Buddhism in the UK

Introduction: “Buddhism”

‘Buddhism’ embraces a series of communities and practices which relate in differing ways to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sometimes known as Sakyamuni (the seer of the Sakya clan).[1] Modern scholars believe that Gautama lived in the fifth century BCE and taught in the Ganges basin. There are three principal marks of Buddhism known as the Three Jewels (triratna) or the Three Refuges (trisarana):

  • the Buddha,
  • the Dharma (the teaching) and
  • the Samgha or Sangha (the monastic community).

‘Buddha’ means the ‘Awakened One’ and the Dharma provides the teaching for the follower to attain to his or her eventual awakening. Buddhism flourished in India but eventually died out there, until a revival introduced by B.R. Ambedkar in the 1950s. Before dying out in India, Buddhism’s message was spread abroad to other countries across south eastern and eastern Asia. It is from those countries that the Buddhist teaching was introduced into the UK.

World Buddhism and The Three Vehicles

Tibetans believe that there are three vehicles which may be followed by Buddhists

The first vehicle is what Tibetans call Hinayana, the lesser vehicle, now often considered a rather pejorative name for what is generally called Theravada, the way of the Elders. Therevada was one of a number of ancient Buddhist schools which grew up in ancient India. This school follows the Pali Canon, the earliest Buddhist scriptures. The school emphasises the individual quest for salvation, principally for the Arhat who achieves liberation by following the Buddha’s teaching. Theravada Buddhism now flourishes in South East Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Out of the ancient schools, there emerged the second movement, Mahayana, the Great Vehicle which is characterised by:

  • the emphasis on compassion, karuna, and insight, prajna;
  • the development of the concept of Bodhisattva, the disciple who postpones full awakening to assist others to achieve salvation;
  • the emphasis on the doctrines of sanyata, emptiness, and dependent origination, pratitya-samutpada, whereby all the existence of phenomena is dependent on that of other phenomena and does not arise independently;
  • the Buddha being increasingly seen as a supernatural being and the subject of worship.

The Mahayana movement spread northwards into Tibet and Nepal (where it has been influenced by tantric practices) and into China (where it has been influenced by Tao and Confucian teachings). From China, the Ch’an school of contemplation developed and spread to Japan where it is known as Zen.

Out of Mahayana Buddhism grew the third vehicle, mainly found in Tibet,Vajrayana. This is the path of the Vajra, the thunderbolt or diamond, signifying the imperishable nature of enlightenment. It is in this path that tantric Buddhism flourishes with its emphasis on tantras (systems of practice), mandalas (symbolic round pictures of the universe) and esoteric- often abstruse – teachings. This path is said to provide a comparatively quick path to liberation through meditative practice.

Buddhism in the UK  


Early contact was made between British missionaries and Therevada Buddhists in Sri Lanka in the latter half of the 18th century. The contact forced Buddhists to defend themselves against the claims being made by Christian apologists. It may have helped the Buddhist cause that the encounter was with Theravada Buddhism which gave less emphasis to magic and the miraculous than the other two vehicles. This enabled the Buddhists there to define themselves against Christianity by emphasising the philosophical aspects of the Buddhist movement. Following that emphasis, one often hears Buddhists say that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion.

Western theosophists were attracted to the Buddhism encountered in Sri Lanka and Burma. Sir Edward Arnold introduced Victorian Britain to the story of Buddha in his Light of Asia.   One of those theosophists, Christmas Humphreys, was instrumental in explaining Buddhism to British people and established the Buddhist Society of Great Britain.

Buddhist Organisations, Monasteries and Centres

Immigration into the UK since the second world war has resulted in the establishment of ethnic Buddhist communities and monasteries. One should note in particular:

  • Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery in West Sussex following the Thailand forest tradition;
  • Amaravati Buddhist Centre near Hemel Hempstead also following the Thailand forest tradition;
  • Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan monastery and Centre for World Peace and Health located at Eskdalemuir, near Langholm, Dumfries, Scotland;
  • Throssel Hole Abbey, a Soto Zen centre in Northumberland;
  • Triratna Buddhist Community which has a number of centres in UK and the rest of the world, one of which is in Bethnal Green, London;
  • Sokka Kakkai International a world-wide movement seeking action for peace;
  • Nipponzan Myohoji Order which established the London Peace Pagoda;
  • London Fo Guang Shan Temple in the West End of London which promotes humanistic Buddhism in the Mahayana tradition.[2]

There are various Buddhist organisations in the UK, including:

  • The Buddhist Society of Great Britain: courses are offered in Theravada, Tibetan and Zen traditions with its publication, The Middle Way;
  • Samatha Trust, teaching mindfulness;
  • International Meditation Centre in Heddington, Wiltshire;
  • Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, an international organisation with various UK centres;
  • New Kadampa Tradition, with its its Manjusri Kadampa Meditation Centre, near Ulverston on the edge of the Lake District;
  • Pure Land Buddhist Fellowship.

In addition to the organisations, there are a host of practices established which are in some way linked to Buddhism. These relate to the practice of meditation and mindfulness stemming from Buddhist traditions. Of particular note is the practice of Zen meditation. Some practices have derived from Buddhism such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

Two Buddhist leaders have influences in the UK beyond Buddhist adherents. The Dalai Lama is widely respected for his dialogue with Christians and his peace-making. Similarly, the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as being a great spiritual teacher, works for peace and reconciliation.

In the 2011 Census 248,000 declared themselves Buddhist in England and Wales[3]

Buddhism – Main Features and Beliefs

The summary of the Buddhist beliefs given below are generally common to all Buddhist movements unless otherwise stated.

The Human Condition

As in the case of Hinduism, one needs to think of a cyclical concept of time. But unlike Hinduism, there is no concept of self or soul or atman in most of the schools. Instead, in Buddhism, all is in a state of flux including human beings. Individuals are made up of five skandhas, or components, which constantly change. These are form or body; feelings; perception; volitional factors and consciousness. Each of these skandhas bears the marks of impermanence, suffering and no self. The individual lives in a cycle of existence, of births and deaths, samsara. One transmigrates from one existence to another, determined by the merit, karma, one has obtained in previous lives.

Life involves suffering, dukkha. Dukkha has a wider meaning than the English word ‘suffering’ and includes impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. Such suffering will continue as long as one exists in samsara. Only by obtaining liberation can one be rid of dukkha.                                                                                                                                                   

Four Noble Truths 

To be liberated from dukkha, one needs to escape the cycle of samsara. Liberation comes about according to the teaching of the four noble truths which claim:

  • All existence is dukkha;
  • dukkha arises due to craving for pleasurable sensations and experiences;
  • on cessation of craving, dukkha also ceases and one reaches nirvana;
  • nirvana is reached by following the eight-fold noble path.

Eight-fold Path

The eight-fold noble path consists of: right view; right resolve; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right meditation.

The eight-fold path provides a middle way for the Buddhist between sense, pleasure and over-rigorous asceticism.

Five Precepts

In determining right action, Buddhists should have regard to the five precepts which require training to abstain from: killing living beings; taking what is not given; misconduct concerning sense-pleasures; false speech; alcoholic drinks or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness.

On the basis of the first precept, the ideals of pacificism and vegetarianism are admired but not all Buddhists are vegetarians or pacifists.


Nirvana marks the end of dukkha and existence in samsara. Nirvana can take place in this life but its final state is after this life has ceased. Later Mahayana teaching saw nirvana as not separate from samsara and as merely a different side of the same coin.

The Buddha

The historical Buddha lived and died in the fifth century BCE. He was known as Siddhartha Gautama (or in Pali, Siddhatta Gotama) in the early texts and often as Sakyamuni in Mahayana texts. It is difficult to distinguish fact and legend, but it appears that he was born in a comfortable family but became disillusioned with the luxury of his existence. He became a wandering ascetic who achieved awakening (bodhi) having solved the problem of pain and suffering. He then preached his message and founded communities of monks and nuns. Gautama died as an old man and was known as the awakened one (the Buddha). From early beginnings a process which may be described as divinisation took place. Stories (Jakata) emerged of his previous lives. His conception, birth, awakening, first sermon and death had cosmic significance. Legend says he was born into a royal family and had on his person the thirty-two marks and the eighty signs of a great man. He becomes endued with magical properties.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Sakyamuni becomes revered as one of many Buddhas. In the cosmos, there are innumerable Buddhas, each with their own Buddha Land or Pure Land. In Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, Amitabha (known in Japan as Amida) residing in his Buddha land of Sukhavati is given due devotion.

The Mahayana idea of Buddha starts to become more and more detached from earthly manifestations of Sakyamuni. The Buddha becomes increasingly a cosmic concept, revealing himself in a number of bodies. According to the trikaya (the three body theory), the Buddha’s essence resides in his truth body (dharmakaya) but manifests himself to Bodhisattvas (that is people who have been able to reach nirvana, but who delay doing that so as to help enlighten others) in his enjoyment body (sambhogakaya) and to sentient beings by skilful means in his emanation body (nirmanakaya). Accordingly, Sakyamuni was thought only to have given the appearance that he was actually on earth but, in reality, was not.

Allied to the trikaya doctrine is the idea that the body of ultimate truths is emptiness, sunyata. It is important to note that emptiness is not nihilism but a description of the underlying nature of all phenomena. One example of the doctrine of emptiness concerns the self. While we may think of the self to be real, it is in fact illusory and has no real existence. The concept or phenomenon of self is empty.

Bodhisattva and Tathagatagarbha

Mahayana Buddhism also developed the concept of the Bodhisattva; the future Buddha who is orientated towards his enlightenment in such a way that he can have compassion on sentient beings and assist them in obtaining enlightenment. Particular devotion is given to the Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, as he acts on Amitabha’s behalf in opening eyes to the need for liberation. Devotion is also afforded to Bodhisattva Maitreya, who will become the next Buddha on this earth and it will be propitious to be reborn at his future time on earth.

Another movement in Mahayana was to internalise the concept of Buddhahood. Under the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, each person has the potential to obtain Buddhahood. By following the path to enlightenment, one removes one’s tainted nature to enable the Buddha nature to shine forth in oneself.

The Dharma

The term dharma, the second of the Three Jewels, has a variety of meanings but as one of the Three Jewels, it means the totality of Buddhist teachings. The totality of Buddhist teachings is vast and each tradition developed and expounded them.

The Pali canon consists of three parts or baskets (the Tripitaka). These comprise of:

  • the Sutra Pitaka or basket of discourses;
  • the Vinaya Pitaka or basket of Monastic Discipline;
  • the Abidharma Pitaka or basket of Higher Teachings.

Comprising part of that canon is the Dhammapada, one of the most famous Buddhist scriptures.

Each of the early schools had its own Tripitaka but the Theravada version is the only one to have survived intact. In the Mahayana tradition, the canon was not regarded as closed and literature continued to be produced. The Lotus Sutra is probably the most famous of such Mahayana literature in the west.

The Samgha

 The third of the Three Jewels is the Samgha or Sangha. The Samgha refers to the Buddhist community and has two meanings. It can mean monastics comprising bhiksu (monks) and bhiksuni (nuns). But it can also include upasaka (Buddhist laymen) and upasika (laywomen). In the context of the Three Jewels, it means those particularly advanced towards or having attained nirvana. In the Mahayana tradition, bodhisattvas are included in the Samgha refuge and one takes refuge by making vows to become like them.

Taking Refuge

One becomes a Buddhist by taking refuge in the Three Jewels, in effect professing faith in them. In becoming a Buddhist, one says three times: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Samgha.’

The Path to Buddhahood

The Mahayana tradition developed paths to Buddhahood which Bodhisattvas could take over the course of their lives.  Stages along these paths are known as bhumi. One such scheme lists ten bhumis: Joyful – having the thought of enlightenment; Pure – eradicating immoral conduct; Luminous – insight through meditation; Brilliant – pursuing good qualities; Hard to conquer – devotion to own development and welfare of others; Facing forward – obtaining wisdom and insight into the true nature of phenomena; Going far – obtaining skilful means; Immoveable – not turning back from the path to Buddhahood; The Good – preaching and converting; The cloud of the Dharma – reaching full perfection and becoming a fully enlightened Buddha.

Buddhist Engagement with Christianity 

Buddhist Critiques of Christianity

The following criticisms have been made of Christianity[4]:

  • there is no need for a creator God. If everything needs to be created so does God, in which case, there would be no creator.
  • The attributes assigned to God derive from human concepts. Moreover, those attributes are contradictory: how can omnipotence exist side by side with free will?
  • How can an eternal God intervene in temporal affairs as he is claimed to do so in the act of creation, and also in sending his Son to redeem humankind?
  • What is claimed as experience of God is only an experience interpreted by humans;
  • Ideas of the higher good derive from Platonic thought and are not based in any reality;
  • The problem of theodicy, how a loving God can allow evil, has never been satisfactorily resolved if, indeed, a good God exists;
  • there is no part of an individual which is not constantly changing: so, there is no permanent soul;
  • the idea of an individual consisting separately of body and soul is dualist. Furthermore, one cannot conceive of a soul without embodiment;
  • the Christian idea of soul and the afterlife derive from craving to attachment to these concepts rather than accepting the inevitability of death;
  • the idea of revealed truth is used where one cannot prove rationally the proposition;
  • the cross may be said to glorify suffering and should not be regarded as a vehicle for salvation. In Buddhism, suffering is to be transcended, not embraced.

How we may speak of our faith to members of the Buddhist Religion 

It is outside the scope of this paper to answer all the points which Buddhists may raise about Christianity. Theologians will be able to answer these points from different traditions. This section concentrates on those points which would be fruitful to explore in dialogue.

Christians are going to have a variety of responses to Buddhism. But at the outset, we can see that Buddhism has challenged Christians in the language they use to define their faith.  Contact with Buddhist traditions has influenced both Christian practice and thought.

Many Christians have been impressed when coming into contact with the meditational traditions of Buddhism. Some have sought to adapt Buddhist practices such as Zen and mindfulness into their traditions. Others have been motivated to search within the Christian traditions for complementary practices such as those of Meister Eckhart and the English mystics.

Similarly, contact with Buddhism has influenced how Christians think and talk about God. The radical Christian philosopher, Don Cupitt, at one stage promoted Christian Buddhism as a way of engaging in spirituality while rejecting realist notions of God.[5] Most Christians would not go as far as Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith movement in jettisoning talk of a God as objectively real. But many Christians have become more reticent in their descriptions of God and have tended to avoid terms such as omnipotence. By reflecting on Buddhist tradition of emptiness, Christians have rediscovered the apophatic way of speaking about God (that is that God is defined by what God is  not).

Some Christians would wish to enter a scientific discussion and ask Buddhists how creation can exist without a creator. Others would wish to rely on their experience of a loving God to support their faith in the existence of God. Christians may point out that faith is not subject of scientific proof but can nevertheless be experienced and lived. It is by living the faith that Christians experience God. Both Christians and Buddhists see their paths as a way, for Christians to God and for Buddhists to nirvana.

Believing in a Trinity, God is conceived by Christians as one who has a relationship with people. Even though God cannot be physically seen, God invites us into a relationship with him and his creation. Christians may recognise the divine potential in humanity. A Christian may also see an echo of their relation to God in the Tathatagarbha tradition whereby the Buddhist can realise the Buddha potential within herself.

For Christians, that divine potential was fully realised in the person of Jesus Christ. This claim brings us to the charge of exclusivism. Christians may need to re-examine the concept of Christ in a pluralist world. Raimond Panikkar affirmed that Jesus is Christ, but suggested Christ cannot simply and completely be identified with Jesus.[6] This suggests that the idea of Christ could be wider than previously thought. In dialogue, Christians may explore whether the idea of Christ can embrace that of the Tathatagarbha. For Christians, the claim of the divinity of Jesus is mixed up with the kenotic understanding of God’s self-emptying. That emptying has echoes of the sunyata tradition of Buddhism where emptiness is at the heart of what may be described as Buddhahood.

Christian theology is incarnational; Christ comes to the world in flesh and blood. The body is considered the temple of the Holy Spirit.[7] In contrast, early Buddhism may be said to have a comparatively low regard for the body, emphasising more the importance of consciousness over that of the body. But later meditational practice did stress the importance of the body and its posture in the practice of mindfulness. The importance of the body is further emphasised in engaged Buddhism which seeks to relieve the suffering of human beings. Furthermore, the idea of incarnation is present in Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama considered as a re-incarnation of the bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara. So, there is ample scope for reflection and dialogue on the nature of incarnation and the importance of the body.

For Christians, Jesus in his humanity relates to the divine. Jesus’ humanity is endorsed as is that of all men, women and children, for Christians human beings are made in the image of God. Christians acknowledge that we may change both physically and mentally. But behind the changes, there exists a personality. That person is real in life and in death. For a Christian, a person is more than a collection of skandhas (see section on the human condition).

Dialogue can also take place about what Christians call the question of works and grace: how far do we achieve salvation through works or grace? That has been a question which has exercised theologians with the apparent different emphases in the letters of Paul and James in the New Testament. In early Buddhism, the path of liberation could take place over several life cycles and would need to be worked at. But later, Pure Land Buddhism provides an easier way to liberation, much more in accord with that of grace as understood by Christians.

Some Buddhists are critical about the veneration of the image of Jesus dying on the cross. For Buddhists suffering is to cease on enlightenment according to the four noble truths. The ultimate aim is to detach oneself from suffering. It must be realised that the Buddhist term ‘suffering’ also embraces craving and the terms are not synonymous. But the Christian sees God as identifying himself with suffering in the world and the incarnation of Christ testifies to this. In Christ’s passion, there is something which is transformative about the suffering. Suffering is part of life and it is unreal to believe one can escape from suffering and death. The Christian would claim that the example of Christ gives her hope in her own suffering. But the Christian would be able to find echoes of redemptive suffering in when the Bodhisattva assists people to become enlightened before becoming a Buddha himself.

Further Reading

Schmidt-Leukel, P. Buddhism and Christianity in Dialogue: The Gerald Weisfeld Lectures 2004. SCM Pub. 2005

Knitter, P.  Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian. Oneworld Academic pub. 2013


[1] Keown, D. Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford Uni. Press. 2004

[2] Further information on Buddhist monasteries/communities can be accessed at: Tomalin, E. Starkey, C. A Survey of Buddhist Buildings in England. University of Leeds. 2016. https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/survey-of-buddhist-buildings-in-england/buddhist-buildings/ Accessed: 19.2.19

[3] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/fullstorywhatdoesthecensustellusaboutreligionin2011/2013-05-16 / Accessed: 25.3.19

[4] Dharmasiri, G. Buddhist Critique on the Christian Concept of God. Golden Leaves Pub. 1988.

[5] Spearritt, G. Don Cupitt: Christian Buddhist? Cambridge University Press. 1995. http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-EPT/gregory.htm Accessed: 9.2.19

[6] Panikkar, R. Identity and Identification. http://www.raimon-panikkar.org/english/gloss-identity.html Accessed: 13.2.19

[7] 1 Cor. 6.19