by Tom Richardson
“We’re moving away from the view of Buddhism as alien and foreign to our senses. In the future I think it will integrate further into life here, like cricket and swimming,” says Venerable Varapanno. He’s an ex-Wall Street executive and rock band member who took a radical change of direction to become one of the nation’s most respected Australian-born Buddhist monks.
It wasn’t always so. The Banyan trees in Australia’s far north represent a slice of early Buddhist history in Australia that is little reported. Early Chinese and Sri Lankan Buddhist immigrants planted these cyclone-proof giants hundreds of years ago to acknowledge their spiritual homelands. One such tree reputedly stood in Darwin city centre for over 100 years, providing the community with a shaded place to gather in respite from the heat of the day. It was chopped down just before Christmas 2013, apparently incompatible with a proposed new car park. Some protested but Darwin Council said it was unable to act as the tree was on private land.
Still the early Buddhist immigrants’ legacy has now stretched far beyond its northerly roots to become the nation’s second most popular religion, largely the result of immigration from South-East Asia.
In fact, between 1996 and 2006, the Buddhist population almost doubled. In the 2011 census over half-a-million people or approximately two-and-half per cent of the population recorded themselves as Buddhist.
Buddhism started to develop rapidly as a movement when it helped settle economically-poor Asian migrant communities throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The establishment of Buddhist community centres and temples became a focal point of the new communities and their development across suburban Australia.
The movement has evolved on an organisational basis through the formation of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils (FABC) and its regional state members. These are organisations designed to serve as ecumenical bodies for Australian Buddhism.
Brian White has been head of the Buddhist Council of New South Wales (BCNSW) for the last eight years and is responsible for Buddhism’s community development. “A Dharma community with open arms became my vision; Dharma meaning it’s driven by the teachings, and community as we must be inclusive of all traditions and people.”
Mr White’s organisation remains a bridge builder for Australian Buddhism. As with global Buddhism, the religion in Australia remains largely divided on sectarian and theological lines drawn up over thousands of years in Asia.
Organisational bodies like the BCNSW exist to serve a common good, according to Brian White. “The FABC is the peak body in Australia that has the relationship with the politicians and the bureaucrats in Canberra. We also have a relationship with the Australian Sangha Association (which serves the needs of Australian Buddhist monks and nuns without interfering in the internal affairs of any temple or monastery) so the Australian monks and nuns, or ordained Buddhists, can have a relationship with us,” he says.
The BCNSW does not seek to prosletyse, according to Mr White; its mission remains one of logistics and support. Educational courses are run, Buddhist chaplains provided to prisons and hospitals, the media dealt with and its members advised.
However, as a devout Buddhist himself, Brian White also likes to convey the holistic message. “In Australia we have a kind of affluenza; we’ve got too much and when too much doesn’t pay off, we get a kind of emptiness inside. Why isn’t it paying off? There has to be more to modern life and that’s why Buddhism is here,” he says.
While Brian White describes himself as ‘just another volunteer’, he is running a medium-sized enterprise from the second-floor office of the organisation’s St Leonards headquarters in north Sydney. A senior civil servant who worked in finance and treasury for different governments, he is well qualified to assist in the development detail of Buddhism in Australia.
“The BCNSW has around 110 organisations as our members; we help those organisations by giving them professional advice, the basics like access to cheap insurance, the kind of practical support they need. They have a spiritual objective but they don’t know how to comply with state and federal laws,” he says.
Although the BCNSW is run on an almost entirely voluntary basis, money remains an issue and what donations there are come mainly from individuals. Mr White says: “We survive on donations, we have a few core staff, the rest are volunteers; we respond more to where members’ interests are than where we think they should be.”
In Australia, the separation of church and state means that officially religious bodies do not receive direct financial support from government.
“At the federal, state and local level, government doesn’t put money into religion. It may do things under the banner of multi-culturalism though. For example, the Community Relations Commission in NSW has sometimes sponsored events of the Jewish Board of Deputies, or some of the Islamic groups, justified on the basis of multi-culturalism,” he says. But the BCNSW and FABC have never received such government funding for development purposes, according to Brian White.
While the FABC and BCNSW focus on the development of Buddhism within the community, other institutions from abroad are beginning to develop it as a community force in different ways. The Nan Tien Institute (NTI) near Wollongong on NSW’s south coast is the first government accredited tertiary Buddhist education institution, with qualifications offered on a professional basis to fee-paying students. The NTI is indicative of how money is starting to play a bigger part in Buddhism’s development as an educational force and movement outside the “official” sphere of the FABC.
The NTI is part of the rich and powerful Fo Guang Shan Taiwanese Buddhist movement, which is generally regarded as the most active Buddhist proselytiser across Australia and perhaps the world.
Jo Halios-Lewis, NTI spokeswoman, says, “NTI’s vision is to become a university that caters for 3,000 students offering a comprehensive range of undergraduate and postgraduate educational programs in Humanities, Economics and Business Studies, IT, Social Sciences, Religious Studies and Asian Studies.”
Its tertiary education program began in 2011 and NTI already has a number of graduates with Masters, Graduate Diploma and Graduate Certificates in Applied Buddhist Studies. “We’re in the process of opening up NTI’s Sydney campus and English Language Centre in the CBD. Our students predominantly come from across Australia, but we have a number of international students as well,” she says.
The NTI movement also has a significant presence in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and New Zealand. The university has memorandums of understanding with other universities internationally and locally, for example, the University of Wollongong. NTI is the modern face of Buddhist education and active development in Australia, but Buddhism has been taught in other more traditional higher-education institutions for a long time.
The academic community teaching it in older Australian universities today is close knit, with Buddhist academics and scholars having their own organisational body, The Australasian Association of Buddhist Studies (AABS). It organises regular meetings, seminars, conferences and the membership is a who’s who of the leading academic experts on Buddhism in Australia today.
Associate Professor Judith Snodgrass, of The University of Western Sydney, is the President of AABS and widely recognised as the leading academic expert on Buddhism’s development in Australia.
“Suburban temples came into being in Australia as Asian migrants previously familiar with busy urban environments sought engagement. The Australian suburbs with their empty parks and quiet streets were quite a culture shock compared to Asian cities,” she says.
On the rise and rise of the Buddhist phenomenon among Australians of European descent, Dr Snodgrass says the Dalai Lamai may be used as a bellwether of its increasing popularity over the last 30 years. “I remember when he first came to visit in the 1980s; a very small group of people went to hear him and there was little media coverage. Now, well, he has superstar status if he comes here, that’s because Buddhism has entered the Australian psyche nationally, you know.”
Dr Snodgrass says the growth in Australia’s Buddhist population is not simply a question of migration anymore. “There are now big movements out of newly wealthy Asian Buddhist countries, like Fo Guang Shan (the movement operating the NTI); they are financially well supported and actively prosletysing in Australia,” she says.
Another AABS member, Dr Mark Allon, Chair of Department and Lecturer in South Asian Buddhist Studies and Director of the Buddhist Studies Program at The University of Sydney, says, “The history of Buddhism in Australia is a really emerging field. Initially it was limited to ethnic groups, Chinese, Japanese, pearl divers and cane workers in the north mainly, then it burgeoned with waves of South East Asian immigrants”.
He also observes a growing general interest in Buddhist Studies at the traditional tertiary level in Australia, although there has not been great demand. Of the NTI and its new tertiary education system, he says, “It’s lifted straight out of Taiwan and it’s catering primarily to the new local immigrant Chinese and Asian communities.”
Dr Allon says Buddhism is starting to develop its own Australian traditions. “In the last eight to 10 years, Australian-born people are being ordained in Australia, rather than abroad. It’s no longer the religion of immigrants, it’s the religion of local people, too; it’s characteristic of an Australian movement,” he says.
Moreover, Dr Allon says Australian-born and ordained Buddhists within the Sangha (ordained community) have tended to be relatively proactive in their willingness to ordain nuns compared to the rest of the world. In almost all Asian-Buddhist countries, the practice of ordaining women is rare and generally met with hostility.
“The Santi Forest Monastery was the first in Australia to ordain nuns; this was very controversial. It resulted in them being ostracised by the wider-Buddhist community here. But in charting the spread of Buddhism here in Australia, that is characteristic of Buddhism becoming indigenous to Australia,” he says.
The Santi Forest Monastery in Bundanoon, NSW, was established in 2003 and currently has around 15 Australian-born novices or fully ordained nuns in residence. It is currently one of only a handful of English-speaking Buddhist monasteries in the world where woman can be ordained. It still faces discrimination from the conservative base of the Theravada tradition it practices, but looks set to become an established tradition in Buddhism’s Australian odyssey.
With support from the FABC, the Santi Forest Monastery and its members were also instrumental in establishing the Australian Sangha Association (ASA) in 2005. In Buddhism, Sangha is the monastic community of ordained monks or nuns. In 2013 the ASA reported it had 178 members across Australia and has achieved two key landmarks since its formation.
“Through representation to Federal Government, it had the Australian Parliament accept the Dhammapada as a sacred Buddhist text. It also struck an agreement with the Department of Immigration regarding special visa conditions for visiting and migrating Buddhist monastics, like special conditions for arrival and permanent residency visas as foreign monks often would not meet standard financial or educational visa requirements,” Brian White says.
The Australian Sangha Association, the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils and the Buddhist Council of New South Wales and state equivalents now represent an organisational triumvirate of Australian Buddhism and its development, while academic research and higher education remain the knowledge base. The day-to-day development remains a function of the wider largely Asian Buddhist community as it has done since its early arrival with the cane-farming migrants.
However, on the theological side, Australian Buddhism remains divided on sectarian lines with organisations like the Nan Tien Institute now seeking to organise and develop with their own agendas. But this does not deter Brian White in his mission to spread the message for the future. “One of the teachings of Buddhism is that everything is interdependent. In the West, we feel the individual is most important. In fact, as individuals we can’t be separate from anything and everything is interconnected. That’s why the BCNSW exists in a way, to serve that interdependence, Australian society, and our member organisations,” he says.
Buddhism and contemporary society, ethics, art and culture
One man always comes up in conversation as to why there’s an increasing appetite for Buddhist events today. That man is His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
His influence has taken a strong hold on Australian society. Photographer and artist, Tobi Wilkinson, who acted as an official photographer on his previous tour of Australia, has witnessed it first hand.
“The best way I can describe it is like being caught up in a hurricane. As you get closer to the centre, to His Holiness, the energy gets manic. There are all sorts of interest groups pulling at him and the demands on his time are extreme,” she says. “However, when you reach him, it’s like being in the eye of the storm. Once the eye passes over you, you’re thrown once again into the turmoil and flung to the edges as it passes. A great experience.”
Buddhism remains a living cultural phenomenon across Australia with the Buddha’s Birthday Festival celebrated across major urban areas every May. Other elements of Buddhist culture commonly appropriated by society today are the rituals and symbols of the religion. The burning of incense in residential or commercial premises and the offering of flowers and fruits as gifts are originally Buddhist traditions, widely used by Australians in their daily lives.
There’s also a tradition of artists and writers using the Buddhist concept of emptiness in drawing inspiration from the Australian outback to create and inspire their work. Emptiness in Buddhism is a complex concept, but involves the mental state where an individual is not affected by the physical presence of other things or people.
Artists, filmmakers and poets such as Robert Gray have drawn on this concept in their work. Brett Whitely, who produced a powerful aquatint entitled ‘Buddha’ in 1977, described Buddhist philosophy as ‘the theology of painting’. As Tobi Wilkinson says, “It is natural that many artists will feel attracted to a philosophy that empowers the human individual.” After all, individual creativity is the driver of art and individual well-being the driver of Buddhist philosophy, she says.
Buddhism is now extending culturally and socially into the heart of twenty-first century Australia, including into the world of Twitter, Facebook and crowd funding.
Dr Anna Halahoff, of Deakin University, founder of the hashtag #BuddhismOz, and lead researcher of the Buddhist Life Stories in Australia project, says she aims to raise up to $20,000 through a crowd funding joint venture with the University for a video documentary of the cultural history of Buddhism in Australia at 2014.
“There have been quite a few studies undertaken on Buddhist society in the past few years, but these have typically been smaller scale projects, such as individual PhDs, Masters or Honours theses, or articles and book chapters written by scholars,” she says.
The project aims to interview 12 or more Buddhist leaders in Australia and showcase the contribution of Buddhism to Australian life and culture. Dr Halahoff says that Buddhist practices have played a big role in Australian society including the arts and environmental and social activism.
“Buddha encouraged reason and reflexivity, and Buddhism is therefore seen to be more compatible with science and late-modern society generally.”
Profit or prophet in the quest for Nirvana
As a philosophy of the mind, Buddhism has been popular with the lay public for over 2,500 years and its influence in supporting a growing psychotherapy and well-being industry in Australia is rapidly growing. From yoga to exercise and meditation classes, retreats, spas, massages and holidays, the Buddhist phenomenon is plain to see.
In the West today, there are essentially two types of Buddhist meditative practices: transcendental practices focused on controlled breathing, certain chants, or an object like a light or candle; and a variation known as mindfulness, where the mind is taught to observe but not be affected by external phenomena. “I had a terrible car accident and that whole experience led me to opening my clinic here 10 years ago. I wanted to provide alternative therapy for chronic pain and that’s how I got into Buddhism,” says Kim Williams, while sitting in her Buddha Bar Healing Clinic and Emporium on Newtown’s King Street.
Buddhism’s secular influence in Australia now extends far further than its influence as an organised religion. Indeed, the shift of Buddhism from the religious temples to the high streets and homes of modern Australia is not hard to detect. Buddhist art, ethics, therapy and lifestyles are now features of Australian society.
“I have 16 practitioners offering remedial therapies on a regular basis now. We work as a community-based clinic. I have more than 10,500 clients on my database now, with about 700 a month visiting for treatments,” Ms Williams says. “Clients are middle to high-income earners; they lead busy stressful lives.”
The Emporium is a retail business selling Buddhist arts, crafts and household goods. “The ornamental Buddhas are the best sellers,” Kim Williams says. “The traditional ornamental Buddha celebrates the enjoyment of art, culture, and intellectual pursuits over sex and desires. There’s too much of that today. Sex is a cultural weapon abused in society today. Buddha taught that desire causes suffering and Buddhist art often reflects that.”
Ms Williams rationalises the Emporium’s commercialisation of Buddhist themes and iconography by saying she gives to animal welfare charities and organisations. “Buddha taught that all sentient beings should be treated kindly and I believe that, too.” She is a vegetarian and says it is a popular lifestyle choice among her clients. “I think of it as practicing kindness to not eat animals.”
Kim Williams and her Buddha business represent the commercial face of secular Buddhist culture in modern Australia with Buddhist arts, exhibitions and cultural events held with increasing regularity across the nation today.
There’s less emphasis on concentration and as a result it is increasingly popular.
In April last year, Rupert Murdoch, used Twitter to announce his practice of transcendental meditation on a regular basis. The objective of transcendental mind control is to reduce stress, improve health, and encourage mental relaxation.
Ruth Ostrow, a journalist and columnist with The Australian newspaper, recently completed a six-part feature series called Total Success: Beyond Wealth and Power on the growing popularity of meditative practices and Buddhism among leading business people. “The series was proposed because I am known for writing about well-being and the quest for meaning; and I am a finance journo by training. So I combined both.
“I was inspired to do the series because Gordon Cairns, now chairman of David Jones, invited me into his Buddhist Practical Wisdom group. I got to see how many prominent business people were interested in more than just making money and power; it was an eye-opening experience,” she says.
She says the Buddhist Pratical Wisdom group offers teachings on leadership, the treatment of others and controlling the fear of failure. The group receives teachings from Buddhist guru, Sogyal Rinpoche, while also conducting meditation classes.
One of Sydney’s most successful practitioners of secular meditation for private and corporate clients is Kevin Hume, owner of the Sydney Meditation Centre. A former journalist and civil servant, he says meditation improves the health, well-being and productivity of people.
However, Mr Hume deliberately distances his business from any associations with religious beliefs. “Buddhism as a philosophy of the mind and its consequent insights are useful, particularly given the dialogue currently between Buddhism through the Dalai Lama and Western neuro-scientists, psychologist and meditators,” he says. “For me it’s easily adapted in a practical way to the corporate and professional stress-head culture we see all around us.”
Kevin Hume has tapped into the psychotherapy phenomenon encapsulated in
2003, when Time Magazine famously declared meditation to be the smart person’s bubble bath. One man soaking in the mind-therapy bubble bath long before Time identified it is as such is Dr Peter Friedlander, of the Australian National University. Dr Friedlander has been involved with Australian Buddhist studies and meditating practices for nearly 35 years and has practiced, taught and written on the subject extensively at universities and Buddhist countries around the world.
He lived in India for five years between 1977 and1982 where he learnt Hindi and developed contacts to allow him to educate others on South Asian Buddhist culture for the rest of his career. Few others have the scholarship and practical experience of Buddhist culture and psychotherapy as Friedlander does. He has taken students to complete Buddhist studies in India since the mid-1980s.
Dr Friedlander says that while Buddhist mind therapy has taken off in popularity in Australia, many Western practitioners still feel uncomfortable with some of the wider Buddhist belief systems.
Dr Friedlander says that when it comes to views and opinions other than our own, we tend to be instinctively sceptical. This goes against the core of Buddhist mind theory and the idea that the human mind does not have to see compelling evidence before it accepts something. It is also what continues to distinguish much of the sanitised Western mindfulness teaching from its Eastern origins.
“One of the key debates (in Australia) currently is whether or not people need to believe in Buddhist precepts in order to actually be Buddhists. Rebirth is the belief most commonly rejected belief by those who otherwise practice Buddhist mindfulness,” he says.
Dr Friedlander says he has seen a huge change in attitudes to psychotherapy and mindfulness teachings in Australia. In effect, it has moved from the fringe to the mainstream however he says Buddhist-related psychotherapy is now so popular that much of it has become of dubious worth, as practitioners try to adjust it to contemporary life issues.
“How does consumer society engage with Buddhism and how does Buddhism engage with it? It can’t, you know. It is good to for it (Buddhism) to be engaged, but not get caught up in pointless endeavors,” he says.
What Dr Friedlander suggests is that there is an unrealistically romantic view in the West as to what Buddhism and its teachings on mind control are all about. The idea that the mind as the arbiter of all our memories and emotional senses is the key to controlling happiness is popularised in the West. It has led to the creation of many English-speaking Buddhist meditation centres across Australia.
The Buddhist Library in Camperdown, Sydney, is one such example. Founded in 1991, it is now the key central hub for English-language Buddhist meditation, teaching and classes in the state. It attracts the most famous English-speaking and Australian-born ordained practitioners including Bhante Sujato, Venerable Varapanno, Ajahn Brahm, Giles Barton and John Barclay.
Su Sian, the Buddhist Library’s manager and lead coordinator, says the most popular activities are the meditation practices held in the evenings and weekends. The Library is both unusual and popular because it is non-sectarian, unlike almost all other places of Buddhist meditation where meditative practices are taught according to sectarian traditions.
Su Sian says, “Because we are open to any sect, tradition or group that wants to practice here within reason, it’s kind of like an information centre for Buddhist meditation practices in Australia. We’ve always been popular with a mix of people. The young people from round the area like the evening talks.”
Giles Barton, a regular teacher at the Buddhist Library, is a former Director of Wat Buddha Dhamma at Wiseman’s Ferry and a current Director of Santi Forest Nuns Monastery. He continues to work in the field of Infant, Child and Adolescent Mental Health as a Clinical Manager for local health services.
“I teach secular Buddhism and using mindfulness and meditation to cope with depression, anxiety and unhappiness. The idea is that people become able to emotionally regulate. A lot of mental health disorders are prevalent because people cannot emotionally regulate,” he says.
“Mindfulness is watching how things come and go, and learning to let them come and go; a bit like standing on the footpath watching the traffic, rather than standing on the road trying to dodge the traffic.”
It is evident that Buddhism and its promotion of meditative practices has helped create a rich tapestry of professional and community practitioners across the country. From the most powerful people in business to students, the elderly and first-generation immigrants, Buddhism’s meditative hold has taken effect in ways that are idiosyncratic to Australian society. However, the next stage of its development may be more impressive than the first, as the business of psychotherapy moves up through the gears.