An Introduction to BUDDHISM in Australia

Buddhism was founded in India in the 6th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha or “Enlightened One”. He taught the way to Nirvana, the end of all suffering through moral life and meditation, based on knowledge of the true nature of reality.

Siddhartha Gautama was born the son of the ruler of a small kingdom in about 563 BCE in what is now Nepal. He was raised in sheltered luxury but aged 29 he visited a nearby village where for the first time he saw sick people, beggars and corpses. He left his family and wealth to seek answers to human suffering. After six years of search and meditation he finally realized “the truth”, achieved enlightenment and became Buddha. He began to preach. For the next forty-five years, until his death, he travelled around northern India preaching, gathering disciples and organising them into a religious community known as the Sangha. On his death, a council of monks gathered to commit his teachings to memory and two and a half centuries later the Tripitaka, an account of the Buddha’s teaching and the oral traditions of Buddhism was written down.

The main teaching of Buddhism, the Dharma, focuses on the Four Noble Truths which are that life is suffering (dukkha), the cause of suffering is the desire for the pleasures of life (tanha), the way to end suffering is by overcoming desire and experiencing enlightenment (Nirvana) and to overcome desire, one must follow the principles of the Middle Way or the Eightfold Path. These principles of morality, meditation and wisdom are right or perfect understanding, thinking, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration or contemplation. Practising Buddhists maintain these and follow the Five Buddhist Precepts which prohibit killing, stealing, telling lies, sexual misbehaviour and the use of intoxicants.

Buddhism is based on these understandings and on compassion for all living beings. It accepts belief in rebirth and karma, the results of good and evil actions. The Three Jewels of Buddhism are to venerate the Buddha, to venerate his teaching and to support the religious community.

Buddhist religious buildings are called temples, monasteries and stupas. Temples or meeting houses are a focal point for community life. They contain a shrine where meditation and religious ceremonies take place and where there may also be accommodation for a few or many monks. At one time there were almost 8,000 monks in the Tibetan Drepung Monastery. Stupas or pagodas are monuments, usually very decorative and originally built over relics of the Buddha. Most Buddhists have a shrine in their homes where there may be a statue, candles, incense and a vase of flowers and where family meditation and ceremonies take place and offerings are made.

The most important Buddhist festival is Vesak which is also called Buddha Day or Thrice Blessed Day, lasts for three days and celebrates three events, the Buddha’s birthday, his enlightenment and his passing away. Other festivals include Asalwa Puja commemorating the Buddha’s first sermon, Magha Puja commemorating the Buddha’s ordination of 1250 enlightened monks and Kathina when Buddhists give the monks clothing and other items they will need for the following year. Many Buddhists also celebrate festivals to honour the Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings dedicated to the practice of compassion. Important among these is Avalokiteshvara who in female form is known as Kuan Yin.

After the Buddha’s death three main traditions of Buddhism evolved; Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos, Mahayana Buddhism in China, Vietnam, Korea, India and Japan and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet and Mongolia. Each tradition now has many sects. Buddhism is currently the fourth largest religion in the world with about 350 million followers. In 2001 there were almost 360,000 Buddhists living in Australia, about 1.6% of the population. Most Australian Buddhists are immigrants from Asian countries and their children but there is a significant following amongst other Australians.

It is not known when Buddhism first came to Australia but it is likely that there was contact between the early Hindhu-Buddhist civilisations of Indonesia and the Aboriginal people of northern Australia. It is also possible that ships from the exploration fleets of the Chinese Ming emperors which landed on islands to the north of Arnhem Land may have reached the mainland of Australia between 1405 and 1433.

From 1848 Chinese labourers arrived to work on the Victorian goldfields, some of whom had Buddhist beliefs but most of whom eventually returned to China. The first permanent Buddhist community was established in the 1870s by Sinhalese migrants from Sri Lanka who came to work on Queensland sugar plantations and in the Thursday Island pearling industry. By the 1890s the Thursday Island community was about 500 strong, a temple was built, festivals were celebrated and a monk was said to have visited to officiate. There were also mainly Japanese Shinto Buddhist communities in Broome and Darwin.

Around the same time there was a wider interest in Buddhism and in 1891 Colonel Henry Scott Olcott, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, spent several months lecturing throughout Australia on “Theosophy and Buddhism”. From Federation in 1901 until the 1960s the number of Buddhists in Australia remained small but significant with the establishment of various societies and centres, and visits from overseas monks and nuns. However with increased migration from Asian countries from the 1970s Buddhism is now Australia’s second largest religion after Christianity. All three of the main traditions of Buddhism are represented in Australia and Australians have the opportunity to follow any or all, unlike people from traditional Buddhist countries who generally follow only one.

In the 2011 Census 529,000, 2.5% of the population, reported an affiliation with Buddhism.


Theme: Cultural diversity and multiculturalism