Why is Buddhism the
growing religion in Australia?
The answer to this inquiry is multi-layered and
complex. It is a tantalising issue because it highlights the changing spiritual landscape
of Australia and provides an insight into just how multicultural we have really become.
Cultures that were foreign to Anglo-European
Australians are now being adopted by some of them - though not without some dissenting
resistance. This level of resistance in Australian society can be seen as a litmus test,
used to measure future political and religious tolerance in this country.
The story concerning the rise of Buddhism in
Australia is a compelling tale of a resilient religion that has survived despite the odds.
How is it possible for a 2,500-year-old philosophy, which began five hundred years before
Christianity and one thousand years before the Muslim faith, to be relevant to modern life
in Australia? Considering all the other ancient religions that have faded from
contemporary practice, such as the sun worshippers of Ancient Egypt, the human sacrifices
of the South American Mayans and the Druids from the Dark Ages of England, Buddhism has
outlasted them all.
It does not preach the dogma of a strange cult, nor
seek converts with evangelistic fervour. Those Australians who actively convert to
Buddhism do so voluntarily, and are usually well-educated middle-aged professionals who
are attracted to a sense of inner peace. This documentary therefore, seeks to immerse
itself in the substance of this seemingly magnetic Buddhist approach. Perhaps it will be
like seeing Australia for the first time, through ancient eyes.
It is interesting to note that in spite of the
recent increase in Buddhist numbers across Australia, Buddhism has actually played a part
in Australian history for some time. It did not just suddenly arrive in a recent wave of
migrants. Some anthropologists, in fact, have suggested that Buddhism was possibly the
earliest non-indigenous religion to reach Australia before white settlement.
Between 1405 and 1433 the Chinese Ming emperor,
Cheng-Ho, sent sixty-two large ships to explore southern Asia. Although there is evidence
that several ships from that armada landed on the Aru Islands to the north of Arnhem Land,
it is not known whether they reached the mainland.
One unproved hypothesis of Professor A.P. Elkin is
that the belief of some Northern Territory Koorie tribes in reincarnation, psychic
phenomena and mental cultivation is evidence of early contact with Buddhists. Despite
certain rock paintings that possibly depict Chinese junks weighing anchor or images of the
Buddha, actual material evidence remains to be seen.
The first documented arrival of Buddhists in
Australia was in 1848 during the gold rushes, when Chinese coolie labourers were brought
into the country to work on the Victorian gold fields. These workers represented a
transient population that usually returned home within five years. It was not until 1876
that the first permanent Buddhist community was established by Sinhalese migrants on
Thursday Island. There the ethnic Sri Lankans built the first temple in Australia, while
they were employed on the sugar cane plantations of Queensland.
From the late 1870s onwards many Japanese
Shinto Buddhists also arrived and were active in the pearling industry across northern
Australia, establishing other Buddhist enclaves in Darwin and Broome. Buddhist cemeteries
were kept and festivals celebrated. Official government statistics compiled as part of a
national census in 1891 indicate that, at the time, there were slightly more Buddhists in
Australia (at 1.2%), than there are today (at 1.1%).
Buddhist numbers would have continued to increase if
the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 had not been introduced to combat the yellow
peril. Alfred Deakin, who was destined to be Prime Minister three times, drafted the
legislation to pacify a somewhat xenophobic Caucasian electorate. This bill later grew to
represent the more broadly implemented White Australia Policy.
For the next fifty years the benefits of mind
training and meditation, as taught by Buddhism, would be disregarded as some sort of
obscure eastern mysticism. Except for some remote surviving pockets of
Buddhists (such as Broome and Thursday Island), the religion became virtually extinct in
A small group of committed western Buddhists formed
the earliest known Buddhist organisation in Australia, The Little Circle of the Dharma, in
Melbourne in 1925. Progress was slow though, until after World War II when local
enthusiasm for the White Australia Policy began to decline. In 1951 the first Buddhist nun
visited Australia. Sister Dhammadinna, born in the USA, ordained and with thirty years
experience in Sri Lanka, came to propagate the Theravadin School of Buddhist teaching. She
received nation-wide media coverage.
Inspired by this visit, the next year the Buddhist
Society of New South Wales was formed under the presidency of Leo Berkley, a Dutch-born
Sydney businessman. This organisation is today the oldest Buddhist group in Australia. Its
membership was, and still is, compromised mainly of people from Anglo-European
In 1958 the Buddhist Federation of Australia was
formed in order to co-ordinate the growing Buddhist groups that had sprung up around the
country in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and Victoria.
The Buddhist presence in Australia had depended for
the first hundred years on lay people with only the occasional visits by ordained members
of the Sangha (the Buddhist clergy). But in the 1970s the growing number of
Buddhists created a need for resident monks, and a new phase in Australian Buddhism began.
In 1971 the Buddhist Society of New South Wales
established the Sri Lankan monk, Somaloka, in residence at a retreat centre in the Blue
Mountains west of Sydney. This became the first monastery in Australia. A succession of
monasteries representing different aspects of Buddhism slowly became established around
Australia; in 1975 at Stanmore in Sydney, in 1978 at Wisemans Ferry in country NSW and in
1984 at Serpentine in Western Australia.
The charismatic face of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama,
(who was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1989 and describes himself as a simple
monk), has travelled the world constantly giving lectures and answering questions in
20,000 seat pop concert halls. John Cleese speaks out for him in London, Henri
Cartier-Bresson records his teachings around France and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys pop
group has even interviewed him in Rome for Rolling Stone magazine.
In the past few years he has opened eleven Offices
of Tibet, everywhere from Canberra to Moscow and last year alone provided prefaces and
forewords for roughly thirty books. The 14th Dalai Lama, who holds the titles of Ocean of
Wisdom, Holder Of The White Lotus and Protector Of The Land Of Snows, has even served as
the guest editor of French Vogue magazine.
The three visits of the Dalai Lama to Australia in
1982, 1992 and 1996 were joyful occasions for Buddhists of all traditions, and huge crowds
of Buddhists and the general public gathered to hear him speak. On the third visit, and
despite virulent Chinese protests, the Dalai Lama met with and was photographed with the
Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard. It was now clearly evident at this stage, that
Buddhism had become a significant minority religion in Australia.
During this visit local celebrities contributed
generously to fundraising activities. For example, Kate Ceberano, Rachel Berger and Frente
were just some of the star-studded cast to perform at the Dalai Lama Lounge
Room. They helped to raise $14,000 over three nights. Mushroom Records released a benefit
album called The Mantra Mix CD, featuring Jenny Morris, Jimmy Barnes and Johnny Diesel.
One local advertising agency, providing their services for nothing, came up with the
slogan "You missed Jesus. You missed the Buddha. Do not miss the Dalai Lama".
When was the last time such hype accompanied the visit of a religious leader?
But Australians are not alone in their sympathy
towards his cause. The issue of Tibetan oppression has come to the attention of Hollywood
and with two new films about his life in the cinematic pipeline, the Dalai Lamas
profile has not only moved into the mainstream, but has (much to the horror of the Chinese
Government) gone global.
The first to be released, Seven Years In Tibet,
tells the story of Heinrich Harrer, a mountain climber and Nazi party member who
encounters his own sense of enlightenment after becoming the tutor to the young Dalai Lama
in Tibet in the 1940s. The film has attracted healthy attention because it stars
The other film is Kundun, directed by Martin
Scorcese. This epic tells the remarkable tale of the Dalai Lama from his point of view,
from his recognition as the reincarnated Buddha of compassion at age two until his escape
to India at twenty-four. Recently released here in Australia, it was reviewed by Channel
Nines Sunday program on June 14th and described as the most beautiful and
important film released this year.
Hollywoods fascination for Buddhism extends
beyond these two screenplays, with many stars expressing interest in the religion itself.
In February 1997, the karate-kicking action star Steven Seagall was recognised by the
Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism as the reincarnation of a 15th century lama. Adam
Yauch of the Beastie Boys pop group has organised two huge benefit concerts to publicise
the plight of Tibet.
Actor Richard Gere, together with Uma Thurmans
father, Richard Thurman, has opened Tibet House in New York, published books on the
subject, and meditates daily. Other practitioners that have come to attention include Tina
Turner, Harrison Ford (whose wife Melissa Mathison wrote Kunduns script), Oliver Stone,
Herbie Hancock, Courtney Love, composer Philip Glass (who also worked on Kundun) and
REMs lead singer Michael Stipe.
The momentum of Buddhisms profile is
driven by other, more subtle reminders as well. A new make up is being advertised as Zen
Blush, a new sitcom is called Dharma and Greg, a designer fruit juice container has on
its label "Please recycle this bottle. It deserves to be reincarnated
too", and monks star in television commercials and news items.
Such recent exposure does not take away the fact
that Australians have been quietly turning to Buddhism for some time. The statistics
compiled in the 1986, 1991 and 1996 Commonwealth Government Census support the view that
Buddhist numbers have been steadily increasing. Between 1986 and 1991 the numbers of
practitioners rose from 80,387 to 139,847, a growth of 74%. Due largely to the decrease in
immigration numbers in recent years the percentage growth for Buddhists slowed between
1991 and 1996 to 43%, from 139,847 to 199,812. This rate of increase is still higher than
that of any other religion.
The three census surveys also indicate that of the
eight Christian denominations listed in the analysis for New South Wales only three show
an increase (Baptist, Catholic and Orthodox), while five (Anglican, Church Of Christ,
Lutheran, Presbyterian and Uniting Church) have decreased in numbers.
Does the fluctuating demographic between Buddhism
and Christianity point towards dissatisfaction with traditional Australian religious
beliefs? Is Buddhism more competitive than Christianity or is one spiritual experience
simply more meaningful than the other?
Of the 199,812 Buddhists across Australia today,
approximately thirty thousand are Anglo-Europeans who have crossed over,
by choice, to this alternative philosophy. They have turned from Christian
sinner to Eastern Mystic. The slump in immigration figures from Buddhist
countries is apparently not enough to stall the continued growth in Australian Buddhism,
especially now that local support has been established. Back in 1938 a Japanese Shinto
monk, noting that it took China three centuries to adopt Buddhism from India, said
introducing it in the West would be like holding a lotus to a rock and waiting for it to
When the Age of Aquarius spread across the world in
the form of the 60s alternative hippie counter-culture, there appeared to be no
shortage of poets, artists, actors, writers and musicians interested in a voyage of inner
peace through Buddhist philosophy and meditative practices. John Lennon used Buddhist
mantras in the lyrics of his music such as Across the Universe. Allen Ginsberg used
a mantra (Buddhist blessing) to bless the ground at Woodstock before the first fans
arrived. Zen meditation too, first embraced by the Beat poets in the 1950s
flourished across first world nations as a healthy alternative to LSD-induced
More importantly the drug-fuelled 1960s, when
the Vietnam War was at its height, feminist protestors burnt their bras and man landed on
the moon, saw a relaxation of traditional middle class values that allowed a greater
versatility in public consciousness. During this time, people had greater access and
freedom to experiment with new schools of thought (feminism, civil rights, the peace
movement, alternative lifestyles etc) without suffering as many social ramifications as in
According to the Reverend Phillip Hughes, a
Melbourne-based religious researcher, "many people thought in the 1960s that
science itself was not sufficient to really explain existence, but then they were not keen
to go back to the Judeo-Christian tradition with its holy books, miracles and so forth.
Also the need for a sense of peace has become more apparent".
Potential Buddhists are attracted to the Dharma
(Buddhist teachings) not only to take refuge from a world of chaos and confusion, but also
to re-invent their own personal sense of a meaningful spirituality in a society of
high-tech consumerism, commercialism, violence and apathy. Compared to the Christian
beliefs many Anglo-European Australians grew up with, Buddhism does not require its
adherents to remain faithful to a specific dogma.
It is not a faith. It is not technically a religion
either, though when discussing systems of worship it is easier to work with that label. It
is more a psychology and a philosophy wrapped around a moral code of mind training.
The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (born in
563 B.C.), turned his back on the royal family he had been born into, to live life as a
simple ascetic monk. At the age of thirty-five he became enlightened and saw things
as they really are, having achieved a mental state of absolute egolessness, where he
no longer felt any sense of narcissism or craving.
He became the first Buddha and was quick to teach
his disciples that he was not a god, should not be revered and no rituals should be
developed around his teachings. Heaven and hell, he taught, are not external places that
we travel to after we die; they do not in fact exist. Rather, both places dwell only in
the hearts of people. People are either good or bad, pious or evil. Paradise exists within
our spirit, it is here and now, and not some destination in the after-life.
Meditation, he believed, is the process required for
all adherents to achieve Buddhahood. This is one of the main differences between Buddhism
and other religions. Practitioners are offered an ultimate goal, enlightenment itself,
which is equivalent to the level attained by the Buddha himself. He taught that everyone
is capable of achieving this, providing equality to all his followers.
This is a radical departure for born-Christians to
realise when they first start studying the principles of Buddhism. The best a faithful
Christian could hope to achieve with his devotion was entry to heaven as an angel where he
is still subject to the will of a greater being who could smite him anytime at will. The
Buddha teaches his disciples too become the same as he, which is why he is not a god. In
Buddhism there is no pecking order in the after life, because that would require the
presence of an ego, which is the Buddhists life work to gradually eliminate.
Buddhism dispenses with the notion of a Supreme
Being, as does science, and explains the origins and workings of the universe in terms of
natural law. All of this certainly exhibits a scientific spirit. The Buddha advised that
we should not blindly believe him but rather question, examine, inquire and rely on our
own experience. This scientific approach of cause and effect was not overlooked by Albert
Einstein in the 1930s:
"The religion of the future will be a cosmic
religion", he said, "it should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and
theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense
arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, and a meaningful unity.
Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern
scientific needs it would be Buddhism".
While the antipodean blossoming of Buddhism seems to
have gone from strength to strength since the 1980s, this has not always been the
case. It is in the Buddhist principle of godlessness that the journalist can find opposing
and dissenting voices to the Buddhist cause. This theological bone of contention is the
main source of friction with other religions.
On Wednesday, the 18th of January 1995, Pope John
Paul II arrived in Sydney and attended an Interfaith Gathering in the Sydney Domain.
Representatives from major religions, including Protestant, Orthodox and Coptic
Christians, Jewish and Muslim were invited to share the platform with him. Notable by its
absence was Australias third largest religion, Buddhism.
The organisers told SBS Radio that they were unaware
that Buddhism was Australias third largest religion and besides that there was
no national leader of Buddhism, so who were they to invite? The Sydney Morning Herald
reported that "somebody in the State Government had forgotten to invite the
Buddhists". This is unlikely, as the New South Wales Government is very aware of the
presence of Buddhists in this state and often invites Buddhist representatives to State
functions. A more likely explanation is that the Vicar of Rome holds Buddhism in very low
esteem as is evident from the following extract from his book, Crossing The Threshold Of
"Buddhism is in large measure an
atheistic system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which
comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is
bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana,
a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above
all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source
of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process. Christian mysticism is born of
the Revelation of the living God. This God opens Himself to union with man, arousing in
him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues -
faith, hope and above all, love".
Graeme Lyall, Chairman of the Buddhist Council of
New South Wales, strongly refutes the Catholic position. "The Oxford Dictionary
defines atheism as disbelief in the existence of God ", he
said, "the Buddha is described as the teacher of gods and men, so how can
Buddhism be an atheistic system? Religious arguments often come down to the use of
religious language. We must ascertain to what we are referring to when we use the term
What is a living God? Anything that is
living is subject to death and decay, so why should we place ourselves in the hands of
something, which, like ourselves, is impermanent? If he is referring to the old man with a
white beard who sits in the sky taking notes in his little black book ready for the day of
judgement, then he is out of step with modern theological thinking and most other
Modern theologians, such as Paul Tillich, suggest
that the term God refers to the ground of being - the very fact of
existence. No Buddhist would argue with this, but they may be reluctant to use the term
God to describe it".
Lays implication that the Pope is out of touch
appears to be more than just a knee-jerk defence, when you consider that the ranks of
Catholics themselves are split on the issue. Irish-born Father William Johnston, a Jesuit
priest, spoke of his sympathy to Buddhism when he visited Sydney in early January 1997.
Here to attend the Religion, Literature and Arts Conference at the Australian Catholic
University, Father Johnston spoke of the Christian churches need to introduce aspects of
Eastern Mysticism - such as meditation, yoga and Zen - if they want to increase numbers
attending weekly services.
"Some Catholics are very nervous about
meditation but there is a lot to learn from it and yoga and Zen", he said. "The
Catholic Church has always kept meditation very strongly in its religious orders; our
problem is that we didnt teach it to the laity, who are now looking for it".
Father Johnston, director of the Institute of
Oriental Religions at Tokyos Sophia University, has lived in Japan since 1951 and
believes Christianity has become too legalistic, with too many dos
and donts and not enough vision and enlightenment.
Besides the Catholic Churches potentially
bilateral reaction to Buddhism, local opposition to the arrival of Eastern Mysticism has
also occurred in the steel manufacturing town of Wollongong, an hours drive south of
Sydney. There the Anglican Bishop of Wollongong, the Reverend Reg Piper has weighed into
the debate expressing his annoyance not only at the presence of Buddhism, but the presence
of a philosophy he sees as evil.
The contest began when a Taiwan-based Buddhist sect,
Fokuangshan, opened a huge fifty million-dollar temple just south of the steel city in
Berkley. The monks there planned to promote their style of humanistic
Buddhism, which emphasises the oneness and co-existence of the global village.
The Fokuangshan sect was founded in the
mid-1960s and has more than one hundred branches world-wide (including Brisbane,
Melbourne and Perth) with 1.5 million members and its own university, several schools, an
organ donor bank, a retirement home, even a cemetery. This growth is due to its
charismatic founding father, the Venerable Hsing Yun. The size of the Wollongong temple,
called Nan Tien, is second only to their headquarters in Taipei.
Bishop Pipers concerns are not shared by other
Christian churches such as the local Uniting Church, which has adopted a user-friendly
approach to the temple. On Tuesday, the 18th of June 1996, Bishop Piper appeared on the
ABCs 7.30 Report to voice his opposition.
Bishop Piper: See when you have the bible view of
humankind, generally, if it is outside the framework of the truth - the bible terms it as
Reporter: Is it a deception?.
Bishop Piper: In that respect, yes. While ever it is
not based in the truth of Christ, it would be a deception. Because Buddhism is basically
an atheistic religion. There is no god.
Reporter: Why is that a problem?.
Bishop Piper: Because God has revealed himself
through Christ. Christ has been raised from the dead. He said he is God. There is no other
way to the truth and no other way to really live except through Christ.
The growing curiosity about Buddhism has so worried
Bishop Piper that he has made a video called In Search Of Paradise - A Biblical Response
To Buddhism. It is to warn all Christians of the evil deception of Buddhism, that has
arrived to convert them.
Reverend Shin of the Nan Tien temple remains
perplexed with Bishop Pipers attitude. "We dont convert people to Buddhism or
change their religion", he said. " As long as they feel comfortable with any of
the practices or any of the beliefs and it is good for the society, good for them and good
for the family, that is the most important thing. Whether they decide to become Buddhists
or not - that is not our concern".
Local opposition to Buddhism also extends beyond the
Christian clergy. A survey by the Federal Office Of Multicultural Affairs, conducted in
1988, found that 41% of the general population did not wish to have a Buddhist as a
workmate. Only Muslims fared worse.
Despite this, on Sunday 8th February this year
Australian Buddhists were delighted to learn they had a friend in a high place when the
Governor-General, Sir William Deane, expressed his support at the opening of the Rahula
Community Lodge in Canberra.
"A report from the Bureau of Immigration,
Multicultural and Population Research a couple of years ago, showed that over the ten
years to 1991 Buddhism was by far the largest growing religion in our country: an increase
in the order of some 300%" he said. "To a significant extent, of course, the
figures reflect the substantial increase in migration from south-east Asia over that
But the second largest national group were
Australian-born Buddhists - many from non-Asian cultures attracted by both the philosophy
and the practice of Buddhism, with its emphasis upon the search for inner peace and
understanding. I offer my very best wishes for the success of all that you hope to achieve
in the years ahead as future stages of the centre are completed. May all your endeavours
prosper and bring joy to those whom they are intended to help".
Buddhism continues to maintain a steady trickle of
recruitment at the grass roots level. According to the Venerable Pannyavaro, a monk based
in Surry Hills in Sydney, young people are still attracted to Buddhism because they are
looking for an alternative to established Christian churches and they can explore Buddhism
without feeling obliged to join.
"A lot of young people in the twenty to
mid-thirty age group are coming because they dont feel imposed upon", he said,
" and there are deeper meditative techniques they can draw upon". The Buddhist
website he operates (http://www.buddhanet.net) gets an average 9,000 hits a
day. Venerable Pannyavaro offers cyber-nirvana at this site in the form of online
meditation sessions where people can log on, meditate and contemplate the infinite.
There are now more than ninety Buddhist temples and
organisations in New South Wales, sixty-five of them in Sydney. The bulk of the two
hundred people who each week visit the Buddhist Library, Meditation and Information Centre
in Camperdown in Sydney are in the thirty to fifty age group. About eighty-percent are
from a non-Asian background.
Much to the horror of the Christian clergy (if they
ever find out), Buddhism is even being taught in one New South Wales primary school during
religious scripture classes. In early 1995 at Blackheath Primary School a group of parents
approached the principal, Kate Allan, asking the school to provide Buddhist instruction as
well as the traditional Catholic and Protestant options. Now, forty-five of the schools
three hundred and fifty students attend classes in Buddhism.
"The move came from the community", Allan
says. "In the mountains we have quite a diverse community and it was the choice of
the parents to have these classes - it was not something imposed on the whole
Answering the question of Buddhism's growing
popularity in is clearly going to be a rich and involved conclusion. This religion seems
to have, at first glance, a vigorous influence on the world stage. Just when you think you
have examined the issues thoroughly, you suddenly discover that you are still only looking
at the tip of the iceberg.
Update : 01-12-2001