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Post Style: CONSUMING PASSIONS Talk about an evolution; There is more to the Evolution gift shop than meets the eye. Jo Ind finds out what lies behind the store selling a blow-up plastic heart and furry leopardskin waste paper baskets.

There are a few hints among the Evolution store in Birmingham's Pallasades that this is not an ordinary gift shop.

A browser would find the usual things - candles, CD racks, wind chimes, cards, novelty mugs, wrapping paper. . . There is nothing exceptional about that.

There is nothing exceptional about a store selling a little "spirituality" in the form of incense, wind chimes and aromatherapy oils either.

But at Evolution, tucked away on a shelf with some Buddha statues, are a few books by Sangharakshita, the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order was founded in 1967 with the purpose of applying the principles of the Buddhist tradition to contemporary Western life.

The shelf is a surprising find because there are no other books in the store and no specific reference to any other religion beside this particular brand of Buddhism.

So why, among the ordinary paraphernalia, is there this small focused section concerning Buddhism in the West today?

The answer is that the shop is run by Buddhists, on Buddhist principles, to support the Birmingham Buddhist Centre, which is part of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

While the shop might look ordinary, the staff have names like Punyavajri and Samacitta.

They are paid according to what they need, rather than according to the number of hours they work - and they give all their profits away.

Samacitta was the manager of evolution for about four years. She explains that the shop is run along principles of what is known as "right livelihood," which is a Buddhist way of describing earning a living in an ethical way.

Now Punyavajri has taken over the shop to allow Samacitta to spend more time working at the Birmingham Buddhist Centre in Moseley.

But Punyavajri does not get a pay rise for becoming the manager.

Wages are worked out according to needs, like how much a person's rent is and how much the bills are.

Samacitta's wages went down while she was manager because she moved from living by herself into shared accommodation.

An essential part of "right livelihood" is to provide a service, which they do at Evolution by running a shop selling gifts at very reasonable prices.

"You could say that it is developing consumerism and greed," said Samacitta, "but there is another way of looking at it. It's providing things for people to give to other people, it's encouraging generosity."

Many of the products are ethically traded, meaning they are made in developing countries and a fair price is paid for them.

There is a selection of soapstone statues from Kenya, some bird and fish statues from Bali and colourful wooden goods from India.

Samacitta says one reason why the products are reasonably priced is that Evolution cuts out the middle-man.

At Evolution, they know the people who work in the villages and supply the goods, which come directly to them.

"There is a sense of a personal connection," says Samacitta.

And because of the egalitarian and ethical way in which they work together, the staff take more responsibility for their work.

They do not feel they are working for somebody else but for an organisation which supports them in what matters most - their spiritual practice.

Evolution does not work completely independently. It is part of a larger organisation called Windhorse, which is associated with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Last year, the Evolution store in Birmingham made a profit of pounds 47,000. Half of that went to the Birmingham Buddhist Centre which runs courses and meditation classes.

The other half went to Windhorse, which is based in Cambridge. Windhorse has 18 Evolution stores in Ireland, Spain, Germany and other parts of Britain which together gave pounds 650,000 away to social welfare projects.

"That's part of what makes the work meaningful to us," says Samacitta.

At Evolution they are committed to being friends and encouraging each other to improve their Buddhist practice.

Last week, they were focusing on the Buddhist precept of harmonious speech, becoming aware of the way in which they spoke to customers and to each other.

Samacitta says that if a member of staff is being nasty about someone else, it is incumbent upon the others to pick her up on it and encourage her to change.

And where many companies have an office Christmas party as a way of relaxing and getting to know each other, at Evolution they go on retreat for three days.

So why has Samacitta given her life and her work to Buddhism?

"I've always had a sense that it's important to have a higher guiding principle in one's life and when I came across Buddhism, it seemed to embody the truth as I experienced it," said Samacitta.

"It's something to do with there being a meaning behind appearances."

"A meaning behind appearances" just about sums up Evolution. You might think you're buying a model of one of the seven dwarfs but you're promoting world peace and mindfulness into the bargain.

Evolution is at 31, The Pallasades, Birmingham city centre and can be contacted on 0121 633 0096.
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Ind, Jo
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 21, 1999
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