Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Buddhism in Australia: An Emerging Field of Study

Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Buddhism in Australia: An Emerging Field of Study

Article excerpt


In 2006, Paul D. Numrich (2008) posed the question of whether contemporary scholarship on North American Buddhism constituted a distinct "field of study" and identified several factors that defined both academic disciplines and fields. This paper applies Numrich's criteria to the study of Buddhism in Australia, in its multiple and diverse forms, suggesting that it is an emerging field of study. While there has been an increase in historical, anthropological, and sociological scholarship in recent years, a comprehensive analysis of Buddhism in Australia, and particularly its impact on Australian life and culture, is yet to be conducted. This paper argues that such a study is both timely and necessary, given that Buddhism is the second largest religion in Australia, and we appear to be entering an "Asian century."

The need for further research on Buddhism in Australia

While the presence of Buddhism in Australia dates back to at least the 1840s, and Buddhism is currently Australia's second largest and fastest growing religion, it has received cursory scholarly attention (ABS 2006; Barker and Rocha, 2011: 1-2).2 Consequently Australians have a limited understanding of the history and significance of this major world religion in their local context (Croucher, 1989: 123; Barker and Rocha, 2011: 2). In the late 1980s, in his History of Buddhism in Australia, Paul Croucher concluded that:

what we are witnessing now is a Buddhism in transition, a Buddhism only half-digested. Australian Buddhists ... have as yet little or no sense of their own history, and so find it difficult to make any projections as to the eventual form this complex tapestry will take... The various living traditions of Buddhism (as opposed to merely our ideas about them) are now meeting each other on Australian soil for the first time, like distant relatives, and hence the dialogue between them is of great moment. (1989: 123)

Over twenty years later, Australian participants in Ruth Fitzpatrick's (forthcoming) study3 expressed similar sentiments. One asks: "How is it [Buddhism] working? I don't think it's working. It's just present at the moment. I think the seeds are still in the ground. That's the way it feels to me." In 2012, understanding Buddhism's place in Australian life and culture is still very much a work in progress.

In 2006, Buddhists comprised 2.1% of the Australian population (ABS 2006). According to Michelle Barker and Cristina Rocha (2011: 1, 15) the dramatic growth in the number of Buddhists in Australia can be attributed to both Asian immigration, and mainstream Australian converts to Buddhism. Indeed Barker and Rocha have observed that Buddhism in Australia is internally diverse and influenced by its geographical proximity to Asia, Australia's multicultural policies and interactions with Buddhism in Europe and America. Buddhists from China and Sri Lanka first began immigrating to Australia in the 1840s Gold Rush period, and since the demise of the White Australia Policy and the end of the Vietnam War, large numbers of Buddhists who were refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam began settling in Australia. Buddhists from Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore also came as refugees or migrants to Australia from the 1970s onward (Barker and Rocha, 2011: 2-3). Prominent Buddhist teachers and practitioners have been visiting Australian shores since the turn of the 20th Century, attracting many converts to Buddhism (Croucher, 1989), and the Dalai Lama continues to draw vast crowds and prolific media coverage whenever he visits Australia (Barker and Rocha, 2011: 1; ). Yet the place of Buddhism in Australian society has only recently begun to attract a significant amount of scholarly interest.

This paper presents an analysis of scholarly publications on the various manifestations of Buddhism in Australia to date and of developments within the field of Buddhist Studies and studies of religion more generally in relation to Buddhism in Australia. …

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