Sunday, 28 February 2010
Friday, 19 February 2010
"Darling," said the Accidental Cousin when she rang to arrange weekend plans, "why don't we go and wander around a Buddhist temple on Sunday morning?" I could think of no reason why not, being of a pretty open mind and keen to put off going to the library to work on my latest assignment, so off we went. Leaving the main road to Wimbledon Village we wove our way down through a wealthy residential area, and turned along a new tarmac driveway, following numerous people who looked far more like Thai Buddhists than us. Inside a high set of pillars stood an average-looking large house, evidently an administrative base and home to the monks who have inhabited the temple in Wimbledon since the 1970s. The Buddhapadipa temple was the first Buddhist temple established in the UK, surprisingly, only in the 1960s. In 1982 the Wimbledon temple celebrated and formalised its monastic boundary, making it officially the only traditionally recognised Thai temple in Europe. Somewhat even more surprising was that this was all going on in Wimbledon - a bastion of middle-class British WASPy wealth.
But set in its 4 acres of beautiful garden the white and gold temple does not look entirely out of place. Once off the A219, and past the gated mansions, one could almost be in (ok, a somewhat chilly) Thailand. We strolled happily over tiny bridges, found some Buddhist ducks, read hidden signs relaying ancient wisdoms, and played a merry game of "hunt the Buddha". It was extraordinarily peaceful and calm, despite being within a city as rambunctious, even on a Sunday, as London. After our tour of the green grounds, we cautiously entered in our sock feet the temple itself. It sits like a white and gold mushroom in the centre of the site, gold finials bounced the fleeting January sunlight around the green lawns. Inside the theme of gold and sparkly continues. This is the kind of religious venue that Elton John, Lady Gaga and Liberace might have dreamt up over tea one afternoon.
The walls are covered in intricate paintings of technicolour gloriousness. Mountains, monsters, stories from ancient Buddhist texts, people of the past and the present all crowd from floor to ceiling, wrapping themselves around windows. I spotted, no word of a lie, Mrs Thatcher by a wide, flowing river, not too far from a group of skinheads with multicolour mohicans. Watching over the painted people is a 900 year old enormous black Buddha, draped in flowers and surrounded by yet more gold. As we quietly marvelled at the overload of colour we heard the meditation class in the basement below the temple break up. Children, adults, monks, all began to spill out of the cosy temple into the wintery sunlight. A small crowd was gathering around what looked like a summer barbeque near the main building as people cooked, admonished overexcited children, and chatted.
Who knew that, not just a magnificent building, but an entire community existed behind these unassuming red brick walls? And one which is so wonderfully different from the status quo of South West London. Amid fears that our world is becoming a single homogenous mass of Westernised culture, it's reassuring to know that up in Wimbledon are a few acres which will, quietly and calmly, never surrender.