Buddhism Buddhism in Australia
by
Michelle Barker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0272

Introduction

Buddhism comprised 2.4 percent of the Australian population at the most recent census in 2016. While reflection on Buddhism’s growth in Australia is recorded as early as 1961, the first major body of work in the field was documentation of the early history in Buddhism in Australia, 1848–1988 (Croucher 1989 [cited under History]). The study of Buddhism in Australia has grown since the 1990s, with a small number of books and academic theses now available. An edited volume, Buddhism in Australia: Traditions in Change (Rocha and Barker 2011) [cited under Overviews]) provides a significant addition in showcasing a broad range of work from researchers and leading teachers. “Bibliography: Buddhism in Australia” (Fitzpatrick, et al. 2012 [cited under History]) provides a bibliography of all the works in the field that records more than ninety academic publications and forty other resources. A total of forty of these were completed between 2003 and 2012, and it would be reasonable to assume that approximately forty more have been added from 2012 to 2021, suggesting that there are now more than 175 studies relevant to this field. This review of key works in the field focuses on five areas: Overviews, History, Major Schools, Buddhist Identity, and Expressions of Buddhism. The history section ranges from historical overviews to community profiles, culminating in the exploration in “The Buddhist Council of Victoria and the Challenges of Recognizing Buddhism as a Religion in Australia” (Cousens 2011 [cited under History]) on the efforts to encourage government recognition of Buddhism as a designated religion in Australia. As for many countries in Europe and North America, a wide range of Buddhist schools took root through various means, and examination of these has increased to enable the section on major schools to encompass at least one work on most major traditions, often by researchers who are also practitioners. Consideration of the diversity of Buddhist traditions represented in Australia leads into the section Buddhist Identity, which includes studies on both immigrant identity and conversion in relation to Buddhist practice. The final section contains references dealing with how aspects of Buddhist teachings have been expressed in practice, including feminism, engaged Buddhism, and incorporation into Australian education systems. “Women and Ultramodern Buddhism in Australia” (Halafoff, et al. 2018 [cited under Expressions of Buddhism]) provides a valuable update and new perspective on the role of women in Australian Buddhist history, and The Buddha Is in the Street: Engaged Buddhism in Australia (Sherwood 2003 [cited under Expressions of Buddhism]) illustrates expressions of engaged Buddhism in the Australian context.

Overviews

The number of academic analyses of aspects of Buddhism in Australia reflects the small size of both the Buddhist community and the broader Australian population. Several comprehensive overviews consider a breadth of topics, mostly notably an edited collection, Rocha and Barker 2011. This is a key work in the area, with some of the chapters also meriting specific mention in this article to reference research not published elsewhere. Barker 2017 provides the most recent high-level analysis of recent developments, and Halafoff, et al. 2012 considers where more work is needed.

  • Barker, Michelle. “Buddhism in Australia and Oceania.” In The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Edited by Michael Jerryson, 360–381. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199362387.013.37Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This analysis of Buddhism’s development profiles the history of transnational global flows in these regions, reinforcing understanding of the degree to which the evolution of Buddhism in these countries is closely tied to immigration and travel.

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  • Barker, Michelle, and Sally McAra. “Buddhism in Australia and New Zealand: Antipodean Dharma.” In 2600 Years of Sambuddhatva: Global Journey of Awakening. Edited by Oliver Abeynayake and Asanga Tilakaratne, 557–568. Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, Sri Lanka: Ministry of Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs, Government of Sri Lanka, 2011.

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    While Buddhism in Australia and New Zealand is similar to that found in European and North American countries, this work assesses how it differs in these two countries, particularly with regard to engaged Buddhism, the influence of Buddhist material culture, and links with indigenous spirituality.

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  • Halafoff, Anna, Ruth Fitzpatrick, and Kim Lam. “Buddhism in Australia: An Emerging Field of Study.” Journal of Global Buddhism 13 (2012): 9–25.

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    This paper explores the degree to which contemporary scholarship on Buddhism in Australia could be considered an emerging field of study, concluding that a comprehensive analysis of Buddhism in Australia is yet to be conducted.

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  • Rocha, Cristina, and Michelle Barker, eds. Buddhism in Australia: Traditions in Change. Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    This contribution analyzes the arrival and localization of Buddhism in Australia in the context of the globalization of Buddhism. Both academic reviews and practitioner experiences are included to show adaptations of Buddhism to Australia and corresponding challenges. Available online for purchase.

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History

Buddhists started arriving in Australia in large numbers in the mid-1800s, and the first Buddhist societies and centers began to be formed in the mid to late 1900s. Croucher 1989 is the seminal work documenting this early history, with more recent summaries provided by Adams and Hughes 1996 and Vasi 2006. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018 provides key demographic data, and Fitzpatrick, et al. 2012 records almost all of the initial publications in this area. Cousens 2011 provides depth to this section with an examination of work being led by the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils to further legal recognition of Buddhism as a religion; and Halafoff and Trebilcock 2017 merits inclusion as one of the few videos providing the Buddhist community with a historical voice.

Major Schools

The development of Buddhism in Australia reflects transnational flows, with a wide range of traditions flowering in Australia due to a combination of immigration and the influence of early Buddhist practitioners who played key roles in inviting teachers and establishing Buddhist organizations. BuddhaNet 2021 is a key reference for locating Buddhist centers in Australia and demonstrates the diversity of traditions present. Works analyzing the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana schools in Australia are examined here.

  • BuddhaNet. World Buddhist Directory. Sydney: Buddha Dharma Education Association, 2021.

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    This online directory of Buddhist centers includes 534 centers located in Australia. Previous research suggests that this listing is likely to include the majority of centers but is unlikely to be complete. It should be expected that some key information is missing or out of date as centers need to submit and maintain their own entries.

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Theravada Buddhism

Analysis of aspects of Theravada practice includes research on contemporary practice in Bubna-Litic and Winton 2011 and a historical chronicle (McIntyre and Ellwood 2020).

  • Bubna-Litic, David, and Winton Higgins. “The Emergence of Secular Insight Practice in Australia.” In Buddhism in Australia: Traditions in Change. Edited by Cristina Rocha and Michelle Barker, 23–35. Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    The authors present Australian developments in insight (vipassana) meditation practice as examples of global trends. Both authors contribute their lived experience to this historical analysis, in addition to a wide range of other sources. Available online for purchase.

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  • McIntyre, John, and Constance Ellwood. Wat Buddha Dhamma History Project. Wat Buddha Dhamma, 2020.

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    This history of Wat Buddha Dhamma chronicles its pioneering role in establishing Buddhist organizations in Australia in the early 1970s, and the influence of its founding teachers, Phra Khantipalo (Laurence Mills) and Ayya Khema.

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Mahayana Buddhism

The many Mahayana traditions are also represented in studies of specific Buddhist organizations; Bouma, et al. 2000; Leesa 2011; Metraux 2004; and Spuler 2015 examine different Japanese Buddhist traditions, and Shi 2019 discusses the Fo Guang Shan.

Vajrayana Buddhism

The adaptation of Vajrayana Buddhist lineages is considered in Eddy 2007 and Fitzpatrick 2011 through examination of the practices of several Tibetan Buddhist centers.

Buddhist Identity

Studies on Buddhism in Europe and North America often encompass immigrant identity maintenance and/or conversion, and Australian Buddhist studies are no exception. Immigration has played a major role in the development of Buddhism in Australia, with rapid Asian immigration in the 1970s (particularly from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) contributing to increasing diversification of traditions. Quang Lu 2011 and Vasi 2011 scrutinize the Vietnamese and Cambodian experience, respectively, and they could be equally included under Major Schools as they situate their analysis within profiles of these Buddhist communities. Eddy 2012, Lam 2021, Nguyen 2020, and Phillips and Aarons 2005 all appraise aspects of conversion.

  • Eddy, Glenys. Becoming Buddhist: Experiences of Socialization and Self-Transformation in Two Australian Buddhist Centers. London: Continuum, 2012.

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    Interviews and participant-observation are used to investigate what it means to be a Buddhist for the predominantly Anglo-Australian affiliates of two Buddhist centers in Australia. Available online for purchase.

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  • Lam, Kim. “Young Buddhists in Australia.” In Routledge International Handbook of Religion in Global Society. Edited by Jayeel Cornelio, François Gauthier, Tuomas Martikainen, and Linda Woodhead. New York: Routledge, 2021.

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    Lam has completed several works on young Australian Buddhists, and this chapter explores how participants address racializing discourses that construct Buddhism as an “Asian” religion, within Australia’s multicultural landscape.

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  • McAra, Sally. "Indigenizing or Adapting? Importing Buddhism into a Settler-Colonial Society." Journal of Global Buddhism 8 (2007): 132–156.

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    This investigation of the construction of a FPMT stupa in rural Australia exemplifies the challenges that the establishment of Buddhism can experience in settler-colonial societies and suggests that terms other than “indigenization” are needed to analyze this.

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  • Nguyen, Thien. “The Engagement of Australians of Christian Background with Buddhism in Australia: An Exploratory Study of Religious Conversion/” 2020, 3194001 Bytes.

    DOI: 10.26180/5E4334E0183C4Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This thesis is an empirical based study of the process of conversion to Buddhism by Australians of Christian background and is probably the only discussion of the main reasons and causes leading to conversion in the Australian context.

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  • Phillips, Tim, and Haydn Aarons. “Choosing Buddhism in Australia: Towards a Traditional Style of Reflexive Spiritual Engagement1.” British Journal of Sociology 56.2 (June 2005): 215–232.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2005.00056.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The study uses a quantitative study to investigate spiritual style among a sample of Australians who have developed an interest in Buddhist practice and belief.

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  • Quang Lu, Tuong. “Changes and Challenges to Vietnamese Buddhism in Australia.” In Buddhism in Australia: Traditions in Change. Edited by Cristina Rocha and Michelle Barker, 134–139. Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    The United Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation matured in a relatively short period, and this research considers its history, challenges, and whether it can remain relevant to the younger generation of Vietnamese Australians. Available online for purchase.

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  • Vasi, Shiva. “Adaptation and Continuity in Cambodian Buddhist Temples: Implications for Service Delivery and Community Development.” In Buddhism in Australia: Traditions in Change. Edited by Cristina Rocha and Michelle Barker, 95–104. Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    Cambodian Buddhist temples in Australia play a pivotal role in social welfare and settlement-related needs of Cambodian immigrant communities, and their role in maintenance of traditional Cambodian Buddhist culture and identity is interrogated in this study. Available online for purchase.

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Expressions of Buddhism

Many studies cited in this article consider how Buddhism has adapted to suit the Australian sociocultural context, and they review changes related to the role of women, the practice of engaged Buddhism, and the utilization of Buddhist teachings in Australian education systems. Adam 2000 provides the first celebration of Buddhism women in Australia’s history, and Halafoff, et al. 2018 investigates a framework for understanding this. Bucknell 2000 highlights Australia in one of the first major works on engaged Buddhism in the West, with Sherwood 2001 and Sherwood 2003 exploring engaged Buddhism within the particular lens of social welfare and beyond. Lam 2018 and Fitzpatrick 2014 are part of continuing research on engaged Buddhism in more recent times in considering if it remains a defining tenet of some Buddhist schools in Australia. Smith 2013 constitutes the first work probing adapted Buddhist teachings to fit with contemporary education approaches in Australian schools, while Nan Tien Temple provides information on Australia’s only higher education provider grounded in Buddhist values. Finally, Australasian Association of Buddhist Studies provides information on Australian Buddhist scholars in the higher education sector who are responsible for many of the entries in this listing.

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