Buddhism gains recognition

Saturday, 17 May 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The release of a Vesak message by Prime Minister Tony Abbot is an acknowledgement that Buddhism is growing in Australia. Stating that on the occasion of Vesak, Australians are reminded of the significant contribution that Buddhism makes to the life of the country, the Prime Minister says that religious faith is an important element in Australian society. “For many, it provides meaning, purpose and inspiration to their daily lives,” the message adds. “Vesak is an important time for the Buddhist community to come together to celebrate, reflect and renew faith,” he says. “I acknowledge your commitment to respect, compassion and understanding as taught by Buddha. I send my best wishes to everyone celebrating Vesak this year,” the message ends.       Fastest growing religion According to Australia Bureau of Statistics, Buddhism has been accepted as the fastest-growing religion by percentage, having increased its number of adherents by 79% between the 1996 and 2001 censuses and is the second largest religion in the country after Christianity. According to the 2011 census data, the Buddhist affiliated population has grown from 418,749 to 528,977 people recording an increase of 20.8%. As Australia’s population was estimated at 21.5 million at the time, according to the same census, the Buddhist population may be estimated at 2.46% of the population. Records indicate that although the first documented arrival of Buddhists in Australia was in 1848 during the gold rushes, when Chinese coolie labourers were brought into the country to work on the Victorian gold fields, it was in 1876 that the first permanent Buddhist community was established by Sinhalese migrants on Thursday Island. The Sri Lankans who were employed on the sugar cane plantations of Queensland built the first temple there. The oldest remaining structure attesting to the establishment of Buddhism in Australia are two bodhi trees planted on Thursday Island in the 1890s, although the temple is no longer there. In 1891, the American Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society came to Australia and participated in a lecture series, which led to a greater awareness of Buddhism in small circles of mainly upper-class society. One of the members of the Theosophical Society was future Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who had spent three months in India and Sri Lanka in 1890 and wrote a book which discussed spiritual matters, including Buddhism. During the 20th century, the number of Buddhists gradually declined due to emigration and a lack of immigration due to the White Australia Policy. The earliest known Buddhist organisation in Australia – ‘The Little Circle of the Dharma – had been formed by a small group of committed western Buddhists in Melbourne in 1925. In 1951 the first Buddhist nun visited Australia. Sister Dhammadinna, born in the USA, ordained and with thirty years of experience in Sri Lanka, came to propagate the Theravadin School of Buddhist teaching. She had received nation-wide media coverage.       First monastery in Blue Mountains Inspired by this visit, the next year the Buddhist Society of New South Wales was formed under the presidency of Leo Berkley, a Dutch-born Sydney businessman. This organisation is today the oldest Buddhist group in Australia. Its membership was, and still is, comprised mainly of people from Anglo-European backgrounds. In 1971 the Society established the Sri Lankan monk, Venerable Somaloka, in residence at a retreat centre in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. This became the first monastery in Australia. A succession of monasteries representing different aspects of Buddhism slowly became established around Australia; in 1975 at Stanmore in Sydney, in 1978 at Wisemans Ferry in country NSW and in 1984 at Serpentine in Western Australia. In an article titled ‘Why is Buddhism the fastest growing religion in Australia?’ Darren Nelson, an Industrial Relations and Human Resource Consultant  says that potential Buddhists are attracted to the Dhamma (Buddhist teachings) not only to take refuge from a world of chaos and confusion, but also to re-invent their own personal sense of a meaningful spirituality in a society of high-tech consumerism, commercialism, violence and apathy. Compared to the Christian beliefs that many Anglo-European Australians grew up with, Buddhism does not require its adherents to remain faithful to a specific dogma. “It is not a faith. It is not technically a religion either, though when discussing systems of worship it is easier to work with that label. It is more a psychology and a philosophy wrapped around a moral code of mind training,” he states. He quotes Sir William Deane, one time Australian Governor-General (1996-2001) who expressed his support at the opening of the Rahula Community Lodge (a Buddhist centre) in Canberra. “A report from the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research a couple of years ago, showed that over the ten years to 1991 Buddhism was by far the largest growing religion in our country: an increase in the order of some 300%. To a significant extent, of course, the figures reflect the substantial increase in migration from south-east Asia over that period. “But the second largest national group were Australian-born Buddhists – many from non-Asian cultures attracted by both the philosophy and the practice of Buddhism, with its emphasis upon the search for inner peace and understanding. I offer my very best wishes for the success of all that you hope to achieve in the years ahead as future stages of the centre are completed. May all your endeavours prosper and bring joy to those whom they are intended to help.”