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In a special ritual on Monday 9th March 2018 Suryagupta became the new Chair of the London Buddhist Centre - one of Triratna’s oldest and largest urban Buddhist Centres, outside of India. Suryagupta is the first woman to become a chair of the LBC. Furthermore, as a mother and a woman of African Caribbean heritage, she brings a breadth of experience to this important role in the Triratna Buddhist Community.
Here is an interview with Suryagupta.
1. Can you say a little about your background?
I was born in Mile End, East London, which is the next tube stop from Bethnal Green, where the London Buddhist Centre is based. So I am very much a local girl - with Caribbean parents! I spent quite a lot of my early years in Caribbean with my grandparents and came back to England when I was about six or seven. I grew up in East London but always had a sense I wanted to leave – while I appreciated the community spirit, I experienced 1970’s East End of London as a largely hostile place as there was a great deal of racism as well as poverty. When the time came I went off and studied law at Bristol University. It was in Bristol that I first got involved in Buddhism. After living in Bristol for a while I returned to Bethnal Green and to the LBC for the first time and was delighted to experience a very different place than the one I had left.
2. What kind of jobs did you do before becoming chair?
While I briefly worked in a ‘team-based right livelihood’ in London I mostly worked ‘in the world’. I was a youth worker, working with refugees, a social worker. I then became a professional storyteller, which I loved and after a number of years transitioned to coaching and leadership development. I also co-founded an orchestra and a professional network seeking to create more racial diversity in classical music. My son was an inspiration as he’s a cellist and we worked with leading organisations such as The Barbican and The Royal Academy of Music. I enjoyed all the work I did but I had a growing need to serve the Dharma and after a car accident, I knew that this need and wish to serve had to take centre stage.
3. What was the process of becoming Chair like?
I was very reluctant at first but quite a lot of people wanted me to put myself forward. I knew it would certainly not be comfortable for me as, apart from serving such a large community, I also have a different lifestyle than previous Chairs and I wasn’t sure how it would work. However, after a great deal of thought, I felt that if it were what the situation required I would put myself forward and see what happened. I also work with women in leadership and in the end I asked myself ‘is there a good reason I shouldn’t put myself forward?’ In December when I was told by the Council that they wanted me to be the next Chair, I was in shock. I was also moved to tears, feeling a mixture of gratitude, shock and awe.
4. How has your family reacted to you taking on this responsibility?
My nineteen-year-old son attended the ceremony and loved it. I often talk to him about the Dharma but it is sometimes interspersed with ‘don’t forget to clean your room’ so I think he really only saw the whole context and the commitment I’ve made when I was giving a talk at the ceremony. He’s been extremely supportive and encouraging all the way - all my family has been.
5. What has it been like so far being chair of one of Triratna’s Largest Buddhist Centres?
It’s been full, exciting, demanding and has definitely stretched me. It also feels like such a privilege to serve such a vibrant and inspiring community. I am happy to be doing it. It’s not comfortable but it’s energising for sure.
6. Looking ahead - are there any areas you would like to focus on in your role as chair?
Well, the first thing is to maintain and continue to develop the positive and creative environment we have at the LBC. Many people describe the LBC as like an oasis and so many Order Members, Mitras and many volunteers all help create this. It takes energy, skill and really love from from us all to just continue this. So this is my first priority, to maintain the positive and then share the Dharma more and more widely. I also want to support activities for under 25’s and for black, Asian people as both groups are currently under-represented in Triratna.
Other than that I’m just going to see what the situation requires. I have been Chair for 6 months so it’s still early days.
7. Anything else?
Inspiration has been my guide in all the roles I have had. It was inspiration and a need to serve that led me to put the LBC at the centre of my life and becoming Chair is a powerful expression of that. Being a Chair also requires me to continue to create the right conditions to deepen my Dharma practice. So along with the many projects and activities I am engaged with, it’s important that I also make time for doing nothing, enjoying silence, dwelling in nature, personal study and friendships.