Buddhism in Australia is new. But, it is also one of the fastest growing religions in the country. For a long time, a small group of Westerners kept alive an interest in Buddhism in Australia. As a result, since the early 1970s. The numbers of Buddhists in Australia have significantly increased.
Hence, Buddhism has returned to some sizeable strength through immigration. Mostly, immigrants from South, South-East and East Asia. Buddhism now forms a significant part of the religious variety of Australia. In general, it is similar in strength to Islam in the country.
However, this piece went in details into explaining the history, culture, and ritual practices of Buddhism in Australia. Unarguably, you will learn:
- The origin of Buddhism in Australia
- Origin of Buddha
- Elements of Buddhism
- Early Problems and
- Major Contributions.
Early Days of Buddhism in Australia
Although, there is not enough historical evidence about the early years of Buddhism in Australia. There were traces that the religion first came to the country with Chinese miners during the gold rushes. Also, on another note, there is a trace to the origin through Indonesian traders and Japanese pearl divers. Basically, these people came and mostly settled in Darwin Broome and Thursday Island.
Nevertheless, there are records from Sri Lankan Theravadin Buddhist laborers. These came in the 1880s to work in the sugar industry. Legends proved that many Asian Buddhist refugees arrived in the 20th century. Mostly from Vietnam, Kampuchea, Laos, and Tibet.
Furthermore, in modern times, there are business migrants from Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. They further strengthened the continuous influx of Buddhism to Australia.
Accordingly, there are the Mahayanist Vietnamese and the Theravada Buddhists of Laos and Kampuchea. Similarly, there are also the Chinese Mahayana Buddhists of Singapore and Hong Kong. And, the Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism. All these had impacts on Australia’s practicing Buddhists. More so, the introduction of Buddhism in Australia was very gradual and almost unnoticed.
Origin of Buddha in Australia
Buddha was brought to Sydney in 1826 on board HMS Wars pit. This was under the command of Commodore James Brisbane (1774-1826). The Commodore was returning from the First Burmese War. Also, he was ill and later died the same year in December.
But, before he died, he gave his statue of Buddha to Captain John Piper (1773–1851). Then, he was in charge of Customs. A rather colorful Scottish personality in early colonial Australia.
As a result, the Burmese statue of seated Buddha stayed in Piper’s family to the end of the 19th century. Afterward, it got to the Australian Museum as a donation from Miss Jane Piper. (probably John Piper’s daughter) in 1905.
Thus, the Buddha’s figure, about 60 cm tall, is a marble (calcite) carving. And, the robes and base are in gold colors over a reddened surface. It is a typical reflection of the distinct Burmese Ava style. Generally, this refers to a period of the Ava Kingdom of the 14-16th centuries. Certainly, Buddha’s figure is a few centuries old, but, there is no certainty of its exact age.
How Did the Buddhist Population in Australia Grow?
This is according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Thus, there are nearly half a million Buddhists in Australia. And, this number is overgrowing, doubling between 1996 and 2006. However, three-quarters of Australia’s Buddhists are what you can call Eastern Buddhists. Also, this is inclusive of Buddhist families who originated from Asian countries. But, later migrated to Australia in recent decades.
So, the remaining quarter, Western Buddhists, are generally Australian-born Caucasians. And, have probably grown up in either a Christian or humanistic family.
Accordingly, in 2006, a small percentage of the total population of the country, 2.1 percent, identified as Buddhists. But, then, between 1996 and 2001 the number of Buddhists grew by 79 percent. Hence, Buddhism emerges Australia’s second largest religion following Christianity.
As of 2011 census data, an estimated 2.46 percent of the population, or around 528,977 people identify themselves as Buddhists. In general, there are mostly two strands of Buddhism in the country. Namely:
- Ethnic or Chung Tian Buddhism and
How Do Other Religions in Australia Relate with Buddhist?
In regards to interfaith relations, there is generally much goodwill from other religions towards Buddhists. This occurs as a result of the belief that Buddhists are usually peaceful and non-threatening.
Also, the challenge for Buddhists engaged in communal discussions is to find common ground. For example, shared values of compassion and kindness. More so, to explore with other faiths the spiritual, existential, and day-to-day issues of living.
Definitely, Australian Buddhism is a picture of ethnic and cultural diversity. More so, it involves as well the mixture of practice. Whereby, some traditional practices already survived centuries. And, some others recently emerged. Mostly, due to the conditions of contemporary Australian society.
Conventional Mode of Worship
Teaching Buddhism to Australians seemed to be very challenging. This is especially if one becomes too attached to one’s old ways. Hence, he fails to understand Australian people’s way of thinking. Most of all, Australians who study Buddhism are not deeply religious people. Instead, they are people who have become somewhat disappointed with traditional religion. As a result, are very skeptical about anything religious.
Difficult Meditative Approach
Actually, Buddhism has never been a highly organized religion. In the sense that, it does not look for converts to commit to an organization. Instead, it springs up wherever people absorb the Buddhist understanding of the world. Or, use its meditative techniques in seeking the peace of mind and heart.
Nevertheless, many people, including many of those of Anglo-Celtic background read books about Buddhism. Or, even attend courses in Buddhist teaching or meditation. However, they would not identify themselves as Buddhist. In this sense, it was hard for them to understand Buddhist practices.
But with time, Buddhism has an influence among a much more significant part of the population. More than the count of Buddhists in the 1991 Census would indicate as well.
Influx of Immigrants
There are significant differences within each of the incoming Buddhist practice in Australia. Certainly, this is as a result of Buddhism combining with the beliefs, practices, and cultures of various ethnic groups. Moreover, the number of Buddhists in Australia grew rapidly through the influx of Immigrants. Mostly, from Buddhist countries such as Vietnam.
Thus, further rapid growth in Australian Buddhism will depend on continued migration from these countries. In 1986, while approximately 20 percent of Koreans in Korea were Buddhist. There were only 3 percent of Australian Koreans identified themselves as such.
There is evidence that many Korean Buddhists convert to Christianity soon after arriving in Australia (Gil Soo Han 1994). While few are as aggressive in their evangelism as the Korean Christian churches. Due to this, ethnic organizations of several other countries are actively seeking conversions of Buddhists who migrated from their own countries.
Weakened Religious Consciousness
Some Buddhist practices have been difficult to import into Australia. Moreover, Buddhists are widely spread through many suburbs. Therefore, it is not possible for monks to walk around the streets to be given food daily by the Buddhist faithful. As a result, they cannot uphold the practice as many do in Asia.
On the other, the education system does not make it easy for young men to spend a few months living as monks. This also contrasts the practices many do in some parts of the Buddhist world.
Finding themselves in a different environment, some Buddhists saw their religious consciousness weakened. Therefore, it has not been easy to merge with the largely ‘non-religious’ environment of Australian culture.
Cultural & Language Barriers
Some cultural norms are adapted to Buddhist practices. This is mostly because they may reflect current important rituals and values. For example, generosity and respect for monastics.
Even while not being part of the core teachings, rituals nevertheless, can become part of Buddhist practice. Also, some cultural practices may be appropriate and reasonable as at when and where they originated. However, these practices may present an obstacle for those new to Buddhism. For example, bowing or chanting in an unfamiliar language.
Teaching, Practice, and Rituals
Buddhist practice can involve daily chanting and prayers. In addition, it includes regular visits to temples to make food offerings to monks and nuns. Also, there are occasional meditation retreat, or even participating in social or community activities. Therefore, even lay Buddhists with years of practice may not be aware of the full extent of Buddhist teachings and practices.
There are three different schools within Buddhism. These are:
- Theravada (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma),
- Mahayana (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam) and
- Vajrayana (Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan).
While all the above schools maintain fundamental teaching, the emphasis and interpretation may be different. This is as a result of putting up the needs of individual practitioners. Whereby, most come from various traditional and cultural backgrounds.
There are festival days celebrated by Buddhists throughout the year such as on new moon and full moon days. The most popular occasion that Buddhists widely celebrate across all traditions is Vesak Day, which usually falls in May every year. In Australia, Buddhist Festival Month in May brings together all traditions of Buddhism to celebrate the life and teachings of the Buddha.
On this occasion, Buddhists tend to commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and passing of the Buddha. Furthermore, different traditions also have their dates and festivities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists celebrate Chökhor Düchen, also known as “the Turning of the Wheel” festival.
This event commemorates the day the Buddha “turned the Dharma wheel,” by beginning to give teachings.
The Buddhist holy books are a collection of many dozens of volumes (depending on the source language and tradition). However, the closest approximation to the Christian bible is the Dhammapada. Thus, this commences with the great teachings of the Buddha. And, it teaches that everything originates in the mind.
Buddhism in Australia has four essential temples, which includes:
Chung Tian Temple
Chung Tian Temple (which means “middle heaven) is a Zen Buddhist temple. The temple is part of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist monastic order. Its construction began in January 1991, using traditional Chinese Buddhist architecture and it opened in June 1993.
Furthermore, the site is between Brisbane and Logan, Queensland. Thus, surrounded by nature, the temple provides a peaceful and culturally beautiful venue for the Buddhist community.
Basically, the founder of Chung Tian Temple was Venerable Master Hsing Yun. More so, he is also the founder of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order.
Nan Tien Temple
Nan Tien Temple literally: ‘Southern Heaven Temple’) is a Buddhist temple complex located in Berkeley. More precisely, on the southern outskirts of the Australian city of Wollongong, approximately 80 kilometers (50 mi) south of Sydney.
Phap Hoa Temple
Phap Hoa Temple meaning Dharma Lotus Temple is a Buddhist temple located in Pennington, South Australia. It was established in 1978. However, it moved to its current location in December 1989.
Sunnataram Forest Monastery
Sunnataram Forest Monastery is a Theravada Buddhist monastery in the Thai Forest Tradition. The establishment of the monastery was in July 1990. In addition, the site is on the outer lying area of the town Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands. The elevation of the area is 2,205 feet (672 m) above sea level. Generally, the monastery covers an area of 99.7 acres (403,000 m2) of bushland.
Buddhist Contributions in Australia
Australian Buddhist members contributed largely towards the growth of the country through the following ways:
Education of the Adult
Buddhist’s teaching in Australia and anywhere in the world is not about converting people into Buddhism. Instead, it is mostly giving Buddhism to the people so that they can become better people. This is why the Buddha taught in the doctrines that we should not be quick into believing what he said. But, alternatively, we should have deep thinking and seek out the truth in it. Thereafter, if it is real then we should apply it into our everyday life.
Dalai Lama also emphasizes His Holiness that people should not hurry into changing their religious and cultural ways. That is, even if they draw inspiration from Buddhism.
In the same way, that nobody should go around knocking on people’s door to promote Buddhism. We should instead educate people about how to become non-violent, compassionate, and tolerant. Most of all, to keep forgiving people regardless of their religion and beliefs.
Working with the Sick and Dying in Hospitals
According to Buddhist beliefs, all social action is an act of giving hospitality. But, there is a direct act which we call charitable action. That was why The Buddha had once said, “Whoever nurses the sick serves me.”
So in Australia, there are 54 Buddhist organizations involved in working with the sick and dying in the hospital. More so, 61% of Buddhist organizations involve themselves in working with the sick and dying in the community.
Those delivering these services cite their motivation for engaging in such activities. Thus, they talk about the need to demonstrate compassion and loving-kindness towards the ill.
For that reason, some Buddhist also emphasize the need to teach meditation. And, also, skillful ways of thinking to the sick. This is so they are able to better manage their illness. Most especially, if it is chronic and associated with pain.
In Australia, there are 39% of the Buddhist organization involved in visiting prisons. These organizations have their roots from all different schools of Buddhism.
Basically, prison work by both formal and informal work. Hence, formal work included programs for prisoners. That is to say, programs developed in connection with relevant statutory authorities. While on the other hand, informal work includes prison visiting.
Most importantly, all Buddhist organization emphasizes that the commission of evil does not imply a permanent habit of doing evil. However, by providing prisoners with skillful and loving ways of managing their suffering, they may provide significant opportunities for the prisoners to change their lifestyles. This includes both within the prison and upon release.
Working with Drug Addicts
As like the prisoners, drug addicts have the same of socially engaged Buddhist Organization. And, these organizations considerably wish to help them manage their suffering. Therefore, they provide them significant opportunities to start a new life. The percentage of Buddhist organization in Australia that involve in drug addicts is 24%.
Also, there is a commitment by such organizations to teaching the dharma. So, that provides them with more means of dealing with the stresses in their lives. Therein, some organization also emphasize the need for addicts to experience unconditional love and loving kindness. As a result, they can regain a sense of self-worth.
Teaching Good Morals
According to venerable Lama Choedak Rinpoche, Buddhism is not about wearing a red wheel on our shoulders. Neither is it going out to help victims of war, famine and natural disasters. But, engaging Buddhism is about educating people so that no war and conflicts can get started.
Engaged Buddhism can help to nip the root causes of war – greed, hatred, and ignorance in the bud.
Fundraising for the Poor and Needy
Based on the work of Patricia Sherwood in 2003. There is 61% of Buddhist organizations involved in Australia and other countries. In general, these organizations involve in giving clothes, fundraising for the poor and helping the needy in terms of money, time, skills, goods, and energy. This is so as to help cultivate the awakening into a compassionate heart of one own Buddha nature.
Sherwood, Patricia – Buddhist Contribution to Social Welfare in Australia.
Available online: (here)
This article has given us an overview of the origin, effects, and encountered problems of Buddhism in Australia. However, there are some indications, yet, that Buddhism is adapting to its new environment in Australia.
Although few Australians become monks, many still explore Buddhism through courses and teaching programs. Above all, there has been considerable interest in meditation as people seek a sense of peace in a chaotic and confusing world.
Undeniably, while Buddhism has much to offer Australians of all backgrounds, it is not clear in what form it will develop in Australia. In the immediate future, however, Buddhism will continue to exist in a great variety of forms. Thus, reflecting the diversity in the ethnic background of Australian Buddhists.