Buddha in suburbia
by Joyce Morgan
(Sydney Morning Herald
newspaper, September 25, 2001, Australia)
Good thinking ... Cybermonk Venerable
Pannyavaro. Turned off by materialism, Australians are looking to Buddhism for answers at
Newtown's Vajrayana Institute. Photos: Edwina Pickles and Quentin Jones
With its emphasis on self-awareness
and adaptability to Western lifestyles, Buddhism has emerged as a spiritual third way.
Joyce Morgan examines why Australians have embraced it more enthusiastically than most
The inner-city terrace was crowded with
people watching the maroon-robed monk bless a large shrine that dominated the backyard. It
was an auspicious moment for the largely Western members of the Tibetan Buddhist
meditation and teaching centre. Deep, resonant chanting was carried on the breeze along
with the scent of incense.
But another aroma began to mingle with
the incense. Next door, the neighbours worshipped at a different Australian shrine. At
their weekend ritual, sausages sizzled on the backyard barbecue.
The Buddha meets suburbia. The scene
improbable a decade ago is not commonplace, yet it reflects the growing fascination of
Australians with the ancient tradition. Buddhism is the stuff of Hollywood films today and
attracts such high-profile adherents as Richard Gere, Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass and Tina
Closer to home, a group of chanting
Buddhist monks who performed in a draughty Pitt Street hall two years ago sold out their
Opera House debut in July. This came shortly after 600 businesspeople turned up to hear a
lama talk in the city, and last year's quirky Australian-Bhutanese movie The Cup, about a
monastery of soccer-mad monks, became a surprise hit.
Shaved heads and flowing robes will be
hard to avoid in Sydney in the coming months, with a Buddhism exhibition at the Art
Gallery of NSW, a meeting of the World Buddhist Sangha Council, a conference for lay
people at the University of Western Sydney, a Buddhist blessing on the opening weekend of
the Sydney Festival and, next year, the fourth visit of the exiled Tibetan leader, the
Is this all a temporary infatuation
with photogenic characters in exotic costumes, with the bells and the smells - a
21st-century form of Edward Said's orientalism? Is it a temporary staging post for aging
baby boomers? Or is Buddhism's philosophy, based on compassion, understanding and
stillness, speaking to a deeper hunger?
Nietzsche may have declared God dead
more than a century ago, but a yearning for something beyond the mundane has not proved
fatal. After the drunken materialism of the 1980s, the Western world woke up to a hangover
of increased depression and stress, social fragmentation, retrenchments and disenchantment
with religious and political institutions.
It was fertile soil for an ethic that
was non-materialistic and offered an insight into perpetual change and suffering. And add
to that a unique phenomenon: the emergence of a generation of Buddhists monks and teachers
who, for the first time, could speak English or were familiar with the Western mindset.
Talk to anyone - psychotherapists,
Christian clergy, Buddhist monks, atheists - and virtually all point to a disillusionment
with materialism as a key to the appeal of Buddhism, whose core belief is that all living
beings suffer as a result of craving and aversion - suffering that can be overcome and
Buddhism teaches the solutions lie
within ourselves and emphasises awareness of the mind as a means to do this - hence the
use of meditation - and to develop wisdom and compassion. It also espouses karma - that
every cause has an effect.
These humanistic principles have seen
Buddhism become the fastest-growing religion in Australia, although there are qualifiers
to this claim. First, it is coming off a low base. In addition, most of the 200,000 people
who stated they were Buddhist at the 1996 Census are Asian immigrants or their children.
In 1991, it was about 140,000.
Nonetheless, the number of Buddhist
groups in Australia has more than doubled since the mid-1990s, from 167 organisations in
1995 to 361 now. Tibetan Buddhist organisations, the form that has attracted most
Westerners, grew particularly strongly from 36 to 100 over the same period.
The number of Buddhist converts in
Australia is not known, but would be small. And many lay people, even with long
involvement in Buddhist activities, are hesitant to call themselves Buddhists. Among
typical responses were "I ticked it on the Census, but I don't know that I really
am", "I'm a very bad one", "I have an interest", "People who
don't know much about Buddhism think I am".
Yet its impact has extended beyond
those who would consider themselves Buddhists. Probably only a small percentage of the
capacity crowds who attended the Dalai Lama's talks in Australia five years ago would
consider themselves Buddhist. Each time he has appeared in Sydney, he has spoken in a
larger venue. Sydney University's Great Hall for his first visit in 1982, Darling
Harbour's Convention Centre in 1992 and the Entertainment Centre in 1996. He might not yet
fill Stadium Australia, but clearly there is an audience curious to hear.
British writer Vicki Mackenzie, author
of Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom, believes that although the religion has
become popular across most Western countries, it has been embraced by Australia more
strongly than elsewhere. Mackenzie, who lived here for many years, says Australia is more
open to new influences than Europe, which is constrained by the weight of history, and
America, with its Bible Belt.
Other observers point to our proximity
to Asia, which fed the hippie trail in the 1970s, and a strong anti-authoritarian streak
in the Australian psyche. Certainly that was part of its attraction for Robina Courtin, an
Australian who became a Tibetan nun 25 years ago, and the focus of the recent
AFI-nominated documentary Chasing Buddha. "It demands we use our own wisdom and logic
to check the teachings out, not blindly accept them or do them out of guilt. That's a very
refreshing idea for Westerners," says Courtin.
Melbourne psychotherapist Peter
O'Connor - a non-Buddhist - offers another framework for its appeal. Christianity, with
its emphasis on God the Father, good and bad, evokes a parent-child bond. In short, a
vertical relationship. By contrast, he says, Buddhism is horizontal. "It's about
taking responsibility for yourself and not relying on some force outside ... it's a
relationship between equal and competing parts of ourselves, rather than attributing that
older and more mature part somewhere else," he says.
He suspects there's a qualitative shift
under way as Australians move from the parent-child relationship to something more mature.
Others are more sceptical. Western Buddhism is a media curiosity, according to Father
Brian Lucas, spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney. It's a curiosity that
creates an impression of more interest than there is. "The culture of Buddhism is so
foreign in Western culture that a non-Asian in a Buddhist temple dressed in Buddhist robes
is good stuff of media. So they are forever turning up on [the ABC TV program] Compass and
other religious programs on television," Lucas says.
There is a different message, however,
on the shelves of Sydney bookshops. Dymocks stocks about 60 Buddhist titles and describe
the books as solid sellers, particularly the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness. At Better
Read Than Dead in Newtown, three of last year's bestsellers in the inspirational section
were written by the Dalai Lama. The Adyar bookshop in the city also has three Buddhist
books among its bestsellers: The Art of Happiness, Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of
Living and Dying and Jack Kornfield's After the Ecstacy, the Laundry.
Authors such as Kornfield and the
Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh have crossed into a general market and appeal to people
interested in meditation and spirituality even if they don't belong to a Buddhist centre,
says Adyar's assistant manager, Gillean Dodge.
Most interest is in books on the
Mahayana school of Buddhism (found in north Asia, including Tibet, Vietnam and China) but
interest is increasing in the Theravadan school (found in south Asia, including Thailand,
Burma and Sri Lanka). There is less interest in Japanese Zen, reflecting the type of
teaching centres available in Sydney.
One of the biggest influences on the
spread of Buddhism in the West was the emergence of the hippie trail through India and
Nepal in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these psychedelic dreamers were no doubt
muddle-headed as they clutched their books by Lobsang Rampa - the so-called mystic monk
who turned out to be Cyril Hoskins, a British clerk who lived rather closer to Swindon
Yet the hippies were among the first to
encounter respected Tibetan teachers, refugees from the 1959 Chinese invasion, some of
whom have since settled in Australia.
Not that the Tibetans were enamoured of
the dope-smoking Westerners filling their rucksacks with prayer beads and incense. Tenzing
Tsewang, a Sydney-based former monk who lived in India for many years, recalls the hippies
were viewed with suspicion - as people who had run out of things to do in the world and
were looking for novelty. And perhaps they were. "We used to think only Tibetan
masters have compassion enough to help them," he says.
When the hippies began writing letters
back about the characters they had met, some of those at home became alarmed. Cheryl
Gough, director of Newtown's Vajrayana Institute, recalls her horror when two friends,
after encountering a couple of lamas in Nepal, wrote home that they were going to become
"Money was pooled and we sent two
or three people over there to save them," she says. But the rescue mission didn't go
as planned. They wrote back that not only were they impressed with what they had seen, but
they had invited the two monks to Australia. The two lamas, Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe,
had established Kopan monastery just outside Kathmandu, which has become central to the
spread of Buddhism in the West.
The pair came to Australia in 1974 and
in their wake the first of 13 centres around Australia was established. Their network, the
Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, initiated the Dalai Lama's 1996
No single event has raised the profile
of Buddhism in the West more than the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama
in 1989. Few today fail to recognise this figure. But it was a different matter just a
I recall walking through the then
sleepy northern Indian hill-station Dharamsala to his residence a couple of weeks before
the Nobel Prize announcement to seek an interview. With Indian telephones and faxes
notoriously unreliable and emails embryonic, the atmosphere was sufficiently informal that
journalists arriving unannounced on the doorstep were known to have been granted an
impromptu audience. I imagine arrangements are necessarily more formal these days.
In a tiny Surry Hills terrace, Buddhist
texts are lined up neatly beside computer programs, CD-ROMS and internet books. A
shaven-headed monk sits at his computer. From his modest living room Venerable Pannyavaro,
a 60-year-old Australian Theravadan cybermonk, operates the world's largest Buddhist
The non-sectarian BuddhaNet, among the
more unusual developments in Buddhism in Sydney, uses the latest technology to make
Buddhist teachings freely available. The Web site (www.buddhanet.net) provides information
on centres in Australia and overseas, computer art, teaching materials, a "what's
on", information on the various strands of Buddhism and an online magazine,
Buddhazine, and articles on contemporary Buddhism, including pieces on the relationship
between psychotherapy and meditation.
Pannyavaro gives meditation classes in
the Blue Mountains and, unusually for a Western-born monk, also teaches in the Asian
community. Yet whatever community he teaches, one thing doesn't change. Those attending
centres cross all age groups, from dreadlocked Generation X-ers to grey-haired
seventysomethings, but about three-quarters are female.
The past two decades have seen a number
of Westerners become monks and nuns (sangha), yet their position in the West can be
problematic. While Asian Buddhists respect a foreigner in the tradition, the Western
approach is different. Westerners, although respectful of Asian sangha, seem less so of
Europeans who have taken up robes. "There's a change in roles that hasn't really been
worked out between lay Buddhists and the sangha and where they fit in," he says.
And in contrast with Asia, some
Australian sangha are becoming involved in social work in counselling, visiting prisons or
in hospices. Working with the business community is a new area for some Sydney Buddhists.
The Rigpa group, one of the fastest-growing Tibetan organisations in Australia, held two
booked-out seminars in Sydney in March, including one at the Australian Graduate School of
Management, where several hundred suits came to hear Sogyal Rinpoche discuss practical
aspects of Buddhism.
Rigpa member and one of the organisers
Sue Pieters-Hawke, Bob Hawke's daughter, was surprised at the response. She and other
Rigpa members are designing a series of training and workshops for business people to be
held next year.
Buddhism and bottom lines might seem an
uneasy fit, but Pieters-Hawke does not believe they are incompatible. That's not to say
there aren't conflicts that need to be worked through, she says. But people are
increasingly frustrated by the tension between who they are as human beings, who they need
to be at work, and seeking ethical ways to resolve the difference.
Buddhism's focus on training the mind
has much to offer business, she believes. "The outcomes over time are increased
mental clarity, speed, sharpness, breadth and depth of perception, capacity to read and
understand situations and an ability to integrate intuition with intellectual
knowledge," says Pieters-Hawke. "You don't need to be a Buddhist to benefit from
training that enhances that."
With its insight into the nature of the
mind, Buddhism has not surprisingly been of interest to Western psychotherapy. Renate
Ogilvie, a Sydney Buddhist and psychotherapist, believes there are common areas between
the two, but warns against "Buddhism-lite", a tendency for some psychotherapists
to nibble at the edges, seeing its spirituality as an add-on to a fully-rounded self.
Buddhism is a belief system that does
not seek converts and a number of commentators have pointed out that it does not require,
nor is it necessarily desirable, for people to abandon their own religious traditions.
What is emerging is a number of people who see themselves as Christian-Buddhists or
Jewish-Buddhists. US-based Courtin, who will teach in Australia for three months from
November, says the longer she has been involved with Buddhism the greater her appreciation
has grown for her Catholic upbringing.
Indeed, Ashfield Uniting Church's the
Rev Bill Crews, who has worked with several Sydney Buddhist organisations, says he's
observed a number of Christians who are discovering via Buddhism a deeper, more
contemplative spirituality in their own religion.
"There's a development of internalised
spirituality," he says. "Christianity is learning a lot from Buddhism about
that. Christianity is discovering through [14th-century mystic] Meister Eckhart and others
that there's actually quite a tradition there that needs to be worked on. There's a lot of
mediation going on in Christianity. It's what you expect when two great religions
Certainly Buddhism may appear
fashionable today and some will no doubt discard it with last season's flares. That
doesn't seem to worry its practitioners. But at a time of high stress and social
disintegration, others are finding value in the ancient tradition, whether they consider
themselves Buddhist or not.
"It's the nature of Buddhism to
evolve. It's always taken on the colour of the country it has arrived in," says
Mackenzie. "Buddhism is big enough and strong enough to survive the fashionable
Joyce Morgan (25-September-2001)