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Buddhism: Its contribution to spiritual renaissance in the west: The experiences of western converts in Australia

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Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia. This profound and ancient wisdom tradition which was born in India and which has flourished throughout Asia, is now thriving in Australia. The impact of Buddhism on Australians who do not have Asian ancestry is escalating. Buddhism provides both meaningful answers and personally transforming practices for Australians facing the decline of traditional Christian religions and associated meaning structures. The increasing secularisation of Australian culture, materialisation of Australian lifestyle and egocentrism of behaviour, has been associated with rising problems of alienation, greed, and normlessness. In a land of such abundant material prosperity, there is a famine of the spirit. Suicide and violent crime rates are rising and one in every four adult Australians is said to be suffering from depression. Other people caught on the fast lane to material prosperity, are afflicted by high levels of stress and ill health.

This paper explores the growing appeal of Buddhism to increasing numbers of Australians. Buddhism provides a new spiritual presence that offers those disillusioned with the politics and lack of practice of the Christian churches, a relatively untarnished image. Buddhism has an impressive belief system embodied in the four noble truths that provides answers to the profound questions of human existence, without requiring belief in a God as a prerequisite for answering these questions.

For westerners, Buddhism holds the promise of a path to over come suffering. It provides a meaning structure not dependent on external authority but on personal practice and insight. It offers concrete practices through meditation to bring peace of mind and relief from stress. It offers compassionate practices to support those in prison, the dying, and others that are suffering. Buddhism, with its recognition of the interrelationship of all living beings and its respect for all life, has a growing following among the green movement and young people seeking a belief system that has well-developed environmental ethics. While the West is struggling to retain the remnants of morality, Buddhism provides compassionate guidelines for moral life, which form the foundation of personal morality and social justice. The above qualities of Buddhism produce a powerful force in the West capable of spearheading the spiritual and moral renaissance so desperately needed.


Buddhism is having a profound and increasing impact on the experiences Australians of a non-Asian background whom I refer to as Western Buddhists. This impact cannot be easily portrayed numerically as the religious affiliation question is optional in our census data. It is reflected in the proliferation of Buddhist societies, centres and temples in Australia. For example in Western Australia, in 1972 the first Buddhist society was established. In 2000 there were 26 centres. The number of Buddhist organisation for Australia in 2000 numbers 319.(Pannyavaro 2000).

Most of the research on Buddhism in Australia has focused on migrant Buddhists from SouthEast Asia and their experiences on resettlement in Australia (Ata, 1998; Grant, 1979; Knowles, 1986: Jupp, 1989; Jayasuriya and Sheldrake; 1982). There are references to the historical development of Western Buddhists in Australia in Croucher’s History of Buddhism in Australia (1988). They are also cited in Humphries and Ward’s Religious bodies in Australia (1988). Other than Adams (1995) who devotes part of her book to addressing alienation and integration experiences of Western Buddhists, there has been little focus on their experiences.


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The earliest known group of Western Buddhists in Australia was the Little Circle of Dharma formed in Melbourne in 1925 by Max Tayler, Max Dunn and David Maurice following the Burmese Theravadin tradition. In 1952 the New South Wales Buddhist society was formed with Marie Byles and Leonard Bullen and Sr Dhammadinna trained in Sri Lanka made regular visits. (Adam and Hughes, 1996: 7-8). In 1960 the Ch’an sect arrived in Sydney and the following year the Soto Zen Buddhist society was formed in New South Wales. It then spread in the next decade to other states (Adam and Hughes, 1996:9). The first Tibetan lamas came to Australia in 1974 and during the late 1970’s and 1980’s a number of Tibetan centres opened across Australia.

As with other Western countries, Western Buddhists in Australia have been influenced primarily by Theravadin Buddhism until the 1960’s, followed by Zen and Chinese Buddhism in the 1960’s and Tibetan Buddhism in the late 1970’s and 1980’s (Baumann, 1995:62). Today, all of these Buddhist traditions are available for Western Buddhists as well as extensive access to Buddhist teachings through cyberspace (Baumann, 1997:5).


A profile of Western converts to Buddhism shows that they are predominantly Australian citizens, middle class to affluent, residing in middle class suburbs and engaged in occupations clustering in the human services and education (Adams, 1995:80-82). Most converts see their approach to life influenced more by religion than culture, politics or education. Most have had Christian experiences and a high proportion has been involved in Catholicism (Croucher, 1989:111). Western Buddhists make a commitment to Buddhism independent of their family’s religious affiliations. In terms of affiliation with a Buddhist association, Western Buddhists are less concerned with the social and cultural benefits than ethnic Buddhists, and much more concerned with the sharing of a common set of values and the ability to undertake meditations and retreats (Adams, 1995: 97-8).


Based on ethnographic interviews of Western Buddhists in Australia, this paper elucidates their experiences in terms of their expressed problems and unmet needs, and the resolutions of these offered by their experiences of Buddhism. These experiences will be broadly addressed under the aspects of need expressed by these converts and thematically named as meaning, health and peace, compassion, and connectedness.

The need for meaning

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Western Buddhists expressed their concern with the breakdown of meaning in their lives, prior to their contact with Buddhism. Many found traditional Christian churches too authoritarian and unable to offer plausible explanations for the social dissolution and personal disillusion confronting them. Adams (1995:83) confirms this finding saying reasons given for leaving the churches included: “ lack of inspiration and comfort, and providing few answers to life questions.” The extensive breakdown of social norms with the associated rise in suicide, depression and violent crimes, left these western people with a need to explain and create some personal and social meaning in their lives.

Western converts all cite their encounter with Buddhist teachings as finding a profound meaning system and all persons mention aspects of The Four Noble Truths. These enunciate a succinct, penetrating and powerful way through social and personal suffering. Western Buddhists frequently mention their relief to find that a meaning structure that acknowledges that human experience is one of suffering (dukkha). Also they cite the sanity of an analysis that points to craving, and the illusion of permanence (anicca) as the cause of this suffering. The great power of the Wheel of Doctrine set in motion by the Buddha at Benares touches Western minds who realise as did Kondanna, that whatever is liable to origination is also liable to cessation. Finally, there is the promise of a solution to discord and suffering through the Noble Eightfold path. It becomes the dharma or “the way”, (magga). The promise of happiness is not in the future or in the past. It is now. The Noble Eightfold path provides direction for skilful living in the present moment with guidelines for ethical conduct, mental and spiritual discipline that appeal to Western converts because they offer a way through excessive materialism and sensuality on the one hand and rigid ascetic practices on the other hand. The words of the Buddha at the Sermon in the Deer Park answer the needs of Australian western converts:

These two extremes, monks, are not to be practised by one who has gone forth from the world. What are the two? That conjoined with the passions and luxury, low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless; and that conjoined with self-torture, painful, ignoble and useless. Avoiding these two extremes the Tathagata has gained the enlightenment of the Middle Path, which produces insight and knowledge, and tends to calm, to higher knowledge, enlightenment, Nirvana (Burtt, 1982:29).

As one Western Buddhist convert said:

"It provides one with guidelines for loving kindness in one’s life today rather that just raging around consuming the most we can and ripping into life in a greedy sort of way or just giving up and doing nothing."

In addition, a powerful attraction of Buddhism is the Buddha’s emphasis on not accepting something on the authority of another person but examining it for oneself. In his famous statement to the Kalamas he said:

Come Kalamas, do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in your scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighting evidence or with liking for a view after pondering it over or with someone else’s ability or with the thought “ The monk is our teacher”. When you know in yourselves that “these ideas are unprofitable, liable to censure, condemned by the wise, being adopted and put into effect they lead to harm and suffering, then you should abandon them…when you know in your selves “These things are profitable” then you should practise them and abide in them” (Snelling, 1992:3)

Such a position is very highly valued by many westerners who become Buddhists in Australia, because it is compatible with their sense of individually carving their own meaning structure. Buddhism provides essential templates and tools with which to commence this task. Baumann (1995:61) also notes this trend among European converts. Likewise, Hayes (1999:38) also observes it among American Western Buddhists.

In addition, what appeals to Westerners that have drowned in intellectual debates about all dimensions of existence without alleviating their suffering, is the Buddha’s clear focus on the cause of human suffering and its elimination. It is clear in his conversation with Malunkyaputta that the focus of his teachings is on freedom from suffering:

It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his relative and kinsfolk, were to procure for him a physician or surgeon: and the sick man were to say, “I will not have the arrow taken out until I have learnt whether the man who wounded me belonged to the warrior caste, or the Brahman caste, or to the agricultural caste or to the menial cast…this man would die. ( Burt, 1982:35)

In addition, Buddhism’s concept of not-self (anatta) provides these westerners with a way of dealing with the issues of guilt, anxiety and judgement that traditionally have been directed at the Christian self. Joanna Macey (1991:189), a western Buddhist and world leader in the environmental and social justice movement, captures their sentiment when she proclaims the powerfully liberating and transforming nature of Buddha’s concept of not-self:

Buddhism undermines categorical distinctions between self and other and belies the concept of a continuous, self-existent entity. It then goes farther that systems theory in showing the pathogenic character of any reifications of the self. It goes farther still in offering methods for transcending theses difficulties and healing this suffering. What the Buddha woke up to under the Bodhi Tree was the paticca samuppada, the dependent co-arising of phenomena, in which you cannot isolate a separate continuous self. We think, What do we do with the self, this clamorous I, always wanting attention, always wanting its goodies? Do we crucify it, sacrifice it, mortify it, punish it, or do we make it noble? Upon awaking we realise, “ Oh it just isn’t there.

The freedom within Buddhism to examine all things critically is balanced by the leadership provided by the visiting or resident monks and teachers. Many western converts in Australia cite the impressive teachings of the monks or lamas describing them as “inspirational, logical, authentic”. Baumann (1995:61) in his European research had similar findings with western converts who described the lamas as “ inspiring, highly sympathetic and radiating.”

The need for health and peace


Western Buddhist converts frequently cite high levels of stress surrounding their lives prior to contact with Buddhism. Recurrent in their accounts was the need for better health based on what they experienced as “disease” of body, and distress of mind. One Western convert captured this sentiment:

I was stressed out trying to do all these things at work, at home, for my children… my health was suffering and I was missing the joy in life…when I found Buddhism, I found in meditation a way to calm down, to enjoy my life.

Clark (1998) in Everyday Practice writes about the work pressures that cause people to loose the present moment in their worry about the future moments. Mindfulness meditations are very popular among converts to Buddhism in Australia. They feel that Buddhism through meditation practices not only enables them to release mental and physical stresses in their lives, but also to be more present and to enjoy the present moment.

Likewise, Baumann (1995:60) notes the intense demand for meditation among European persons drawn to Buddhism that he claims has given Buddhism an “hitherto unknown popularity.” Kornfield, cited in Prebish (1997:9) writing of Western Buddhists in USA, also notes the intensity of the need for meditation, calm and peace:

All of us, as lay people, as householders want what was mostly the special dispensation of the monks in Asia; the real practice of the Buddha. American lay people are not content to go and hear a sermon once a week or to make merit by leaving gifts at a meditation centre. We, too, want to live the realisations of the Buddha and bring them into our heats, our lives, and our times. This is why so many Americans have been drawn to the purity of intensive Visspassna retreats, or to the power of Zen Sesshin, or even to the one hundred thousand prostrations and three year retreats of the Vajrajana tradition.

This view is confirmed both by my interviews and by Adams (1995:97). She found that 76% of Western Buddhist members of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia identified as a top priority the provision of retreats. This was contrast with the Asian Buddhist members where only 27% noted this as a priority.

Retreats or time in a secluded quiet venue with the opportunity to unload one’s mind and create inner peace attracts westerners to Buddhism. Yeshe Kadro (1995:125), the director of the Chenrezig Institute, a Buddhist community near Maleny in Queensland also notes the importance of this experience of inner peace for westerners:

Even those who do not come to Chrenrezig to study or practise Buddhism find that our peaceful environment helps their mental and physical well being. We are at the end of a dirt road, half an hour’s drive from the highway and major towns, and many people come here just to experience the peace and quiet.

Buddhism offers Australians an understanding of the mind, the processes that cause distress and disease, and teaches skills to manage the mind. This answers the pressing needs of many persons who practice Buddhism. They find a clearly articulated way to mental peace, namely the eightfold path that comprises:

All western converts I spoke to saw Buddhism as providing understanding and skills that work in their daily lives to create the experience of peace. They appreciated Buddhism’s recognition of the need to train the mind. Meditation was seen as the core gift of Buddhism to this endeavour to reclaim the peaceful mind. Adams (1995:85) in her research on Western Buddhists in Australia confirms these findings:

People emerge from a period of meditation with greater clarity of mind, insight into the true nature of things, and a sense of calmness and well being.
And with wisdom you can close the flood-gates.”

As we follow the dharma teaching and open to the path of mindfulness, compassion and insight there arises “a clear forest pool” within us, that Ajahn Chah so beautifully describes:

All kinds of wonderful, rare creatures will come to drink at the pool, and you will see clearly the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is happiness of the Buddha.

It is the place where freedom and clarity arise that is beyond either hope or despair. We come to know an inner peace, and it is from that place that we can make the most effective contribution to peace and health in our own lives and in the lives of others.

The need for compassion


Australian westerners now involved in Buddhism mentioned that they were impressed with the compassionate nature of the Buddha’s teachings. They contrast this with the sense of harshness, judgement and condemnation they had experienced in other belief systems. Buddha’s teachings show great compassion for human frailty and in his speaking of skilful and less skilful actions, many Westerners experience compassion. Also they gain insight into the cause of their suffering arising from aversion and desire. Only when thinking is purified from all aversion and desire, can one become awake. It is not the place of quiet contemplation, often mistaken by some Christians as a place of withdrawal from the world; it is the place of from which arises right judgement and powerful transformative action. In the words of the Buddha:

I know what should be known,
What should be cultivated, I have cultivated.
What should be abandoned that I have abandoned?
Hence, I am the BUDDHA, the Awakened One
(Piyadassi, 1991: 65)

It is in this place that the heart becomes truly compassionate. They see that the practice of compassion provides a power that is profoundly transforming. One convert explained how distressed she would be every time she passed an abattoir on her way to work and how angry it would make her. Through the practice of Buddhism she learnt to hold the animals and the workers in the abattoir in a compassionate light, seeing them freed from this situation of suffering. The practice of compassion dissolved her disdain and her distress, and the abattoir closed down 12 months later.

Western Buddhists in Australia recognise that the selfishness and hedonistic pursuit of individual needs is producing a morally bankrupt society unable to deal with pressing social justice issues. Samtani (1998:1) captures how this makes Buddhist ethics attractive:

It is again the ancient ideals of altruism and universal welfare that can sustain us. And they alone are beacon light in the enveloping darkness ahead. The Bodhisattva Ethics in this context presents a universal code of conduct in the world engrossed in promoting narrow and selfish ideals.

Western Buddhists are impressed with the ideals of compassionate action and many are engaged in compassionate services to prisoners, and to the aged and dying. Others are very active in movements for the release of animals about to be killed or facing death. Adams also notes (1985:85) the consensus among Western converts that Buddhism is beneficial to society and provides values for social well being.

The need for connectedness


Australian Western converts are strongly drawn by Buddha’s teachings that recognise the interdependence of all living things. Buddhism with its doctrines of independent co-arising provides a plausible explanation for the nature of interconnectedness that is compatible with the latest systems thinking. Also, Buddhism has at its heart a strong non-dualistic worldview. Through the practice of mindfulness and concentration which leads to a direct experience of impermanence and non-self, one wakes up to the nature of interbeing. As Tich Nhat Hahn (1995:184) elucidates

Some people say that Buddhist practice is to dissolve the self. They do not understand that there is no self to be dissolved. There is only the notion of self to be transcended….

The recognition of not self is the death of dualism. Anatta leads us to transcend separation, distinction and divisiveness. It takes away the grasping for ego over others, for us over them. When through the practice of mindfulness and concentration the nature of interbeing has been penetrated, then you are reborn. You have penetrated what Buddha terms bodhicitta, original mind, or the mind of enlightenment. It is then that one has become awake. It is from this place that one can alone come to understand nirvana described in The Tripitaka:

Nirvana is the area where there is no earth, water, fire and air: it is not the region of infinite space, nor that of infinite consciousness. It is not the region of nothing at all, nor the border between distinguishing and not distinguishing; not this world nor the other world; where there is neither sun nor moon. I will not call it coming and going, nor standing still, nor fading away, nor beginning. It is without foundation, without continuation and without stopping. It is the end of suffering (____, 1982:234)

Thich Nhat Hanh (1987, 63-4) powerfully expresses this process of overcoming dualistic thinking, and of penetrating interbeing in excerpts from his poignant poem:

Please call me by my true names

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond,
And I am also the grass-snake who,
Approaching in silence,
Feeds itself on the fog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones
My legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda
I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee
On a small boat,
Who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate
I am the sea pirate
My heart not yet capable of seeing and loving

It was the insight of Buddha in his great doctrine of “dependent origination.” Here no part of reality is self-existent. Each identifiable element of reality is related to a multiplicity of other elements, which serve as conditions on which it depends for its existence. Buddha was acutely aware of the implications of this pattern of existence and his discourses call attention to the need to recognise their interdependence with all living things in the environment.

Buddhist philosophy and practice are at the forefront of modern day environmental movements. Buddhism is the most popular religion among Australian people with a strong environmental consciousness. It provides a framework for a cosmic ecology. Badiner (1990: xvii) goes further and terms it: “Dharma Gaia” or earth consciousness. The sutta-nipata exemplifies this compassionate core in Buddhism as this excerpt illustrates: “thus as a mother with her own life guards the life of her own child, let all embracing thoughts for all that live be thine” (Kabilsingh: 1990; 12.). Most Australian Western Buddhists are profoundly committed to a worldview based on respect for all living beings and the acceptance of interconnectedness. This provides an alternative worldview to the western perspective of exploiting human and natural resources resulting in fragmentation of community, disappearing forests, extinction of species, and poisoned environments.



Australian Buddhists find in the Buddha’s teachings a process for developing one’s own inner sense of meaning, morality, health and peace. It provides the foundation for the development of compassion and wisdom in the individual’s life. It is a pathway to freedom from suffering. Buddhism is a great gift to westerners. The profund and transforming power of its teachings are poignantly captured in the Buddha’s farewell address to Ananda:

Herein, O Ananda, let a brother, as he dwells in the body, so regard the body that he, being strenuous, thoughtful, and mindful, may, whilst in the world, overcome the grief which arises from the body’s cravings

Those who either now or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help, but holding fast to the truth as their lamp, and seeking their salvation in the truth alone, shall not look for assistance to any one besides themselves. It is they who shall reach the topmost height… (Burtt, 1982:50)

Increasingly westerners feel free to find a philosophy that best meets their needs for meaning, healing and peace regardless of its cultural roots. Spae recognises this trend when he writes:

A new kind of spiritual man is emerging; he is an expansive man whose religious life is not tied to a monolithic culture fencing in one’s identity (1979:53).

In this milieu of spiritual investigative freedom, where spiritual teachings are assessed by the tools they can offer individuals to manage their lives, it is not surprising that Buddhism is an increasingly popular choice.


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Author: Dr Patricia Sherwood, Edith Cowan University, Dept of Cultural Studies