Buddhism In Australia

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Buddhism Comes to Australia – Professor Roderick S. Bucknell

Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Queensland

As Fo Guang Shan Buddhists celebrate the tenth anniversary of their Chung Tian Temple in Brisbane, it is appropriate to reflect on the nature and history of Buddhism in Australia as a whole: how Buddhism was brought to this country, and how its diverse schools and branches have developed since arriving here.

Buddhism in contemporary Australia is recognised as having two main strands. Chung Tian Temple is a good example of the first strand, known to sociologists as ‘ethnic Buddhism’. With its distinctively Chinese architecture and its Chinese-speaking nuns and monks, Chung Tian represents Buddhism of the sort that bears clearly the features of the nation and culture from which it was transplanted to this continent. Ethnic Buddhism in its diverse manifestations – Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, and so on – is probably what most Australians have in mind when thinking of Buddhism in Australia.

The second strand in Australian Buddhism is less conspicuous and numerically smaller but no less significant. It is made up of the growing number of Australian Buddhists of non-Asian (mostly Anglo-Saxon) origin who do not necessarily have any contact with temples or any involvement in ritual activity. These are converts to Buddhism, or at least serious and sympathetic students of Buddhism, who came to the religion as outsiders, rather than having been born into it.

These two main strands in Australian Buddhism have generally remained discrete and separate. However, recent years have seen increasingly frequent intersections and interactions between them, a trend that becomes apparent when one surveys their origins and historical development.

The early beginnings

Though actual records of the event are meagre, it is likely that Buddhism first arrived in Australia with Chinese miners who came here at the time of the gold rushes, beginning about the middle of the nineteenth century. Most of them returned to China a few decades later when the gold ran out, and consequently the Mahayana Buddhist element in their religious practices had little lasting influence on religious life in Australia.

More enduring was the effect of Japanese pearl divers and their families, who arrived shortly after the Chinese to settle in the pearling centres of Broome, Darwin, and Thursday Island. Their public celebration of Buddhist festivals became a popular feature of life in Broome. It ceased during the World War II internment of Japanese in this country but has since resumed.

In the 1880s came Sinhalese labourers from Sri Lanka, most of who were Theravadin Buddhists. Brought here to work in the sugar industry, they constructed Australia’s first Buddhist temple (since demolished) on Thursday Island, and planted bodhi trees there. Like the Chinese, most of these Sinhalese Buddhists returned to their homeland by the end of the nineteenth century. Some remained, however, and descendants, recognisable by their Sinhalese names, can be found among the members of some present-day Buddhist societies in Queensland.

The gradual introduction of Buddhism to Australia by Asian immigrants might have continued into the twentieth century, had it not been blocked by the passing, in 1901, of the Immigration Restriction Act. This bill, one of the first passed by the newly constituted Federal Parliament, was the legislative basis for the infamous ‘White Australia Policy’. Designed to halt Asian migration to the new nation, it fulfilled that function very effectively until it was repealed half a century later.

In spite of this barrier, Buddhism found its way into Australia, gradually and almost unnoticed, by other means. Throughout the early part of the twentieth century, a small number of Anglo-Australians acquired knowledge of Buddhist teachings and practices through reading, contact with the Theosophical Society, or travel in Asia. Some of them organised themselves into Buddhist study groups. The first such group of which any record exists was established in Melbourne in 1925. It called itself the Little Circle of the Dharma.

By the early 1950s, there were Buddhist study and practice groups throughout the country. A significant factor in the formation of these groups was the occasional sponsoring of visits to Australia by Buddhist monks and nuns from overseas. Prominent among these visitors was Sister Dhammadinna, an elderly Buddhist nun from the USA, who had spent many years in Sri Lanka. On her first visit, she stayed for almost a year, lecturing and teaching meditation, and generating much interest in Buddhism. As the number of Australian Buddhist societies grew, a need was felt for an umbrella organisation that could bring them all together. This led to the formation, in 1958, of the Buddhist Federation of Australia. Led by veteran Buddhist Charles F. Knight, it spoke on behalf of Australian groups at meetings of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, which had been founded eight years earlier.

The style of Buddhism that attracted the attention of those early Australian Buddhists was, in most cases, Theravada or ‘Southern Buddhism’, the school that has long predominated in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Mahayana or ‘Northern Buddhism’ evidently had less appeal, with the exception of Japanese Zen, which was promoted by several groups. Vajrayana, the style of Buddhism practised mainly in Tibet and Mongolia, had not yet established a foothold here. By early in the 1970s some of Australia’s Buddhist groups had set up simple monasteries, complete with resident Theravadin monks invited from Asian Buddhist countries. Also, a growing number of Australians were themselves undergoing Buddhist training in the Theravadin monasteries of Thailand, Burma, and elsewhere. Some of them took ordination as monks in the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order), a few subsequently returning to Australia to teach.

The period of refugee immigration

The mid-1970s saw a turning point in the history of Australian Buddhism, with the arrival of large numbers of ethnic Buddhists as refugees from the Indochinese wars. Most were Vietnamese and therefore Mahayanists, but there were also numbers of Lao and Kampuchean adherents of Theravada Buddhism.

The Theravadins among the refugee immigrants were fairly well able to associate themselves with the Theravada-oriented groups that already existed here. Those groups despite having been established initially by non-Asian Buddhists had become increasingly open to Asian patterns of thought and practice, partly under the influence of their Asian-trained monks. They now provided an environment that Lao and Kampuchean refugee Buddhists found welcoming. Some of the groups sent people to meet the refugees on their arrival in Australia and then helped them to settle in.

The immigrant Vietnamese Buddhists faced a very different situation. As Mahayanists, they were less able to fit in with the existing Theravada-based groups. Consequently, the Vietnamese preferred to form their own Buddhist societies. Many of these subsequently established well-endowed temples with resident Vietnamese monks and nuns. Such societies and temples became important as centres of ethnic identity, places where Vietnamese language and customs were kept alive, and newly arrived migrants could be made to feel at home.

Another group of refugee Asian Buddhists that arrived during the 1970s were the Tibetans. Though few in number, Tibetans in Australia have had a substantial religious impact. Their Vajrayana style of Buddhism (which developed out of Mahayana) holds a strong fascination for many westerners. One factor responsible for this may be the colourful Vajrayana symbolism; another may be the charismatic figure of the Dalai Lama, who has visited Australia several times to teach and conduct Vajrayana rituals. Whatever the reason, the arrival of the first Tibetan monks in 1974 soon led to the setting up of several Tibetan Buddhist institutes, where large numbers of followers, mostly non-Tibetan, began to study and practise.

The current period

Since the late 1980s Asian migration to Australia has been characterised by an ever-increasing proportion of so-called ‘business migrants’. Coming mostly from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, this class of migrants includes large numbers of Chinese Mahayana Buddhists, who have had a big impact on Buddhism in this country. Fo Guang Shan Buddhism (led by Master Hsing Yun), the Amitabha Buddhist Association (Master Ching Kung), and the Tzu-chi Foundation (Master Cheng Yen) are examples of Taiwan-based Buddhist movements whose arrival and growth in Australia can be attributed to this development.

At the same time, Buddhist groups that are exclusively Sri Lankan, Burmese, Thai, Lao, or Kampuchean have developed, most of them associating readily with non-ethnic Theravadin groups. This has facilitated the establishment of several large Theravadin monasteries, based on the Southeast Asian model, though with a mainly non-Asian monastic membership. Especially noteworthy among such centres is Bodhinyana monastery, located outside Perth. Bodhinyana has become sufficiently large that people can be trained there and ordained as monks in the Theravadin branch of the Order.

As a result of the historical developments outlined above, all three of the major branches of world Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana – are now well represented in Australia. Also, within each of the three, significant varieties are to be found. For example, while most groups representing Tibetan Vajrayana belong to the Gelug School, there also exist groups belonging to the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu schools.

The different styles and teachings of the various schools of Buddhism clearly appeal to different segments of Australia’s Buddhist population. For the majority of non-Asian Australian Buddhists, one of the most valued things offered by Buddhist groups is the opportunity for meditation practice. Such people, approaching Buddhism from outside the established traditions, may find the rituals a little alien and the doctrines sometimes difficult to accept in full; but they can usually relate readily to the essential Buddhist message about the nature of the human mind. This message is that a precious inner liberation can be attained through calming the normally turbulent mind (tranquillity meditation) or gaining insight into how the mind functions (insight meditation).

The members of Australia’s many ethnic and cultural minorities who associate with Buddhist groups are probably, in many cases, seeking something more tangible and specific to their particular social situation. For them, membership in a Buddhist group may open up a variety of incidental benefits, ranging from social interaction with people who share the same cultural heritage, to language instruction for their children who might otherwise forget their mother tongue. For them, the Buddhist group fulfils not only a religious function but many social functions as well.

A recent count put the total number of Buddhist groups in Australia at 361. Roughly speaking, the number of groups doubles every ten years. The total number of individual Buddhists in the country cannot be known with certainty because of difficulties in interpreting the census data. At present, it is likely to be approaching 200,000. Buddhism has been identified as the fastest growing religion in Australia, and this trend seems set to continue. As a well-known Chinese Buddhist saying has it, ‘Fo Guang Pu Chao’-The Buddha’s Light shines everywhere.