The EDP team visited the Sheffield Buddhist Centre (SBC) in August 2015. Tucked away in beautiful surroundings this historic building is an old Presbytery now converted into a Buddhist centre.
We were greeted by Achara, one of the leading members of the building committee, who showed us into a very welcoming and calm room where the meeting was to take place.
The visit to the Sheffield Buddhist Centre is part of our ‘learning from the past’ strand of research. Like we did with St Luke's the workshop included a walkabout where participants are divided in three groups to reflect on architecture, heritage, faith and community use of the building. This was followed by a round table with all stakeholders aimed to map out the timeline of the process and identify crucial moments. After a relatively slow start, the workshop evolved into a rich and vibrant discussion.
Leadership and decision-making – for this group one of the key aspects of success was assigning one person (Achara in this case) to take a key role in leading, negotiating and managing the project on behalf of the working committee:
It happened very consciously because one of the decisions that we made, and I am proud of, is we agreed on a design committee and we agreed the rest of the Sanga, the community, would keep out of it and wouldn’t comment
Building trust amongst the committee (putting complete trust on people you could rely on)
Volunteering was seen as a key to the process as each member devoted their time and committed to a common cause. A lot of commitment and generosity from the people that were involved.
I think this building, the building and its size and its gardens, there are huge opportunities for people to get involved with this project at different levels so it is very very engaging, it is gorgeous, I love being here. Everybody loves being here . Personally it is always a pleasure to come here and be in this space, I think anybody, from the person just walking through the door for the first time can find something to contribute to the project because of the size and the nature of the property, which I think is very important at engaging people and creating unity and creating the sense of cohesion among our community because some centres in our movement have less cohesion than we have here.
Probably the most basic one is that we have a huge emphasis in what we call ‘building Sanga, which is kind of, forming a network of friendships which forms the way of the Buddhist community and there is a huge emphasis on Sanga participating in our project …
…As conscious practitioners there is a big emphasis with that in the Buddhist community and that will manifest not only as individual friendships but as kind of helping with the work of the centre; helping making the centre look beautiful, helping with whatever work there is at the centre so we not only have gardening volunteers but we… you saw the volunteer work that was done while the building project was under way. We had volunteers doing out book keeping and helping in the office. We had volunteers who helped with cleaning and so on and so on. The whole project is supported by a mixture of members of the community giving money and member of the community giving their time and their help and their expertise to keep the whole centre running
There were fears of
- dealing with a space bigger than really required
Something that someone said that lodged in my brain at one of those meetings was he said it was like a toddler and you buy him or her new clothes a size too big because you know they are going to grow in to it and it is similar with this space, it might seem vast and huge but actually it is that analogy that lodged with me as a very helpful analogy as hopefully we will grow, we weren’t going to stay as we were with quite small classes and stuff so that was very helpful and practical.
- entering in a space that previously belonged to a different faith group and thus incorporated different faith elements
- the risks associated with taking a Grade II listed building and converting it – what will be allowed and what won’t be?
I think we also underestimated what we were doing in an architecturally sense; we had just bought a church and we were converting it to a Buddhist centre and I think we just underestimated that this was significant, this was part of Britain’s cultural history changing
- Controversy – of risking to upset the non-Buddhist community by changing the heritage. This was a key moment as the Church bell had broken and came down during roof repairs. It was decided that this will be replaced by a Buddha statue. The architect suggested to apply for planning permission and necessary sanction was granted. But still the wider community was not happy.
We were accused of pulling strings behind the public’s back with planners. It hit the BBC news website.
So I went down to see the person who was most upset and said ‘if you don’t want this to happen we won’t do it’ and at that point we came into a very different relationship, and she shared her fears… This might interest you. So first of all she was worried about the smell of curry when we arrived. Secondly they had assumed it was a 15 foot florescent Buddha and there would be parking jams all around Sheffield.
So actually it was a blessing in disguise because if, for me the big learning was it wasn’t just down to me but I feel responsible that there wasn’t enough care taken in informing local residents what we were doing. So we have a couple of minor tensions which we resolved very quickly but we could have done better.
We should have entered in a relationship and friendship faster with the local community, when I say local community I mean people who are looking onto the building
Yes because there was issues around parking
Yes, parking, suspicion of noise etc
Overall, the process proved to be very emotional for the team, throughout the different stages.
I mean this is personal too but there were three big moments for me, one was after that worst meeting I have ever been, I stopped and wondered what I had joined, and two weeks later one of the best meetings that I have ever been in where we said ‘OK, let’s go for this’. Then I just remember being very very emotional on the opening day.
I think one of the things that I have become aware of fairly recently is that, and I think it is through this project that has taken so much of our energies and taken so much time, through this we have achieved a huge level of humility and that is born itself out on such things as electing a new chairman for the future and that sort of thing and that unity, I think, is continuing to grow and I think we should be very careful to preserve it.