VIHARA'S BRIEF HISTORY



Buddhism in the West Midlands

The situation in the cosmopolitan West Midlands accurately mirrors the cultural ferment everywhere. There are Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai and Vietnamese monasteries in the north of Birmingham, as well as a monastery in Wolverhampton and a traditional Chinese temple in the Black Country. Two further Theravadin monasteries in Birmingham, one in the Thai tradition and the other in the tradition of Myanmar, cater for Westerners, and a monastery in Warwick is headed by a Briton trained in the Thai forest tradition. Three different Tibetan schools are represented in the area and the headquarters of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order recently moved to the city where there has been a community of the Order for some time. In the Zen tradition Throssel Hole Abbey has recently established a branch monastery in Telford.

Originally, those interested in Buddhism in the Birmingham area had formed a couple of lay societies. Following a visit to the city in 1974 His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa recognised Birmingham's potential and asked Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma to establish a Buddhist Centre in the city. The following year Dr Rewata Dhamma (Bhante) arrived in England, but it was not until 1978 that suitable premises were found at 41 Carlyle Road. Followers of the Tibetan and Theravadin traditions shared facilities and teachings together in harmony until sheer weight of numbers made it necessary to buy another house. In 1981 the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara was founded at no.47 Carlyle Road with Bhante (meaning Venerable Bhikku) as its head monk. In 2002, the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara moved to a new Vihara at Osler Street, Ladywood, on the site of the Dhammatalaka Pagoda. This Pagoda was built in 1998, paid for from donations given by devotees of Dr Rewata Dhamma both here and abroad.

Birmingham Buddhist Vihara

Since his arrival in England in 1975, the majority of those who have called on Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma for teaching have been English. Impressed by this, and wishing well for the future of Buddhism in England, he realized that the teaching would only become truly established here once the British themselves took responsibility for its development. Buddhism is not a missionary religion in the sense that is usually understood. Religion cannot be imposed from outside; it must develop in line with the culture in which it finds itself and how best to do this can only be truly understood by people who are native to that culture. On the other hand, it is also necessary for these people to have some depth of understanding of Buddhism itself and so they must have training and information available to them which is suitable to their cultural background and age group.

Interest in Buddhism from schools, colleges and universities has steadily increased over the years and the Vihara has become one of the major centres in the West Midlands serving this need. As Buddhism becomes increasingly an accepted part of comparative religious studies so we welcome the many groups and individuals who need information and guidance from us. While the main users of the Vihara facilities are Westerners, the bulk of the financial support comes from generous donations by the Myanmar community round the country who are pleased to see such keen interest in the teachings they venerate, and hoping others will benefit from their generosity. The building of the Dhammatalaka Pagoda marks a significant stage in Buddhism's acceptance in our area and we have recently purpose-built a new Vihara at the Pagoda site. This encourages further development for Buddhism and practice for seekers. We hope, in the foreseeable future, to be in a position to build a Dhamma Hall.

The Pagoda in Buddhist Tradition

The pagoda is an oriental style of sacred tower. In Buddhism, it is also called a stupa or caitya. The building of pagodas dates from the time of the Buddha's passing into Nibbana, around the sixth century BCE. At that time, the Buddha's body was cremated and only fragments of the bones remained. These sacred relics were divided among the rulers who were his devout followers. They placed them in golden chambers in their respective countries and built pagodas over them so that people could venerate and pay homage.

The pagoda symbolises peace, compassion and other exemplary qualities of the Buddha. As such, Buddhists venerate it everywhere. With the spread of Buddhism, pagodas were built in all those countries where it became established. The pagoda is the earthly manifestation of the mind of the Buddha and, as such, stands as a prime symbol of Buddhism. The Dhammatalaka Pagoda will fulfil three purposes: it will be a shrine for Buddhists to perform their traditional ceremonies; a focus where non-Buddhists can learn about Buddhism; and a sanctuary where both may find peace and tranquillity.

The Dhammatalaka Pagoda Project

It was in 1985 that Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma first wrote to the Birmingham City Council asking for a suitable building that could be adapted, or for land on which to build. After we had viewed a number of other possibilities we were offered the Osler Street site in 1990. It was a plot of land behind the Edgbaston Reservoir once occupied by terraced houses (now demolished) and within five minutes walk of the Old Vihara in Carlyle Road.

The land was sold (at 10% of the market value) to the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara Trust, which has administered the building programme. Following a suggestion from Yann Lovelock that the project should have a name incorporating a reference to its location, Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma decided that it should be known as the Dhammatalaka Pagoda: the Reservoir of Truth.

Our architect, David Jones, drew the basic plan for the site and Bhante obtained designs for the stupa from Myanmar. Two artists, Win Tin and Khin Zaw U, arrived from Myanmar in 1994 to start work on moulding and other decorations, and also to help with modifications to the original plan. Sadly, Khan Zaw U was knocked over in a road accident in January in 1997 and had to return home. His place was taken by U Aye. Meanwhile the shell had been sufficiently completed by October 1996 for that year's Kathina Day to be held inside in the presence of the Myanmar ambassador. Since then the dome and spire have been completed, the interior furnished and all the decorations put in place.

Relics

What is enshrined in the Dhammatalaka Pagoda represents a fusion of the old and new. Firstly, there are relics of the Buddha enclosed in a crystal casket. These were once in the possession of the former Royal Family of Myanmar. The British exiled Thibaw (the last king) to Ratanagiri in India, where he was kept under supervision. The Buddha's relics went with him. A monk, U Kitti, eventually passed these on to U Arsaya, another Myanmar monk living in India. In his turn, shortly before his death, he passed them to Venerable Rewata Dhamma. When the latter left for England eleven years later, he left the relics on the shrine of U Nu, a former Prime Minister of Myanmar then in exile in India. After his return, the Prime Minister's daughter Daw Than Than Nu kept them in her shrine room. With the inception of the Pagoda project, Venerable Rewata Dhamma brought the relics back to England.

Many more objects have been donated by devotees following a custom that goes back to the Buddha's day. These are principally divided between the bell of the spire and a reliquary on the shrine within the Pagoda. A fascinating contemporary inclusion is a piece of the old Berlin wall that Bhante picked up when it was being demolished in 1989.

Artefacts

The interior of the pagoda focuses upon the marble statue of the Buddha sitting serene and peaceful in the meditation posture. This statue is from Mandalay in Myanmar. The Buddha sits on a magnificent golden throne and above him is a canopy in the traditional Myanmar style. Images of the Twenty Eight Buddhas are mounted round the inner dome of the pagoda. There are many other Buddha statues, old and new, in the pagoda. A complete set of the Theravada scriptures, the Tipitaka, together with the Commentaries, is mounted in the bookcase. There are also ancient scripts on palm leaves. The hand carved teak doors are also from Myanmar. The parquet flooring is made from Myanmar teak. According to tradition the two lion statues at the entrance to the Pagoda provide protection from evil elements. At the summit of the spire is the diamond bud, and below this the umbrella or crown.

Donations

Once the site became available Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma publicised the project widely and repeatedly. This resulted in substantial donations, especially from Myanmar people living in the UK and in Europe, USA, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Myanmar devotees enthusiastically offered such requisites as the umbrella for the spire, the Buddha statue and throne, the carved doors, and other items, as well as giving generous financial support. Due to the major problems we encountered during the building of the basic structure, we continuously exceeded our budget and, at times, it wasn touch and go whether we would be able to complete. However, knowing the traditional reputation of the Myanmar people for generosity, there was never any great anxiety. But, such generosity is not a quality to be taken for granted and we record with much gratitude the part played by all these donors.

Former Teamwork

It is evident that teamwork has been a major factor in the success of the Vihara. Many local people helped Bhante in different ways including Nath Kottegoda, Denys Richards, Mark Scan, Ann Lovelock and Bill Strongman. Ellen Parker ran children's classes, Vajira Bailey, Ramona Kauth. Yann Lovelock who has been leading classes for school, university's students. Mike Regan followed on from Karuna Bodhi in compiling the Vihara Newsletter.

We would also like to thank the following people who have supported Bhante since he arrived in England, and without whose support neither the Vihara nor the Dhammatalaka Pagoda would exist: Daw Ohn Myint Aye, a founder trustee of the Vihara, and currently a patron; U Khin, founder trustee (passed away in 2002) and his wife; Dr. Aung Myin and his wife who have supported many of Bhante's projects over the years; U S. T. Aung, founder trustee, and his wife, who have helped initiate projects for teaching the Dhamma and Dr. Mar Mar Lwin who became a trustee of the Vihara as soon as she settled in Birmingham and who has generously donated towards its upkeep, including day-to-day running costs.

The Pagoda Project

The building of the Dhammatalaka Pagoda has been made possible by a large number of people working over a long period, to all of whom we are grateful. Special thanks are due to those who have held the project together over the years, and without whose constant effort it could not have been successful, notably the following:

Samsari Lal: Originally, from the Punjub, he was a follower of Dr. Ambedkhar and a disciple of Venerable Dr. H Saddhatissa. He came to Britain in 1956. When Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma arrived in England in 1975, Mr. Lal was among the first people to greet him and has worked closely ever since.

Dr. Mar Mar Lwin: Born in Myanmar, she qualified as a medical doctor from the Institute of Medicine in Yangoon. She has also studied the Abhiddhamma, and is a trained meditator and an Upasika.

Ann Lovelock, MR Pharms: British born, she became a Buddhist in 1967 and has been a disciple of the Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma since he arrived in Carlyle Road. A hospital pharmacist, she is a founder member of the Vihara and its long serving Treasurer until the present time.

The Artists U Win Tin and U Aye: there are many paintings and friezes by Win Tin at Myanmar religious sites. He came to Britain in 1994 to do preparatory work for the Dhammatalaka Pagoda and superintended its installation. U Aye is a famous Myanmar sculptor who has worked on temples in Myanmar and Singapore. He arrived in Britain in 1997 to replace Khin Saw U.

David Jones BSA (Hos), B. Arch RIBA: David graduated in Architectural Studies in Cardiff and went on to gain his B. Arch with distinction in 1972. He is the supervising architect for the Dhammatalaka Pagoda project.

Martin Walker, LL.B: Martin obtained his Degree in Law from Hull University in 1981. His interest in Buddhism started a few years before he came to Birmingham in 1992. Ever since his arrival in the city, he has supported us on a voluntary basis as our legal advisor for the Pagoda project.

Dhammatalaka Publications

In 1995, the Vihara launched a publishing venture funded by Dr. Mar Mar Lwin. Income from this will go towards publishing projects. We have so far published four books by Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma: an Introduction to Buddhism; the First Sermon of the Buddha (now brought out by Wisdom under the title of First Discourse of the Buddha); Maha Paritta, the book of protection; and our latest book The Buddha and His Disciples.

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