The Sangharakshita Library Project


For some years now, Bhante has wanted to establish a library based on his personal collection of books, and the Preceptors’ College has recently decided to put this idea into effect as soon as possible. To finance the project, we will use a reserve of money that Windhorse Trading has donated to Bhante over a period of years, together with further funds that we hope to receive from the same source. While we would obviously be pleased to receive any donations, the purpose of this article is not to initiate a fundraising appeal. My aim is simply to communicate to the Order and Movement something about our plans for the Library and the other facilities that we expect to grow around it over a period of years.

In outline, we want to buy — as soon as we can — a farm of perhaps two to three hundred acres, somewhere near Birmingham. We would like it to be in a beautiful setting, including an area of woodland, and to have a farmhouse that could accommodate a community of five or six people. On this estate, we will build the Sangharakshita Library. Our hope is to get the library itself ready for use in Bhante’s lifetime. Bhante has recently developed a serious problem with his eyesight, but otherwise is in good health at the moment. He is lively, energetic and cheerful — and quite unconcerned about his inability to read or write. All the same, he is seventy-five years old, and he won’t be with us forever (as he himself knows better than the rest of us). We would therefore like to get the Library built, and all the books installed in it, as soon as we can, so that Bhante has the opportunity at least to see it. Bhante himself is not pressing for the project to be completed quickly, but I know that it would mean a lot to him to see it established.

There are three aspects to this project. I will say something about each of them.

The first aspect is the library itself — a vision that was conceived and has long been cherished by Bhante personally. As we all know, he is a great reader, and over the years he has accumulated a large personal collection of books, which forms the present ‘Order library’. This is currently housed in a very cramped, dark and inaccessible space at Madhyamaloka, in a former garage under Bhante’s flat. He wants to be sure that the library will be kept together after he has gone. The dispersal of Anagarika Dharmapala’s library after he died has been in Bhante’s mind as a sort of historical warning. (Apparently Dharmapala’s collection virtually vanished within the space of a few months after his death.) Bhante has quite deliberately bought books with a view to maintaining them in a single collection as a future resource for the Order — the core of a library of Buddhism, philosophy, literature, biography, and so on; and he would like to feel confident that this resource won’t be lost.

Bhante wants, if possible, to arrange the Library himself. He has even had some thoughts about its design. In particular, he would like it to have a room to house the canonical texts. This would contain the Buddhist scriptures in the original languages — the Pali and Sanskrit scriptures, the Tibetan and the Chinese Canons, together with translations into English and other languages. And he would also like that room to contain the images — rupas and paintings — that he has accumulated during his lifetime. Although it would be comfortably equipped for study, this room would also be a kind of shrine, with a reverential atmosphere. Then, he would like other rooms for each of the other collections: commentarial literature, secondary works, and so on. Bhante is still considering other facilities the Library might have. He is even giving thought to the architecture, imagining something that would harmonise with the ‘vernacular’ of the surrounding area, whilst also having Buddhist features, at least in the decoration.

Why does Bhante consider it important to found a library? There are several reasons. For one thing, libraries have played an important part in the evolution and preservation of culture, especially in the West. Bhante seems to think that our society may be about to enter some very dark days. He sees an increasing barbarism in the world, and wonders whether the high culture of the past is going to survive. That may seem a little apocalyptic but I don’t think we should dismiss the idea.

The Library will have other purposes too, however. It will be a treasure house of clues to the development of Bhante’s outlook and his distinctive insights into the Dharma. He is a man who has read a lot throughout his life, a man who cares very deeply about books, and who refers constantly to various books that have made their mark on him. The Library will house most of the books that have been important in his life and thinking. Anybody who is at all interested in Bhante’s vision of the Dharma will be able to see that vision in perspective, with the aid of the Library. The Library will also include an archive of Bhante’s personal papers — letters and other documents (which he is presently putting in order) — which will help people to understand his life and the foundation of the Movement. All in all, the library will be a kind of key to Bhante, not just as a thinker but as a person. If we succeed in propagating the Dharma as he has taught it to us, there will certainly be many people in the future who will want to use the Library.

As a significant resource for Buddhist study, the Library will become a centre for scholars in Buddhism, particularly those within the Order and Movement, but also those outside it. It will contain not only those books that Bhante has found important, but a comprehensive library of Buddhism. At some point, therefore, we will need to create a study centre on the estate, where scholars or students can stay and work.

So much for the Library as such. The second aspect of the project is to create a place that will become a symbol of the Movement’s unity and its continuity with its source in Bhante. For this reason too (if we play our part effectively, and spread the Dharma widely), people will come to visit it. While the library is being set up, Bhante hopes to be there to supervise the process. He is also likely to continue to live there afterwards (for at least part of his time), as he would like to spend more time in a quieter and more rural environment than Madhyamaloka can provide. The library will thus be associated with his presence. However, (and more decisively for its future symbolic importance) the site is also likely to be Bhante’s burial place. He has said that we should bury (rather than cremate) his body, because burial is more ecologically sound (and he has specified a cardboard coffin — current ecological ‘best practice’ for burials). A tree is to be planted over his grave. People will come to see that tree, and feel some connection with Bhante. Pilgrimage is an important practice in Buddhism, as a way in which we can feel closer to great figures from the past. I am sure this will develop within our own Movement. In the future, people will perhaps travel great distances to see the place where Bhante lived at the end of his life, where his books, images and papers are kept, and where his body is buried.

The third aspect of the project is the development of the estate, in the longer term, as the international centre of the whole Order and Movement. I have spoken and written recently about establishing a regional framework for the Movement [see Handing On, Issue Four], so that each major geographical ‘zone’ of the Movement is more or less autonomous. Each zone will have all the facilities that it needs, including perhaps its own College and Council (all in communication with the main College and Council — which will ultimately be fully international in its composition, and distinct from the ‘local’ UK College and Council). The Library, shrine and study centre could therefore also become a base for those who are concerned with the Movement as a whole, rather than with the Movement in any particular zone. It would be a sort of vihara — a place where members of the international College can live a semi-monastic or even monastic life, and perhaps lead retreats for others.

Clearly, it is only the first of these three aspects — the development of the library — that we want to initiate now. The other parts of the plan (the development of the pilgrimage site and the international centre) will come when the time for them is ripe — when, that is, they are necessary and we have the resources to create them. Perhaps they won’t begin to develop for another 10–15 years. But by purchasing the estate and establishing the library, we will at least have created a base for these important aspects of the future life of the Order and Movement.

As I explained at the outset, we are not calling for donations — although any funds donated will be a welcome aid to the completion of the project. Instead, we are relying on the profits of Windhorse Trading, the major part of which has been committed to Bhante’s chosen projects from the outset. Naturally, we hope that people will do whatever they can to support Windhorse Trading, and that some people will be inspired to work in the business in order to help this project towards fruition.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 5: Summer 2001 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2001).