Buddhism: A Portable Religion in Australia by Lewis Lancaster

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The spread of Buddhism has been a complex and continuing process that covers all the centuries since its founding. Its arrival in Australia is one of these chapters. Here, as it was in every instance, the history of the tradition is a story of politics, economics, migration, and the adaptation of the teachings to local conditions. For us today, the questions about Buddhism in Australia seek to determine: what is happening? What are the causal elements for current events? How are we to interpret this information?


The story of the geographic spread of Buddhism is as old as the tradition itself. From the days of the wanderings of the founder, the ideas of Buddhism had a spatial domain, that is, the areas where these occurred could be mapped. The spatial mapping of the diffusion, right up to the arrival of the religion in Australia, is a continuation of events and networks of influences that have made up the fabric of the history of these ancient teachings. In order to understand the full context of the multiple events in Australia related to the appearance of Buddhism, it is helpful to look back at the various ways the spatial foot print of the religion has appeared, sometime expanding and other times shrinking.

I suppose we can follow the advice of Lewis Carroll “it is best to begin at the beginning”. If we do so, then the query must be: “what was the nature of Buddhism in its earliest years?” It is my belief that Buddhism marked a new direction for religion in the world because: it broke from its original homeland; its teachings were translated into languages not found in the earliest formulations; and different ethnic groups adopted it. In a word, Buddhism was “portable”. It is one thing to have diffusion by spread of political power or growing through the geographical spread of an ethnic group bound by common heritage of language and culture. However, it is quite another to have a religion which can move across the boundaries of space, culture, language, and political divisions. We seek to understand the expansion of Buddhism beyond the boundaries of the founder. It seems to be the case that the spatial footprint of Buddhism started with the founder travelling over a wide area of the Ganges basin finding support from a variety of social groupings. The diffusion took on a more political turn when King Asoka helped it spread across the sub-continent. While this expansion was impressive, it was to be overshadowed by a larger movement that would eventually eclipse that of the homeland. Beyond the reaches of the sub-continent where the diverse groups had many shared cultural features, the patterns of dissemination took a quite different turn. Buddhism found a niche with interregional mercantile practices. The trade routes became the avenues to a new map for the institutions and ideas. This movement is far too often only described as the so-called “Silk Road” of inner Asia, caravan routes leading in part from the southern seaports that moved through [[Wikipedia:Central Asia|Central Asia]] into the domain of the Han people. The neglected but perhaps even larger influence was to be found in the activities of those seaports of the Indian Ocean and the Andamen Sea and beyond to the western most reaches of the Pacific Ocean.

When the religion had reached out to East Asian kingdoms of the Turks, Koreans, and Japanese, more than ten centuries had passed from the time of Sakyamuni. We tend to flatten ancient history and see centuries as minor milestones when they were each in reality long and comprised of multiple generations. The spread of the religion took place in steps each marked by centuries of time and a complex array of events that we have yet to describe fully, much less understand.

By the 8th century C.E. the long process of introduction, assimilation, and local adaptations had reached a point where the domain of Buddhism fell within what we may say was the “Great Circle”. This “circle” can be seen in the travels of pilgrims from East Asia to India. For example, a Korean monk, by the name of Hyecho, in the 8th century set sail from his home kingdom and made the journey to India by a series of voyages. He was forgotten by his home country. However, the discovery of his diary in the early part of the 20th century brought his journey to our attention. It is suspected that he did not quite manage to complete the circle and probably lived his last days in Chang An. Our knowledge of him comes from his own record of travel which was discovered by Paul Pelliot in the famous cache of manuscripts found in a sealed cave at the great meeting point of trade routes in Dunhuang. I see that journey as proof that East Asian pilgrims were aware of the “Great Circle” and they knew that one could travel among Buddhist lands by making a circular journey to India by sea and/or land.


The “Great Circle” was the outer reaches of Buddhism as it followed the seacoasts of Japan, Korea, China, present day Vietnam, encompassing Java, Sumatra, Malaysia, coastal regions of the Andaman Sea, reaching to the sea ports of the Eastern and Western Indian coastline, before turning inland at the Indus Valley and moving across the mountain ranges into the Taklamakan desert and down the Ganzu corridor to ancient Chang An. This vast area did not include Australia, nor did it extend beyond the network of mercantile communities of what we now call Central, South and Southeast Asia. The question is often asked about why Buddhism did not spread toward Europe and the Mediterranean. I would like to frame the question in a different fashion. Why did it not spread beyond the “Great Circle”? My current answer is that the “Great Circle” was made up of a series of social networks largely built around merchant communities. The kingdoms and confederations that formed the political structure of the regions were no less tied to these networks of sea trade. It was the structure of these networks that sustained the tradition in the outposts and it was the religion in turn that sustained and supported the trade that extended into ever widening spheres of activity. Pilgrims from East Asia made their way along these linked networks. Where no similar networks existed, or where a different network was operating which excluded Buddhism, the religion did not find a home. Such was the case for the expanse of the “Great Circle” into the Southern Hemisphere where merchants carried Indian cultural features as far as Java and Bali but there was no reach to the islands beyond or to Australia.

We can study the “Great Circle” in segments for it was not one giant conglomerate that had a single set of patterns. The circle could and was often broken as networks changed. For example, the Nabataeans from the Arabian peninsula and environs took over coastal trade and seaport exchange along the western coast of India and eventually parts of the eastern one as well. They also set up centers in Malaysia, Sumatra, and Java. Deprived of the support of previous networks of Indian and local traders, Buddhism in these regions withered. Therefore, the area of the “Great Circle” that was closest to Australia fractured under the advent of the Arab domination of seaports in what is now Indonesia.

For long periods of time, segments of the “Great Circle” remained in place but the expansion beyond the outer reaches of the sphere was limited. One might think that the Mongol Empire was a time of great breakout of the Asian cultural sphere as their armies moved across Eurasia. However, the control of distant lands in the Western regions of Asia did not last for long and cultural transmission by the military is usually quite limited. On the other hand, the Mongols helped to create the modern world, one in which the whole of Eurasia was involved in contact and exchange. Merchants from the Mediterranean Sea could travel to China and return home. Europe became aware of the lands toward the East and developed a new network which we call “colonialism”. All of these factors were leading toward a global awareness and the whole surface of the earth was finally included in histories and learning.

Little monk.jpg

Australia was part of this new network as large scale migration as well as global trade transformed the continent. In the areas of Asia that still held to Buddhist practice, colonial scholars started the study of it among Europeans. While the Christian missionary activities challenged Buddhism, it never quite broke the segments of the “Great Circle” that were still active in the 17th and 18th centuries. Modernity, brought by the Europeans, tested all aspects of life in the Buddhist world. Buddhism was no stranger to suppression and opposition. In China, anti-Buddhist activities were recorded from the 4th century and in Korea, the emergence of the Chosun dynasty reduced the influence and the power of the tradition. However, nothing would equal the 20th century for the vigor of control and attempted elimination of Buddhism in North Korea, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia, Buryatia . In the latter part of the century, the pattern of decline began to shift. The restrictions, harsh at times, were lifted as shifting politics opened up new eras in communist- controlled governments. A revival has been very marked among the Buddhists and today there is a great deal more activity than in the 1970s. It is ironic to note that in the face of the challenges of European colonialism and the political ramifications of the “cold war”, Buddhism was once again becoming portable. Networks of immigrants in France, England, and North America as well as in Australia brought about a widen region of Buddhist influence.

Social and philosophical movements of the late 20th century created major changes in education and information exchange. Termed the “post-modern” period, it was a time characterized by cross cultural and multi- cultural dimensions. A new openness to multiplicity of approaches and at times a fierce rejection of previously held concepts marked the new era. In this environment, Buddhism became for many in Europe, North America and Australia, an acceptable cultural alternative to the European and Western Asia religions. It is in this era that Buddhism has come to have a very substantial base in Australia. Social and political changes have meant that immigrants from Buddhist countries are a growing presence in countries that are trade partners. Global trade and new networks created for it include companies based in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam doing business with counterparts in Australia and other nations. This dynamic has resulted in a growing migration of Asians. I point this out to indicate that the spread of Buddhism is still closely tied to networks of trade and interchange among regions of differing cultural histories. These patterns of contact and movement we find in the global world of commerce and multi-cultural contacts today are not so very different from the ones that created the original “Great Circle” of Buddhism.

And so we come to look at 21st century Buddhism in Australia. It has all of the features which characterize the forms that the religion is assuming in a global sphere. In the forefront of the groups that are helping to install Buddhist practices in places as widespread as South Africa, Perth, Paris, Norway, and Canada are religious leaders from the major trading nations of Asia. It is among the lay Buddhist communities of Asian immigrants that we still find the support structures which have sufficient resources to construct large complexes, establish Buddhist schools and institutions of higher education. The future of Buddhism in North America and Australia does not lie solely with the non-Asian population. A great challenge will be to deal with the second, third, and fourth generations of the immigrants. Will the children and grandchildren of the first generation immigrants choose to remain a part of the community of Buddhists and give it support?


How can Buddhism hold a place in the future world where massive meta-trends predict a very different world by 2050? At one level, we see some nations with an aging population and decline in numbers and in others a projection of enormous growth but without sufficient resources to handle the millions of people being born. Last December, the population of the world crossed an important line. More than half of the current inhabitants of the planet live in cities for the first time in history. This urban aspect is nowhere more crucial than in Australia which has one of the largest percentages of urban dwellers of any nation. Buddhism of the village and the rural areas has to be adapted to this new era of huge urban centers. The form of Buddhism that can flourish in the future must respond to the needs and the demands of city dwellers.

What are the aspects of Buddhism that must be nourished in the future? Buddhist history records for us many long debates as various streams of discourse competed for attention. One of the great debates has been over the relative merit of meditation and study of texts. In Korean monasteries, there are two separate training halls for these two methods and the monastics may choose whether to recite and study texts or sit in meditation. I don’t believe that the two forms of activity need to be in conflict. In a world of massive information and education at unprecedented levels among a majority of the population, it appears that both study and meditation are necessary. In the Vinayas translated into Chinese from the Sarvastivadin and Dharmagupta schools, we find statements that study is essential as an adjunct to meditation. Monks and nuns who neglect study are said to be turning their back on the Dharma and it is a fault that must be remedied. What is the nature of this study for our present situation in Australia? How should Buddhist communities best deal with informing lay people and monastics about the teachings? Can yogic practice of mindfulness be sufficient? It is hard to imagine that Buddhism can survive in an environment of city life and universal education without making sure that its membership is informed. I include in the expression “Informed Buddhism” the idea that followers must become educated about their religious tradition and they must then be ready to help inform others about it. Nowhere is “Informed Buddhism” more active than at the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong. Each year they grant one hundred M.A. degrees to ordinary citizens who enroll in the graduate program where they study doctrine, practice, and history of the tradition. With this growing number of believers who have a deep understanding of the teachings, I see how important Buddhism can become in a densely populated city. There are numerous study centers and schools springing up throughout the world. including those here in Australia. I believe this gives promise for a continuing and healthy state of the religion.

From the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere, Australia has been viewed as “distant shores.” However, the current technology of the computer, internet, and digital data has changed the reality of “distance.” As an advanced technological nation, Australia is already making great contributions to the world’s knowledge about Buddhism. BuddhaNet stands out as an example of how an Australian Buddhist group makes contact with hundreds of thousands of users every year. For those who can not easily find help with their study and practice, such websites offer a crucial service. The new technology removes “distance” from the equation and what happens in Australia can be immediately available to people in all nations of the world.

I have tried to provide some historical context for viewing the situation of Buddhism in the 21st century in its Australian setting. It is an important moment in history when Buddhist ideas are included in a global discourse that includes physics, cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy. My suggestion is that we are seeing the age old process of the “portability” of Buddhism once again on the move, this time globally and finally far beyond the “Great Circle” of the past.