Buddhism in the West Midlands, as elsewhere in Britain, is characterised by its diversity. As many as 10,000 Buddhists live here, particularly in the urban centres, with many other people practising Buddhist meditation or expressing sympathy with some Buddhist teachings. While there is a small white convert majority, about a third are ethnically Chinese; there are also high numbers of Vietnamese refugees and Indian converts (largely from the scheduled castes) as well as smaller numbers of Thais, Sri Lankans and Burmese. They subscribe to a range of different traditions with teachers and monks drawn from many parts of the world. Diversity of teaching and practice follows from such organisational variety.
Different groups stress differing doctrinal aspects. Theravada Buddhists of the south-east Asian tradition place more emphasis on the historical figure of the Buddha, his experience and teachings in 6th Century BCE India. Far Eastern and Tibetan Buddhists focus more on the Buddha nature and the compassion of those who defer their own enlightenment to help others and they show devotion to a variety of these figures. The principles of Dharma (teaching) and Sangha (the order of monks who interpret the texts) are also given varying degrees of prominence, with the four noble truths (of suffering – its causes, and the path out of suffering, which is the eightfold path to enlightenment), to the fore in some and not others. Traditions of ordination and monasticism are important in most, but there are also several lay orders. Ethical precepts – such as refraining from harming living beings (ahimsa), stealing and wrong speech, and abstinence from alcohol and drugs – are common to all; so too is meditation using a variety of methods. The ultimate aim of this moral and mental discipline is full release (nirvana) from repeated rebirth. Life must be respected in all living beings, so many Buddhists are vegetarian and pacifist.
Festivals also vary according to the cultural traditions and ethnic origins of the various groups. Although the official dates of many are linked to the full moon, in practice they are generally held on the nearest Sunday. The majority of centres are in converted premises, but there is a purpose-built Chinese temple in Brierley Hill, an Indian temple in Wolverhampton and a Burmese pagoda in Birmingham. There is also a magnificent Vietnamese temple in converted premises in Handsworth.
The Buddhist wheel symbol with its eight spokes (dharmacakra) stands for the Buddhist training, known as the eight-fold path.
More information from the BBC website www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/
Local information on BBC Birmingham website www.bbc.co.uk/birmingham/content/articles/2007/06/14/buddhism_feature.shtml
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