WHITWORTH Crescent is an attractive, leafy street in suburban Southampton, with large, well-maintained red brick Victorian houses.
And one of them is home to a vibrant and growing Buddhist community.
The Theckchen Kadampa Buddhist Centre is home to ten people – including two nuns – but has far more people through its doors to attend regular meditation sessions and classes.
It’s an instantly welcoming place. Everyone says ‘hello’ and you feel you can sit anywhere and start chatting with whoever is near you.
Two of those people are resident teacher and nun Gen Kelsang Lekma, and education programme coordinator Richard Evans.
Lekma was introduced to Buddhism in 1991. She was stressed and unhappy and decided to try a meditation class.
“It was an enormous benefit,” says the 47-year-old.
“It was an incredible relief to know there was more to life and I didn’t have to become the person I could see myself becoming. I started going to weekly classes. I loved the philosophy and understanding the mind and learning to control it.
“Rather than having to react to situations and be unhappy I could do something about it.
“After about five years of studying I was ordained.”
Lekma was already living at a Buddhist centre and had thinned out her possessions a lot as a consequence but still gave up a number of items when she was ordained.
“I had some clothes – I remember putting them in bags and not doing anything with them and someone had to take them away for me so I think I was a bit attached!” she laughs.
Although Lekma lived at a Buddhist centre and gave up most of her possessions she stresses that neither of these are prerequisites to become ordained.
In fact a friend of hers had children when she was ordained and continued to live at home, while many monks and nuns continue to work in the community, including the other resident nun at the centre, Kelsang Chenma, who is involved in a local food co-operative.
Both nuns stress that the main aim of Buddhism is to be helpful to others – and you can’t do that by cutting yourself off from the rest of society.
“We don’t have vows of poverty.
Many ordained people have to work to support themselves. The main vow is celibacy,” she adds.
“You don’t have a relationship but that helps simplify your life and gives you more time for spiritual practice.”
Kelsang Chemna leading a meditation class
Click here to read Sally Churchward's account of her first meditation session.
She adds that she had to end a relationship when she was ordained.
“That was quite hard but every break up is, for whatever reason,” she says.
Of course, not everyone who takes up Buddhist meditation will go on to be ordained or even become Buddhist.
“We have a big mix of people coming here,” says Richard, who has been living at the centre for a year-and-ahalf and became Buddhist around eight years ago.
“People mostly come to learn how to meditate,” adds Lekma.
“Some come for a bit, learn how to meditate and don’t go any further.
Others go deeper and we have study programmes for that.
“People don’t need to become Buddhists to come to the centre or to meditate – it’s for everyone.”
Richard has noticed an increased interest in Buddhism and meditation, which may be related to the recession.
The centre runs a popular programme of meditation classes and courses across Hampshire and surrounding counties and demand is growing so much that there are plans to open a dedicated commercial space in Southampton, for classes and meditation sessions.
“Buddha says that suffering has good qualities because it makes us look for alternatives,” says Lekma.
“I think with the state of the country financially, people are realising that what they have been relying on aren’t reliable sources of happiness and that they might need something more.”
She explains how Buddhism and meditation can help in difficult times.
“When we don’t investigate, we assume the places, people, job – the external situation we’ve created - are what happiness comes from but what Buddhism says is that happiness is a state of mind.
“Because of that we can increase the causes, which are also states of mind, such as love, compassion, patience.”
We talk for an hour, about attachment and how that can be selfish and different from love, karma and how it is a natural rule rather than a punishment, the benefits of meditation, the difficulty of taking up meditation on your own and the evolution of Buddhism. And, of course, we only scratch the surface.
Before I leave to take part in a meditation session myself, Lekma leaves me with a thought for anyone in search of happiness.
“One of the causes of unhappiness is we try to solve our problems with a negative attitude, which comes from focusing on ourselves too much.
“What we try to meditate on is ‘how can I benefit others?’. Others’ happiness matters too. It can help us take the focus away from ourselves, which makes us feel happy.”
For more information, visit thekchencentre.org or call 023 8055 7077
Buddhism is a series of beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who was known as the Buddha, meaning “the awakened one”. He lived and taught in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BC.
Buddhists do not believe in a deity – a god. Their beliefs include reincarnation and karma – that what you put out comes back to you through natural laws.
Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development which aim to lead to insight into the true nature of reality. Buddhist practices like meditation are means of developing the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom.
Kadampa Buddhism brings the ancient tradition to the modern world, making it accessible, simple and practical.