large can of teak oil was spotted, so preventative maintenance clearly is in hand.
Downpipe at the Buddhist Vihara, Birmingham
The pagoda is surrounded by a garden area, which presents a maintenance challenge too – to keep gravelled areas and paths weed-free, prune and maintain flowering trees and shrubs, keep the grass mown and the statues and prayer wheels in good order. These are challenges shared by all places of worship surrounded by grounds.
The site has unfortunately been subject to several burglaries and is as a result no longer taking part in Heritage Open Days, but it is open to pre-booked educational parties two days a week and visitors by appointment. In Burma, pagodas are covered in gold leaf, supplied as offerings by visitors, but at least this is one risk not present at the site. The web site http://www.bbvt.org.uk in common with many places of worship, includes an appeal for funds to maintain the facility.
It was a privilege to be able to visit the pagoda and to gain a basic understanding of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. There are Buddhist communities in the regions covered by the Co-ops, but not that many of them have a large places of worship built to traditional designs, such as the Birmingham Vihara.