Tucked away in the lush greenery of the Cumbrian foot hills lies an old English manor house, known as Conishead Priory, visible from the A5087. You can see its dusty exterior blending seamlessly into the dramatic backdrop of the Lake District. What you might not expect is that a short walk around the back of the renovated mansion will take you to a temple, built in a modern yet unmistakably Asian fashion, which belongs to the International Kadampa Buddhist Union.
The site itself has had a settlement on it since the 12th Century when Augustinian monks founded a hospital for the poor, since then the place has undergone many changes and reconstructions. The original building was destroyed during the Reformation, and the current one was built in 1836 as a family home. In its time the house has been used as a spa, miners’ convalescent home and a wartime military hospital, until it was bought in the 70’s by a Buddhist organisation and renovated into the existing structure. Renovation work is ongoing, and the centre has recently been granted funding by English Heritage to repair the roof of the mansion.
If you begin your tour at the front of the 19th Century, romantic Gothic mansion, the site looks very similar to the several other historic mansions in the area. The difference first arises when walking through the front door into the parlour, instead of the musty odour of dust and brick, a faint, underlying scent of incense grabs your attention. Looking through the doors into the house you can see a large golden statue of Buddha surrounded by gilt ornaments in an alcove at the bottom of a flight of wooden stairs. The juxtaposition between historic, dark English decor and bright, Asian ornamentation is surprising but bizarrely complimenting.
To reach the temple you go around the side of the mansion to the back of the sprawling manor house. On first sight the visitor is greeted with white walls, large glass windows, sloping golden beams and golden statues, all of which compromise the Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre. This temple, consecrated in 1997, serves as the main meditation hall for practitioners of the New Kadampa Tradition.
The centres primary use is to house the events of the spring and summer festivals. The festivals draw a crowd of thousands, from people all over the world, who go to receive teachings directly from the Buddhist Master, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. It is anticipated that the summer festival this year, which will run for two weeks from July to August, will draw the largest crowd since the event started running.
The centre is also used to house numerous other events, such as meditation retreats and courses that range from instruction on Buddhist philosophy, to learning about Buddhist art. Going through the doors of the temple takes you into a large open room with a very serene atmosphere. The wall directly opposite the door draws the eye, as it consists of a huge glass case with several large, gold painted bronze statues, including the largest statue of its kind of Buddha made in the West. All around the temple can be found numerous interesting artefacts of the Buddhist religion.
In the left hand corner of the temple is a Mandala, which I believe is best defined as a three-dimensional representation of Buddha’s celestial mansion. In the right hand corner of the temple is a large cabinet full of the teachings of Buddha and commentaries upon those teachings. In the middle of the roof is a Dharma Wheel, this contains precious scriptures and symbolises the teachings of Buddha spreading throughout the world. At the back of the room are the many statues which flank the large golden Buddha, as I learnt whilst I was there, the surrounding statues are representations of different aspects of Buddha’s mental and physical form. In the centre of the room, in front of the statue of Buddha, is the Teaching Throne, this is the seat of the Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso for when he speaks in the centre.
As well as all the statues and paintings, scattered throughout the temple there are sets of seven bowls full of water, as well as bottles of orange juice, bags of Kettle crisps, Ferrero Roches, cookies and chopped up Battenberg cake. The ritual of placing such things before figures and paintings is undertaken daily to help focalise the mind and traditionally consists of seven bowls full of water which represent offerings such as incense, drinking water, cleaning water, and other similar substances. In addition to this Buddhists are also free to offer up anything that they find beautiful or welcoming, hence the Battenberg.
In the temple you will also find a guide or a monk on hand to answer any questions you might have about the temple, or about Buddhism in general. On the advice of the guide I bought one of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s introductory books on meditation as a way to understand more about Buddhism as a religion. If you would also like an insight into Buddhism this is a brilliant place to go, it is friendly and welcoming, with lots of ways to learn and explore about Buddhism, and it is also very intriguing as a place of local historical interest. Be sure to check their website for dates to go, as whilst it is open all year round, some things are not open every day.
Alternatively you can get involved with the religion on campus. The university is home to several practising Buddhist groups who are always willing to take onboard new people. If you want to get fully involved with Buddhism, have an interest in the religious and philosophical aspects, or if you want to explore it as a beneficial addition to your ever-day life, the different traditions on campus can help you. Paul Taylor, a member of the Soto Zen tradition, advocated that Buddhism and meditation can be very beneficial to a person on multiple levels and that it is a very individual experience. Due to the fact that different traditions have differences in style and philosophy, Mr Taylor recommended that multiple traditions should be explored, so as to find the one that ‘resonates’ with you the best individually. If you are keen to get involved then a good route into Buddhism on campus would be to contact Jen Whitfield the Chaplaincy Centre Secretary, who will be able to give you the relevant information on the different Buddhist groups on campus.