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Cross your legs and hope to die laughing

For more and more Britons it is not Easter Day but Sangha Day, Dhama Day and Wesak Day that are the most important dates in the religious calendar.

Many of the growing band of British Buddhists will be spending today cross-legged on retreats, not a saffron robe in sight. Others will be gathering at Goldsmith's College next Sunday to celebrate 30 years of Buddhism in the West.

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), a movement which began at a meditation session in a Soho basement in 1967 and includes Billy Connolly and his wife Pamela Stephenson among its devotees, now teaches meditation to 20,000 Britons each year.

In the past year the number of FWBO centres in the West has increased by 20 per cent. There are 30 in the UK. The Manchester Buddhist Centre, opened last summer, is the largest urban Buddhist centre in Europe.

Of the estimated one million Buddhists in the West, 140,000 live in the UK. Disillusioned with established and New Age religions alike, they see Buddhism not as an exotic import, but a serious spiritual option.

In the heart of the East End of London a Buddhist community has sprung up. A vegetarian restaurant and cafe , an art gallery and health centre, all Buddhist, are within walking distance of the Bethnal Green FWBO centre. The centre's quadruple glazing and polished pine floors provide an oasis of calm and tranquillity.

Judith Wright, 37, a research officer at City University, was brought up a Christian. She took to meditating 18 months ago. "You can incorporate Buddhism into your life in terms of making your life and other people's lives better instead of living by a set of rules," she said. "Buddhism says: 'Follow your path, whatever it is,' whereas most of Christianity is: 'There's only one possible way and everyone else will go to Hell'."

Guhyapati, 31, one of 350 FWBO monks in the UK, says the attraction of Buddhism is that it is not a "prescriptive" religion. "Buddhism says: 'Well, try this out and see if it works.' It doesn't say: 'This is how it is'.

"Our society is increasingly nihilistic. Finding people whom you can actually share meaningful values with is extraordinary. It's a tradition that actually says: 'There's more to it than working your bollocks off to get a better car and better mortgage, satellite and cable TV'."

Soo Taylor, 36, was educated by nuns. "I remember being told: 'Have faith,' and saying: 'What is it?' They couldn't give me any ideas about life other than have faith in everything and it will be all right."