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Why do Brits seek Eastern spirituality when they have so much of their own?

If you doubt that a building can affect your spirit, try going to church

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

I used to hang around a group of friends who worked for a British events company. Their boss was a keen follower of Buddhism and all things Oriental and, since the course of business never does run smooth, regularly consulted a feng shui practitioner. The practitioner, who wanted to be called Jampa, gave advice on everything from the setting up of a branch office to the placement of a goldfish bowl. He charged £500 a visit, with the viewing of two floors in an office counting as two visits.

Jampa’s real name was something like Trevor Stevens, and in the days before he started donning the saffron robes of an eastern monk he was more often spotted in the crimson cloth of a Liverpool FC supporter. But a stint in southern India brought about his spiritual transformation, and he turned from steak-lover to meat-loather, tippler to teetotaller.

Thanks to Jampa’s guidance, my friends often found their office desks in peculiar locations like a stairwell or — once — a large cupboard. Their boss had to come and go via the fire escape because that was the most propitious entryway. Jampa was particularly concerned about how best to avoid ‘poison arrows’, by which he meant books, which in certain schools of Chinese thought are potent objects that, if placed wrongly, project energetic darts that destroy your chi (never put your bed in front of a shelf of Penguins).

Such was the boss’s faith in Jampa that the geomancer was dispatched — in club class — to branch offices all over the world, including Asia. Thus this feng shui wallah of west London visited places such as Singapore, administering back to the natives their own ancient teachings. So East isn’t just East and West isn’t always West, and ever the twain shall meet, and the Tao circle be squared.

What is it about Westerners’ love of eastern philosophies (and, for that matter, Easterners’ love of Westerners’ love of eastern philosophies)? I am constantly puzzled by certain Westerners who regard it as a bit of an embarrassment if one were to attend church every Sunday but who, on visiting a temple in the Far East, can’t wait to cast off their footwear, clutch the joss sticks and roll the Heavenly dice of Fortune, or whatever. I am perplexed why they think that chaotic Calcutta might be a bigger repository of peace and spirituality than Cardiff, or steamy Bangkok a greater font of sanctity than, say, Basingstoke.

What astounds me most is that Britain is itself so patently full of holy spaces and buildings, constructed with a sense of positioning and proportion that often takes the breath away. For I am a believer in feng shui — not the put-some-bamboo-shoots-in-your-relationship-corner variety, but the principle that one’s environment can influence one’s wellbeing. I believe in the power of colour, texture, shape, height, width, balance and harmony. Most of all, I believe that the motivations for constructing a building matters, and imbue it with a certain sensibility.

Bill Bryson, in his Notes from a Small Island, said that there were 445,000 listed historical buildings in Britain, 12,000 medieval churches and 600,000 sites of archaeological interest. His Yorkshire village, he pointed out, had more 17th-century buildings than all of North America. In that book, written in 1995, Bryson expressed amazement that, because Britain has such a wealth of old buildings, many of them are being forgotten or razed over.

I have spent almost all my life in modern Asian metropolises and sometimes, when I walk around London, I can’t get over the fact that in front of me lies a centuries-old church, and if I turn the corner there will most likely be another. In the Square Mile alone there are some 50 churches, many survivors of the Great Fire. And then I think of the entire country, all the thousands of churches that dot the isles, some getting more and more derelict, but all outposts of hope and -longevity.

I like the idea that a traditional European church is almost always laid out in the shape of a cross; sometimes a Latin one, sometimes Greek. I think it must be marvellous to fly over the UK in a helicopter and look down on all the crosses over the land, each marking a treasure trove. The chancel or altar usually faces east — toward the rising sun and Jerusalem, I’m told — and that must give such a panorama of asymmetrical symmetry when viewed from above.

And then the spires and bell towers! How they loom over the countryside, either beckoning as places of shelter for the poor and for pilgrims, or signalling the hours of prayer. The temples of the Orient are stunningly beautiful but, bar the odd pagoda or two, are mainly low-lying. It is the towers of worship all across Europe that reach up for the heavens, again and again and again.

When I first visited St Paul’s Cathedral, years ago, tears stung my eyes. After that, I wondered why. Was it because the travel guides had explained so thoroughly the meaning of the cathedral’s various architectural features? Was it because I was standing in a Wren creation? Was it because of the pomp of the dome and the sculptures and the choir?

Not really. It was because, when you stand in St Paul’s, you sense history in every stone. And this history was not so much made by kings and bishops, but by common folk who spent decade after decade designing and planning and building out of a sense of shared purpose and belief. A structure that’s sprung out of devotion feels very different from one built for commerce or pure competition. (The Shard could never be Westminster Abbey, for which perhaps we should be thankful.)

How much more so must it be for the smaller churches all over the country, whose lives are entwined with the people who built them, got baptised and married in them, had their caskets brought there. All the masons and workmen who pondered over naves, transepts and buttresses, deciding that a cornerstone should be laid here, an altarpiece placed just so. Building churches that were markedly different yet highly similar. Repeating and experimenting within a long line of tradition.

When I think of the tremendous legacy of Britain’s churches, my mind reels. To be honest, I can’t believe more isn’t being done to save and restore them. It also makes me think that I should have paid more attention to the sacred sites back in Asia.

Sometimes we travel far and wide for higher truth, while divinity lies at our doorstep.

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