After years of declining attendance, people are returning to houses of worship throughout the UK. Church of England congregations are reporting a rise in numbers, and Christmas addresses from religious leaders claimed difficult times have caused people to turn to spiritual outlets to make sense of their morality-poor, debt-filled lives. In his seasonal speech the Bishop of Manchester Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch said: “We are being shocked into seeing that there are more important values to own and cherish”.
But in a quiet corner of Cardiff, just a stone’s throw from City Road, there is another religious group experiencing an influx of followers. Standing in the shadows of the sprawling St Peter’s Catholic Church is an altogether less assuming building. This is Cardiff Buddhist Centre, and although there are now others, 10 years ago this was the only place in the Welsh capital the Buddhist community, or sangha, had to practice.
Jenny Franks, 71, of Pentwyn, has been a volunteer at the centre for six-and-a-half years. She agreed the last 18 months have seen an increase in the number of people through their doors.
“If we go by the numbers on our books, we have seen an increase,” she said “But not all of those will stay. They might take something away and in a few months or years, they might come back.
“Right now people are scared, and I think they are looking for something spiritual to help them. Here we say nothing is permanent, and we have seen that in the world around us recently. It can be hard to come to terms with and our door is always open.”
This arms-open attitude and a rejection of the materialistic side of life may be what is causing Buddhism’s stock to rise as everything else crashes. As one blogger, a stockbroker-turned-Buddhist, said: “Buddhism tells us that we will suffer for our passions, our greed...and our ignorance”. Perhaps people want to suffer no more.
Although Buddhism has many different branches, broadly it teaches awareness and insight into the world around you to become a better person. It has no god or gods, with Buddha himself being held more as a role model than an idol, and Jenny suggests this can be an attraction for many who are turned off by traditional Western religions. Its focus is on practice through meditation.
The Cardiff centre was started in 1998 by two men, Pramudita and Surana (Buddhists do not take last names), who bought the building and transformed it into the centre which today houses an office, library, kitchen, shop, and two shrine rooms for meditation.
The centre is part of the Friends of the Western Order of Buddhists (FWOB), a branch of Buddhism designed to fit well with the trappings of Western life. This compromise between East and West sees more than 100 people coming through their doors for meditation, advice, or just a cup of tea, each week. The centre doesn’t charge for most of its classes but asks for a donation, or dana, meaning generosity. Where they do charge, there is a lower price option for those on income support or without work. With reports of new job losses every day, this could prove an important consideration for many people.
Nicola Paterson, 39, and a former journalist from Roath, first came to the centre seven years ago after she was diagnosed with MS. She now volunteers there two afternoons a week.
She said: “Generally what is admired is making lots of money, having a good job, going on nice holidays, having the perfect partner. But there is no perfect life, and if you’re relying on superficial, material things, you won’t feel nourished.
“People can come here to find out what a sangah is and how it works. Some people just come to meditate and don’t become Buddhists and that’s absolutely fine. Others become a mitra [a friend of the Buddhists] while some ask for ordination and become a Buddhist member. Whatever your choice, it is an oasis here.” This "pick’n’mix" philosophy can be appealing when compared to the more directive services and guidance provided by Christianity.
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At the Wednesday night meditation class, 25 people crowd into the front room of the centre with cups of tea and flapjack. Around half of them have never been before, such as 28-year-old PhD student Ross Wadey.
He said: “When I drove past the centre I was expecting something bigger, especially compared to the huge church directly opposite. They’re like two extremes of religious expression. Everyone here is friendly, and very relaxed. I can see the centre having a purpose, especially at times like these.”