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Characteristics of Buddhism in Australia  

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Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2000
Characteristics of Buddhism in Australia
MICHELLE SPULER
ABSTRACT Research on Buddhism in Australia has tended to focus on demographics,
ethnic identity and the migrant experience, and history. This paper uses the literature
and material from Internet sites on Australian Buddhist groups to identify characteristics
of Buddhism in Australia; it aims to both contribute to the understanding of the
growth of Buddhism in Australia and to facilitate comparison with similar studies of
American and European forms of Buddhism. New information is presented on the
number of Buddhist groups in Australia, their geographical location, and the traditions
and lineages represented. It is made apparent that more detailed information is needed,
and suggestions are made for further research in a variety of areas.
Introduction
A number of recent studies have analysed common features of the diverse
Buddhist traditions in America and Europe with the aim of de® ning uniquely
American and European forms of Buddhism (Fields, 1987; Korn® eld, 1988;
Fields, 1992: 359± 380; Schiller, 1994; Baumann, 1995a; Kantowsky, 1995; Prebish,
1995). Similar studies of other Western countries are needed to further the
understanding of the expressions of Buddhism in individual countries and to
provide information for international comparisons (Baumann, 1997b). Such
research has not yet been undertaken on Buddhism in Australia. Existing
literature focuses mainly on demographics, ethnic identity and the migrant
experience, and history.1 As will be shown in this article, the analysis of this
information provides a starting point for analysing the characteristics of Buddhism
in Australia, allowing for comparison with international studies, but it
also demonstrates the scarcity of the information available.2
Demographics
In order to understand the phenomenon of Buddhism in Australia it is useful to
begin with some demographics; however, statistics are sparse. The major source
of information is the Australian Bureau of Statistics census. In the 1996 Australian
Bureau of Statistics census, 199,812 people or 1.1% of the Australian
population identi® ed themselves as Buddhist. This represents an increase of
42.9% from the 1991 census. The real ® gure may be higher. The religion question
on the census form provides no `Buddhism’ box to be ticked; Buddhists have to
write their religion in by hand, a possible deterrent for non-English speaking
respondents. In 1996, 1,604,749 people exercised their right not to answer the
religion question (Hughes, 1997: 72). Naturally, the ® gure for Buddhists in
Australia is well below those for the major Christian denominations: Catholics
1353± 7903/00/010029± 16 Ó 2000 Taylor & Francis Ltd
30 M. Spuler
(4,798,950), Anglicans (3,909,324) , Uniting Church (1,334,917), Presbyterians and
Reformed (675,534), Orthodox (474,921), Baptists (295,178) and Lutherans
(249,989) . However, Buddhists are now almost numerically equal with Muslims
(200,885) ; they outnumber Pentecostals (174,720) , Jehovah’s Witnesses (83,414),
Jews (79,805), Churches of Christ (75,023), Salvation Army (74,145), and Hindus
(67,279) (Hughes, 1997).
Other available census data on Buddhists in Australia includes gender, age,
marital status, occupation, birthplace, education and income levels, and geographical
spread.3 In 1996, nine people identi® ed themselves on the census as
both Buddhist and `clergy’, that is, as people whose primary occupation consisted
in providing ªmotivation, guidance and training in religious life for the
people of a congregation, parish or communityº (Australian Bureau of Statistics,
1996). This statistic gives a grossly inaccurate picture; in 1994, there were at least
twelve monks and two nuns from various Buddhist lineages resident in Brisbane
alone (Spuler, 1994). In addition, the census classi® cation does not allow for
inclusion of Buddhist teachers for whom such work is not their primary
occupation, as is the case with many lay teachers, and possibly some monastics.
The second major source of statistical information on Australian Buddhism are
published studies of Buddhist organisations. In 1995, Humphreys and Ward
identi® ed 156 Australian Buddhist organisations and classi® ed them by tradition/
lineage and geographical location (Humphreys & Ward, 1995). In 1996,
Adam and Hughes published similar information; they identi® ed 167 organisations
(Adam & Hughes, 1996). In January 1998, I sought to update this information
by synthesising data from a number of sources. The two most useful
listings of Australia Buddhist groups proved to be the Directory of the Buddhist
Council of New South Wales and the Index of Buddhist Organisations in Australia
of the BuddhaNet. These listed 260 and 233 groups, respectively.
I combined the information provided by these two databases with additional
group listings obtained from Internet sites and publications focusing on speci® c
Buddhist traditions and lineages or geographical areas, and from the Internet
sites of Australian Buddhist groups (Spuler, 1994; Adam, 1995; Hasslacher, 1995;
Mohr, 1997; BuddhaNet, 1998). This resulted in the identi® cation of 308 Buddhist
groups, almost double the ® gures of 1995 and 1996. However, it is dif® cult to
determine the accuracy of this information. My database is a synthesis of
numerous sources whose continuing accuracy is questionableÐ directories
quickly become outdated. Consequently, it is dif® cult to know whether all the
groups still exist or whether duplicate listings have occurred owing to organisational
name or address changes. Furthermore, in some cases the `organisation’
listed may be an individual who provides a contact point for a particular
lineage, rather than a practising group.
Table 1 classi® es the 308 Australian Buddhist groups identi® ed in my research
by tradition/lineage and state or territory.4
The classi® cations used in this table re¯ ect those employed by the various
studies that were combined to yield this information. The classi® cation of `other
non-sectarian’ used in Table 1 includes ecumenical groups, communication
networks, hospices, social action groups, libraries, bookstores, and journals.
However, the classi® cation of `other’ has been used in the remaining categories
whenever a more detailed lineage classi® cation was unavailable, and it does not
necessarily indicate that those groups cannot be classi® ed further.
Buddhism in Australia 31
Table 1. Buddhist Organisations in Australia in January 1998
Tradition/Lineage ACT NSW NT Qld SA Tas Vic WA Total
Theravada: (86)
Cambodian 0 3 0 2 1 0 3 1 10
Lao 1 5 0 1 0 0 2 0 9
Malaysian 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Myanmar 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 4
Sri Lankan 1 2 0 3 1 0 3 1 11
Thai 1 6 0 1 1 0 4 2 15
Vipassana 2 5 0 5 1 2 3 2 20
Other Theravada 0 3 0 3 0 2 7 0 15
Mahayana: (103)
Chinese/Taiwanese: Fo Kuang Shan 0 4 0 1 0 0 1 1 7
Other Chinese/Taiwanese 0 12 0 3 2 0 3 0 20
Japanese: Jodo Shinshu 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 3
Japanese: Soka Gakkai 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 5
Japanese: Zen 1 6 0 2 1 1 2 1 14
Other Japanese 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
Korean: Zen 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
Other Korean 0 4 0 1 0 0 0 0 5
Vietnamese 0 11 0 4 1 1 18 4 39
Other Mahayana 0 1 0 0 0 1 5 1 8
Vajrayana (Tibetan): (79)
Gelug 0 14 1 7 2 2 5 7 38
Karma Kagyu 2 3 0 0 0 2 1 3 11
Nyingma (Dzogchen) 2 7 0 1 0 0 2 1 13
Sakya 1 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 3
Other Vajrayana 1 7 1 0 4 0 1 0 14
Triyana (Western Buddhist): (7)
Friends of the Western Buddhist Order 0 5 0 0 0 0 2 0 7
Non-sectarian: (33)
Student Societies 1 6 0 0 0 0 3 0 10
Other Non-sectarian 1 9 2 2 1 2 5 1 23
State Totals 15 121 4 40 16 13 71 28 308
The percentages of Buddhist groups represented by the main traditions and
lineages are shown in Table 2.
Despite the large increase in the number of Australian Buddhist groups since
the study by Adam and Hughes in 1996, there has been very little change in
either the percentage of groups representing the major traditions and lineages or
the geographical distribution of the groups, as indicated by Table 3.
Table 3 also demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the state
distribution of Buddhist groups and the Buddhist population, as might be
expected.
The census data and statistics on Buddhist organisations have been shown to
provide some essential information on Buddhism in Australia. However, there
are no available statistics to provide information, such as: breakdown of lay and
monastic practitioners; number of teachers (and whether they are lay or mon32
M. Spuler
Table 2. Comparison of Traditions/Lineages Represented by Australian Buddhist
Groups in 1996 and 1998
Tradition/Lineage Adam & Hughes, 1996 Spuler, 1998
Theravada 29% 28%
Mahayana 31% 34%
Vajrayana 22% 25%
Triyana (Western Buddhist) 2% 2%
Non-sectarian 13% 11%
Other 3% Ð
astic); the extent of individuals’ involvement in their Buddhist community;
group demographics; organisational structures; group activities (such as meditation,
rituals, social activities and community work); and facilities (such as
monasteries and retreat centres).
Occasionally, some of this information can be gleaned from sociological
studies. For example, Adam and Hughes note that of the Buddhist groups in
Western Australia contacted for details of their activities, most offered Dharma
talks, workshops or seminars, and meditation courses, and many had cultural
festivals. Half of the groups had one or more ordained leaders in residence,
usually monks, and most had lay leaders (Adam & Hughes, 1996: 62± 63). This
information indicates the breadth of activities occurring in the Buddhist community
and gives clues about the number of monastics resident in Western
Australia; however, it is evident that more detailed research is required on these
issues.
Despite the scarcity of available statistical information, it is possible to identify
some key characteristics of Buddhism in Australia. Table 1 graphically demonstrates
one characteristic that has already been noted by various scholars:
diversity of traditions and lineages.5
Ethnic Identity and the Migrant Experience
Given the large numbers of immigrant Buddhists, many studies on Buddhism in
Australia focus on the effects of religion on ethnic identity and the migrant
Table 3. Geographical Distribution of Australian Buddhist Groups in 1996 and 1998,
and of the Buddhist Population in 1996
Buddhist Groups Buddhists
State/Territory Adam & Hughes, 1996 Spuler, 1998 1996 Census
Australian Capital Territory Ð 5% 2%
New South Wales 41% 40% 41%
Northern Territory 2% 1% 1%
Queensland 17% 13% 9%
South Australia 5% 5% 6%
Tasmania 4% 4% 1%
Victoria 20% 23% 31%
Western Australia 11% 9% 9%
Buddhism in Australia 33
experience. Like many of their international counterparts, studies on Buddhism
in Australia commonly distinguish two main types: convert (also called `nonethnic’
, `white’, `non-Asian’ or `Anglo-Saxon’ ) Buddhism and ethnic (or `Asian’
or `immigrant’) Buddhism. For example, Prebish discusses the use of this
terminology in American Buddhism (Prebish, 1996). Examples of its application
to European Buddhism can be seen in Baumann’s differentiation between Asian
and European Buddhists (Baumann, 1995a: 64). Bucknell discusses ethnic
Buddhists and Australian Buddhists of non-Asian origin (Bucknell, 1992: 213);
and Adam and Hughes’s discussion on Australian Buddhism distinguishes two
categories: Western Buddhist and ethnic Buddhist Groups (Adam & Hughes,
1996: 7± 11). Convert Buddhists are usually mainly interested in meditation
practice or the study of Buddhist philosophy and often do not classify themselves
as Buddhists. In contrast, ethnic Buddhists are usually born Buddhists
and practise Buddhism within a speci® c cultural context. Ethnic Buddhist
groups often combine Buddhist practice with a wide variety of social and
cultural activities that assist in the maintenance of their cultural identity.
The majority of Australian Buddhists comprises ethnic Buddhists; the 1996
census showed that the largest percentages of Australian Buddhists by birthplace
were: Vietnam 31%, Australia 19.7%, Malaysia 7.5%, Cambodia 6.8%,
Thailand 6.2%, Sri Lanka 5.2%, China 4.6%, Laos 3.4%, Taiwan 2.5%, and
Indonesia 2.2% (Hughes, 1997: 17). In 1991, only 14% of Australian Buddhists
had been born in Australia (Adam & Hughes, 1996: 43), the increase to 19.7% by
1996 is probably more due to the birth of second-generation ethnic Buddhists
than to an increase in converts.
Although Malaysian-born Buddhists are the second largest ethnic group by
birth, there are no Malaysian groups listed in Table 1. Malaysians seem to be
attending other groups instead of forming their own; for example, the Buddhist
Society of Western Australia is multi-cultural in composition, with members
from Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, China, Laos, Cambodia, and
Indonesia (Adam, 1995: 29). Similarly, the Australian Mahayana Buddhist Society
has members from Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam (Adam,
1995: 48).
This identi® cation of two main strands is relevant to the identi® cation of
characteristics of Australian Buddhism, because the literature reveals that ethnic
Buddhists face prejudices that convert Buddhists do not. Existing analysis is
again limited; however, various studies document dif® culties encountered by
ethnic Buddhists, particularly at local government level (Croucher, 1989: 104±
105; Lyall, 1989: 12± 16; Lyall, 1994: 30± 35; Adam & Hughes, 1996: 55). A number
of studies have examined ethnic Buddhists in Australia in the context of the
relationship between religion and ethnic identity or the migrant experience,
examining in particular the effects of ethnic religious activity on cultural
adjustment. Cox (1982) examines the role of religion in migrant welfare, comparing
Buddhist and Muslim families from eight different ethnic backgrounds;
Adam (1995) investigates whether religion provides a source of alienation or a
means to integration for Vietnamese Buddhist and Catholic migrants in Western
Australia; and Bouma’s (1996) work on religious settlement, identity, and
cultural diversity in Australia includes case studies of Vietnamese Buddhist
migrants. These studies could be analysed to identify further characteristics of
ethnic Buddhism in Australia.
34 M. Spuler
The recognition of the existence of two strands of Buddhism in Australia is not
generally viewed as problematic by scholars, the vast majority of studies on
Buddhism in Australia have given the different strands of Australian Buddhism
equal attention, avoiding the preferential treatment sometimes given to convert
Buddhism in America. Numrich notes that most surveys of Buddhism in
America concentrate on the American-convert experience, examining how primarily
non-Asian Buddhist practitioners will forge a new ªAmerican Buddhismº
(Numrich, 1996: xxii). Similarly, Fields presents evidence that it is mainly `white’
Buddhists who are doing the de® ning in discussions on emergent American
Buddhism (Fields, 1994: 55).
Historical Periodisation
In order to determine key characteristics of contemporary Buddhism in Australia
it would be useful to identify the signi® cant periods in the development of
Buddhism in this country and to compare the current situation with the
characteristics of earlier periods. Baumann has used this approach to identify the
processes and strategies involved in the transplantation of Buddhism to Germany,
using historical data to provide information on religious adaptation
(Baumann, 1994; Baumann, 1995a; Baumann, 1996). A number of historical
accounts of Buddhism in Australia are available, most notably that by Croucher
(Croucher, 1989; McDonnell & Bucknell, 1988; Bucknell, 1992; Adam, 1995;
Humphreys & Ward, 1995; Adam & Hughes, 1996). Although these chronicles
generally discuss the same key events, there has been no attempt at periodisation
or analysis comparable to that undertaken by Baumann.
In order to test the usefulness of an analysis based on historical periodisation
of Australian Buddhism, I have undertaken a brief survey of these historical
publications and identi® ed six key periods: 1) immigrant origins, 2) the ® rst
organisations, 3) the ® rst visits by teachers, 4) the ® rst residential teachers and
establishment of monasteries, 5) rapid Asian immigration and increasing diversi
® cation of traditions present in Australia, and 6) the emergence of ecumenical
Buddhist societies. Despite the cursory nature of my examination of the
historical data, characteristics of these different periods are beginning to emerge,
con® rming the need for a more detailed study. Croucher’s in-depth historical
study of Buddhism in Australia from 1848 to 1988 provides many excellent
examples that reveal such characteristics; however, it does not draw attention to
commonalties or identify trends.
1) Immigrant origins: Buddhism probably ® rst reached Australia in 1848, with the
arrival of Chinese immigrants to work in the gold ® elds. However, Chinese
religion is highly syncretic and the initial Buddhist in¯ uence was only slight. In
approximately 1870, a number of Sri Lankan immigrants, most of whom were
Buddhist, settled in the Mackay area of Queensland. As early as 1876, a large
group of Sri Lankans also settled on Thursday Island; by the 1890s, the
community totalled about 500 people.
2) First organisations: The ® rst documented Buddhist organisation in Australia
was the Little Circle of Dharma, founded in Melbourne in 1925 by convert
Buddhists who had gained experience of Buddhism in Burma. In 1938, a second
Buddhism in Australia 35
group, the Buddhist Study Group, formed in Melbourne, aiming ª to promote
interest in Buddhism as a workable psychology adaptable for modern problemsº
(quoted from a pamphlet distributed by the group; Croucher, 1989: 28). This is
the ® rst evidence of secularisation of Buddhism in Australia, a characteristic
shared with contemporary American and European Buddhism. Khantipalo
Thera notes in his Foreword to Croucher’s book that ª Early Australian
Buddhists, and sympathisers of Buddhism, were mostly attracted to the rationalhumanistic
side of the teachings or to their artistic manifestationsº (Khantipalo,
1989).
3) First visits by teachers: In 1952, an American-born Buddhist nun, Sister
Dhammadinna, was funded by the World Fellowship of Buddhists to visit
Australia. Her visit caused the ® rst enduring Buddhist society to form, the
Buddhist Society of New South Wales, which was established in 1952. The ® rst
fully ordained Buddhist monk, U Thittila, a Burmese Theravada monk, visited
in 1954. In 1958, the Buddhist Federation of Australia formed as the ® rst
ecumenical group and became a regional member of the World Federation of
Buddhists. While early Australian interest in Buddhism had focused mainly on
Theravada, interest in other traditions and lineages was beginning to develop,
with teachers visiting from a variety of traditions. For example, the ® rst Soka
Gakkai group formed in 1964 after a visit from the international president,
Daisaku Ikeda.
Women played a key role in Australian Buddhism during this timeÐ another
characteristic shared with Buddhism in America and Europe. One prominent
woman Buddhist was Marie Byles who had begun disseminating her Buddhist
beliefs through articles and books after World War II. Another was Natasha
Jackson of whom Croucher writes: ªAs the editor of the bimonthly journal,
Metta: The Journal of the Buddhist Federation of Australia, Natasha Jackson was the
dominant voice in Australian Buddhism from 1955 to 1971.º (Croucher, 1989: 37)
During this period, Buddhism was still very secular in orientation. According
to Croucher, Natasha Jackson and Charles F. Knight (the ® rst chairman of the
Buddhist Federation of Australia) ª saw Buddhism as a triumph of rationalism
and used it as a foil in their attacks on Christianity. It was a strongly intellectualised
approach, going to great lengths to prove that Buddhism was fully
consonant with scienti® c thinking.º (Croucher, 1989: 54± 55) Jackson and Knight
were also concerned with the relationship between Buddhism and social ethics.
Both supported Aboriginal land rights and protests against the Vietnam War;
Jackson is quoted as saying: ª of what use is the empty chanting of the Metta
Sutta while nothing is done to banish poverty, illiteracy, lack of hygiene and
sanitation?º (Croucher, 1989: 76).
4) First residential teachers and establishment of monasteries: In 1971, the Buddhist
Society of New South Wales arranged for a Sri Lankan monk, Somaloka, to take
up residence. He established the ® rst Buddhist monastery in Australia in
Katoomba, New South Wales. In 1974, an English-born, Thai-trained monk,
Khantipalo Thera, established a second Theravada monastery, Wat Buddharangsee
in Stanmore, New South Wales.
36 M. Spuler
Table 4. Vajrayana Gelug Organisations in Australia in January 1998
Lineage: Gelug ACT NSW NT Qld SA Tas Vic WA Total
FPMT 0 3 0 3 2 0 4 3 15
IBLP and AITMP6 0 7 1 2 0 0 0 1 11
New Kadampa Tradition 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1
Tibetan Buddhist Society 0 3 0 1 0 0 1 2 7
Other Gelug 0 1 0 1 0 2 0 0 4
State Totals 0 13 1 7 2 2 5 7 38
5) Rapid Asian immigration and increasing diversi® cation of traditions present in
Australia: With the ending of the Vietnam War in 1974± 75, refugees from Laos,
Cambodia and Vietnam arrived in Australia in large numbers. Laotian and
Cambodian Buddhists tended to form Buddhist organisations together because
of shared Theravadan heritage, while the Mahayana Vietnamese Buddhists
established separate groups. The Vietnamese groups were further strengthened
by the arrival of resident Vietnamese monks in the early 1980s.
A small number of Tibetan refugees also arrived about this time. 1974 saw the
® rst visit by Tibetan lamas, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa, the
founders of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition
(FPMT), which is part of the Vajrayana Gelug tradition. During their visit the
two lamas held the ® rst Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Mooloolabi, Diamond
Valley, Queensland, a one-month meditation course attended by around two
hundred people (McKimm, 1975). The Chenrezig Institute for Wisdom Culture
was established soon after in Eudlo, Queensland, as the ® rst FPMT centre in
Australia. The FPMT is the largest of the Tibetan Gelug groups represented in
Australia, as shown in Table 4.
McDonnell and Bucknell note that while the Tibetan in¯ ux has been small, it
has had a disproportionately strong in¯ uence on Buddhism in Australia (Mc-
Donnell & Bucknell, 1988: 324). As Table 2 demonstrates, despite its relatively
recent establishment in Australia, Tibetan Buddhism currently accounts for 25%
of Australian Buddhist groups.
The variety of Buddhist traditions present in Australia continued to diversify
with the establishment of the ® rst Zen centre, the Sydney Zen Centre, in 1976.
The Sydney Zen Centre established close associations with the Diamond Sangha
when the head of the Diamond Sangha, Robert Aitken Roshi, arrived in 1979 to
lead the ® rst Australian Zen retreat. Since then a number of different Zen
Buddhist groups with Japanese origins have developed in Australia; however,
Table 5 demonstrates that the Diamond Sangha af® liates are the largest group.
6) Emergence of ecumenical Buddhist societies: The literature indicates that ecumenical
efforts between Australian Buddhist organisations are more common than
rivalry. To add to the already existing ecumenical body, the Buddhist Federation
of Australia, a number of other ecumenical bodies formed following the diversi
® cation of lineages present in Australia. These included the Buddhist
Council of Brisbane in 1982, which combined ten groups from different traditions
and lineages (McDonnell, 1986), and the Buddhist Council of New South
Wales in 1985. Ecumenical groups promote themselves as useful in assisting
Buddhism in Australia 37
Table 5. Japanese Zen Buddhist Organisations in Australia in January 1998
Lineage: Japanese Zen ACT NSW NT Qld SA Tas Vic WA Total
Zen Lineage of Master Deshimaru 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
Diamond Sangha 1 2 0 0 1 0 1 1 6
Ordinary Mind Zen School 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 2
Open Way 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Sanbo Kyodan 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 2
Other Japanese Zen 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1
State Totals 1 6 0 2 1 1 2 1 14
Australian Buddhists from different traditions to achieve common goals and to
have a visible and active presence in the community, particularly with regard to
representation to the various levels of government (Gamble, 1986; McDonnell,
1986; Buddhist Federation of Australia, 1988; Croucher, 1989; Lyall, 1989: 25± 26;
Humphreys & Ward, 1995: 410). Isolated examples of prejudice between Buddhist
groups can be found: Croucher noted in 1988 that many convert Buddhists
ª look down their noses at the non-meditative aspects of ethnic temple religionº
(Croucher, 1989: 105).
However, some scholars have suggested that the achievements of such ecumenical
groups are limited. Bucknell maintains that the bonds forged by
inter-traditional ecumenical bodies are weak in comparison with those that exist
within federations of groups from the same tradition or lineage. Examples of the
latter are the United Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation of Australia and New
Zealand (formerly the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation of Australia, established
in 1979), to which many Vietnamese groups belong; and the FPMT, a Paris-based
international body, which has currently 15 Australian member groups. Bucknell
concludes that ª There seems ¼ little likelihood of any strong move toward
genuine unity among the various types of Buddhist groups in Australiaº
(Bucknell, 1992: 222). Similarly, Humphreys and Ward note of the Australian
situation that ª Because of their faith’s stress on individual spiritual development
and their varied cultural background in Australia, local Buddhists have shown
little support for organisational unityº (Humphreys & Ward, 1995: 410). Bucknell
also cites the individual and private nature of Buddhist practice as a reason
(Bucknell, 1992: 222± 223).
It is apparent that the ecumenical bodies of Australian Buddhism have not
achieved the same successes as some of their overseas counterparts. In 1991, the
European Buddhist Union consisted of 30 members (themselves national ecumenical
organisations) from 11 countries (Baumann, 1995a: 65). There is scarce
mention of cross-lineage and cross-religion borrowing in studies on Buddhism
in Australia; for example, Croucher discusses a possible synthesis between
Theravada and Zen Buddhism (Croucher, 1989: 117). In contrast, such borrowing
is often mentioned as characteristic of American Buddhism.7 Croucher provides
some examples of inter-religious dialogue, such as a colloquium held on Zen by
the Melbourne Quakers in 1973 (Croucher, 1989: 110± 112), and both Croucher
and Bucknell note increasing interest in Buddhist meditation by Christian clergy,
particularly Catholics (Croucher, 1989: 110± 112; Bucknell, 1992: 221).
On the subject of ecumenism, Croucher wrote in 1989:
38 M. Spuler
The history of Buddhism in Australia has in many respects been
bifurcated and oppositional, with Theravadins pitted against Mahayanists,
the vehemently anti-Christian against eclectics, traditionalists
against iconoclasts and, most recently, the 12,000 or so Anglo-Australian
Buddhists against their 70,000 Asian-Australian counterparts. In
the late 1980s sectarian rivalries have probably become less pronounced;
but while some kind of Theravada-Zen synthesis may be
envisaged, for the most part different groups will probably do their best
to maintain separate identities in an atmosphere of respect and interactive
pluralism. (Croucher, 1989: 123)
The continuing increase in the number of groups and lineages represented
indicates that Buddhism in Australia will remain pluralistic. Diversity of lineage
is also characteristic of American and European Buddhism (Schiller, 1994: 74). In
his narrative history of Buddhism in America Fields writes:
Perhaps we cannot yet talk of an American Buddhism in the same way
we might talk about, say, Chinese or Tibetan Buddhism, and yet we can
certainly talk about an American Buddhist lineageÐ one that is woven
of lineages from all over the Buddhist world, as well as from certain
strands that are characteristically American. (Fields, 1992: xiv)
Similarly, Baumann, in his analysis of historical and contemporary developments
of Buddhism in Europe, observes that
Buddhism in Europe is deeply marked by its heterogeneous and
diverse appearance. A multitude of sub-schools, sub-branches and
independent centres, each focusing more or less entirely on the particular
interpretation of the respective teacher, has evolved. It is dif® cult to
imagine that a uni® ed, jointly practised `European Buddhism’ will
emerge in the next century. (Baumann, 1995a: 65)
Comparisons with American and European Buddhism
Studies of American and European Buddhism have identi® ed a number of
characteristics that have not previously been reported in analyses of Australian
Buddhism: emphasis on lay practice, equality for women, application of democratic
principles, emphasis on ethics, secularisation (this includes emphasis on
the rational nature of Buddhism and its congruence with Western science), and
linkage to psychological concepts.
If differences between Australian, American and European forms of Buddhism
can be identi® ed, this may provide information about the different
cultural factors affecting the development of Buddhism in these countries. In his
review of Tweed’s research on the early adoption of Buddhist ideas in America,
Baumann notes that ªWhile examining public and personal attitudes to a
transplanted, `exotic’ religion, Tweed succeeds in elucidating the prevalent
beliefs and values of the dominant cultureº (Baumann, 1995b). In his own
research Baumann examines rationalist conceptions of Buddhism in Germany
and argues that Germany has interpreted and presented Buddhism in a way that
conforms with German values; he concludes that the Buddhism that has developed
in Germany says more about German cultural values and attitudes than
about Buddhism itself (Baumann, 1997a: 287).
Buddhism in Australia 39
However, most of the Buddhist lineages found in Australia are also represented
in America and Europe; indeed many Australian lineages have their
origins or current headquarters in other Western countries. It therefore seems
likely that the majority of the characteristics of American and European Buddhism
would be shared by Australian Buddhism. While these characteristics
have not been documented in studies of Australian Buddhism, some Australian
examples can be found.
Evidence that Australian Buddhism is following the Western trend of emphasising
lay practice includes the growth of groups af® liated with lineages that are
no longer monastic, such as the Sanbo Kyodan and the Diamond Sangha.
However, there are also many organisations that support large monastic communities.
Examples include the Bodhinyana Monastery, which includes a training
centre for Theravada monastics in the Thai Forest tradition (Adam, 1995:
105); the Chenrezig Institute for Wisdom Culture, a residential centre of the
FPMT; and the Linh Son Temple, a nunnery that is a branch of the Linh Son
World Buddhist Association. In order to determine whether the emphasis in
Australian Buddhism is on lay or monastic practice it would be necessary to
have statistics which provide details about the number of lay and monastic
practitioners as well as information on the activities of the monastic groups, to
examine whether lay practice is also promoted. Until such information is
available, it cannot be determined whether emphasis on lay practice is a
characteristic of Buddhism in Australia.
Similarly, an emphasis on equality for women is not yet apparent in Australian
Buddhist groups, despite some historical and contemporary examples. As
Adam and Hughes observe, the role of women varies in Buddhist traditions and
countries, and this is re¯ ected in the role of women in Australian Buddhist
groups (Adam & Hughes, 1996: 35). A cursory glance through the Internet sites
of Australian groups reveals that many teachers, particularly monastics, are
male, yet some groups do have female teachers (either lay or monastic)Ð for
example, Ms Subhana Barzaghi Roshi is the main teacher of both the Sydney Zen
Centre and the Kuan Yin Zen Centre (both af® liates of the Diamond Sangha) and
an American nun, Kwang Myong Sunim, leads the Dae Kwang Sa Zen Society
(part of the Kwan Um school of Korean Chogye Buddhism). Other examples of
increasing equality for women include the Buddhist Society of Western Australia’s
recent acquisition of land for a monastery for nuns, which is to complement
the existing monastery for monks, Bodhinyana (Buddhist Society of
Western Australia, 1998).
The application of democratic principles within Australian Buddhism is
demonstrated by the existence of elected councils. However, in most organisations,
these bodies usually concentrate on the administration of the organisation,
leaving the spiritual side (admittedly a dif® cult distinction) in the hands of
teachers who may or may not have been chosen by the congregation. My
research on Diamond Sangha Zen Buddhist groups in Australia has revealed
that although there are some community decision-making processes on spiritual
matters, most decisions are still made by teachers and/or senior students.
Some emphasis on social engagement is evident in Australian Buddhist
groups, as a number of organisations focus on provision of community services.
Bucknell notes that there are two main types of services provided by these
organisations: provision of hospice care services and promotion of development
40 M. Spuler
projects in overseas countries (Bucknell, forthcoming). Examples include the
Karuna Hospice Service, a Buddhist-based, home-care nursing service for individuals
who have a diagnosed life-threatening illness, the Amitayus Hospice
Service, a similar home-based palliative care and support service which operates
ª with the values and principles of Buddhist teachings as our guiding lightº
(Amitayus Hospice Service, n.d.), and an Australian branch of the Buddhist Peace
Fellowship, an international organisation that encourages Buddhists ª to explore
personal and group responses to political, social, and ecological suffering in the
worldº (Buddhist Peace Fellowship, 1998).
The evidence of secularisation in early Australian Buddhism has already been
cited. Yeshe Khadro, former director of the Chenrezig Institute for Wisdom
Culture, indicates that secularisation of Buddhist groups and links to psychological
practice also exist in contemporary Buddhism:
Visitors coming to Chenrezig often want to learn Buddhist techniques
that will help them overcome problems in their life. Not so many
visitors want, or have the time, to undertake an extensive study of
Buddhist philosophy. To try to meet this need, we have added the
study of various types of Western psychology, science, teaching and
counselling techniques to our traditional Buddhist studies education
program. (Khadro, 1995: 124)
Similarly, Bucknell writes:
Interest in Buddhist techniques of meditation is growing steadily.
Meditation centres scattered around the country attract not only people
who would call themselves Buddhists, but also psychologists, therapists
and ordinary people seeking such tangible bene® ts as relief from
stress. These experimenting meditators, exploring the ancient practices
for developing concentration and insight, are ® nding them to have a
range of valuable applications in the modern western context. (Bucknell,
1992: 223)
However, there are also those who object to merging Buddhist practice with
psychology and psychotherapy. Patrick Kearney, a Vipassana teacher at the Blue
Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, spoke on this issue at the Buddhist
Library and Meditation Centre in Sydney in April 1998, concluding that
Buddhism is not a collection of spiritual or therapeutic techniques.
Buddhism is an ocean. If we want we are free to paddle on the edge of
the shore, trying a technique here or a therapy there, occasionally
getting our feet wet, but staying safely within our limitations. Or we
can take the advice of Dogen Zenji, who said: ª Arouse the mind that
seeks the way, and plunge into the ocean of Buddhism.º Ultimately the
future of Buddhism in the West will be decided by those who take
the plunge, because the paddlers will always draw back and, rather
than adapt Buddhism to its new home, will develop new forms of
Buddhised psychotherapy. For ultimately we must choose whom we
will follow. We can follow Buddha or we can follow Freud; we cannot
do both, because they are just not travelling in the same direction.
(Kearney, n.d.)
Buddhism in Australia 41
Conclusion
In summary, the characteristics of contemporary Buddhism in Australia that are
identi® able from the existing literature are: differentiation between ethnic and
convert Buddhism, diversity of lineages, varied ethnic composition, and to some
extent, ecumenism. These are also the features of American and European
Buddhism. It is possible that Australian Buddhism also shares other characteristics
with American and European Buddhism. Examples of such characteristics
can certainly be found in Australian Buddhism; however, further research must
be undertaken before it can be concluded that these are more than isolated cases.
In order to increase understanding of Australian Buddhism at individual,
organisational, and societal levels, at least three types of study will be useful.
Firstly, studies that involve interviewing Buddhist practitioners regarding issues
such as religiosity and conversion, and thus go beyond existing knowledge with
its focus on the Buddhist migrant experience. Secondly, studies that contact
Australian Buddhist groups directly to gather information regarding group
history, lineage, teacher and student demographics, activities, and facilities.
Thirdly, studies that examine the relationship between Buddhism and the wider
Australian society and culture both now and in the past. Individual conversion
accounts could be combined with research in public attitudes towards Buddhism
and the integration of Buddhist ideas and practices into mainstream culture; this
would provide insights into the motivations behind the development of certain
characteristics in Australian Buddhism. All of this research will ideally be based
on ® eldwork; however, useful information can be gleaned from publications
such as group newsletters and Internet sites, as was done in the research for this
paper.
Michelle Spuler has completed her Ph.D. thesis in the Department of Studies in
Religion, University of Queensland, under the supervision of Dr Rod Bucknell and Dr
Lynne Hume. Her research focused on the acculturation process in Diamond Sangha
Zen Buddhist groups in Australia. Correspondence: Department of Studies in Religion,
University of Queensland, 4072, Australia. E-mail: MSpuler@hotmail.com
NOTES
1. A comprehensive bibliography of sources on Buddhism in Australia is provided by Spuler, 1998.
2. This article is based on a paper which I presented to the Australian Association for the Study
of Religions conference in Melbourne, Australia, 4 July, 1998. I would like to thank the following
people for their assistance with this research: Enid Adam, Dr Martin Baumann, Dr Rod Bucknell,
Dr Philip Hughes, Dr Lynne Hume, and Patrick Kearney.
3. Excellent statistical information based on the 1996 census is available in Hughes, 1997: 14± 17;
more detailed analysis of the 1991 census data is provided by Adam & Hughes, 1996.
4. The abbreviations used are: Australian Capital Territory (ACT), New South Wales
(NSW), Northern Territory (NT), Queensland (Qld), South Australia (SA), Tasmania
(Tas), Victoria (Vic), and Western Australia (WA).
5. For example, see McDonnell & Bucknell, 1988: 25.
6. The Institute of Buddhist Learning and Practice (IBLP) and the Australian Institute of Tibetan
Medical Practices (AITMP) are separate organisations; however, as both are directed by Khejok
Rinpoche, they are closely related.
7. One example is provided by Fields, 1987: 24.
42 M. Spuler
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