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Buddhism in Germany
Martin H. Petrich

Rudolf Doering is a Zenpriest. He lives with his Japanese wife and his three children in his Buddhist temple in Dinkelscherben, a village in the Southern part of Germany. Everyday he practices meditation and recites the sutras. Several times a month he conducts some meditation-courses, called Sesshin. Born as a Catholic he found the way to Buddhism about ten years ago, when he traveled to Asia. Zazen (sitting meditation) became for him more meaningful than to attend religious services on Sunday. After he met his Japanese Zen-master Hozumi Gensho Roshi in Japan, it became clear for him: he wanted to become Buddhist. For many years he devoted his time for meditation and in 1991 he was ordained as priest in Japan and received the Buddhist name Dorin Genpo. Currently he teaches interested people Zen-meditation and gives regularly Dhaka-talks.

His story is not a unique one. In recent years Buddhism became very popular in Germany. More and more people find their way to Buddhism. Some even become monk or nun, others practice as laymen. But the history of Buddhism in Germany is still very young. The 19th century can be seen as the time, in which Buddhism entered Europe. Through reports of traveler and colonial officer people in Europe learned about this foreign religion. In Germany intellectuals and artists were the first one, who took interest in Buddhism. This is not surprising: Germany is known as the country of great poets and philosopher. Philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche or poets like Goethe, Schiller and Hesse are admired all over the world. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was so much attracted by the Buddhist philosophy, that he began to study the then available Buddhist scriptures. Already in 1879 Friedrich Max Mueller (1823-1900) published the "Sacred Books of the Buddhists" in English. He was one of the founder of the London based Pali Text Society (PTS) in 1881. The German translation of the main parts of the Pali Canon was done by the Austrian Karl-Friedrich Neumann (1865-1915). Another German, Hermann Oldenberg (1854-1920) wrote a biography of Gautama Buddha in the year 1881. His book is still one of the outstanding studies about the life of Buddha. Through those publications and German translations of Buddhist scriptures more and more people got knowledge about Buddhism. Many young people found their way to Buddhism through the works of the famous poet Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). After giving up his studies in Protestant theology he came in contact with Indian philosophy and Buddhism and was very influenced by its thinking. Hesse got in touch with Asian cultures through a three-month-journey to Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the year 1911. His book ‘Siddhartha’, published in 1922, and many other writings became so much popular all over the world that they were translated even in many Asian languages (including Vietnamese).

But only to study Buddhist philosophy was for some Germans not enough. They wanted to organize themselves in Buddhist communities in order to practice Buddhism and to promote Buddhist teaching. In 1903 Karl Seidenstucker (1876-1936) founded the first German Buddhist organisation in Leipzig, called "The Buddhist Mission in Germany" and published in magazine, ‘The Buddhist’. In the same year another German, Anton W.F. Gueth (1878-1957), entered the Buddhist Sangha as the first German Novize in Rangoon (Burma). He became well known under his Buddhist name Nyanatiloka. Numerous Buddhist scriptures were translated into German (among others the famous Visuddhimagga) by him. In 1991 he found a monastery, the socalled ‘Island Hermitage’ in Sri Lanka, and attracted many Western disciples. Even today the Island Hermitage remains as a popular place for western Buddhists, willing to live as Buddhist monks and nuns in monastery. In Germany, further Buddhist groups were found in the years after the first World War. The medical doctor Paul Dahlke (1865-1928) established in 1924 the Buddhist house in Berlin-Frohnau, which became the center of German Buddhism. In his lectures, which attracted numerous people, he tried to explain the anatta-doctrin in a modern scientific way and called his Buddhism ‘Neobuddhism’. Today the Buddhist house is owned by a Buddhist organisation from Sri Lanka and some Singhalese monks are living constantly there. Another Buddhist community was found in 1921 by Georg Grimm (1868-1945) in Munich. He rejected Dahlkes way of Gautama Buddha within the Pali-canon in order to find out what Gautama Buddha really taught. He called his way "Ancient Buddhism" and rejected all traditional schools, since all of them misinterpreted according to him Buddha’s original teachings.

German Buddhism was in the beginning mainly dominated by Theravada-Buddhism. Japanese Zen-Buddhism became known only after the World War II. Several Japanese Zen-influenced philosopher were attracted by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, some of them even studied under him at the University of Freiburg, e.g. Tanabe Hajime. Heideggers interpretation of nothingness was compared with the Mahayana-Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Hisamatsu Shin’ichi and especially D.T Suzuki through his numerous publications introduced Zen-Buddhism to a broader auditorium. From the sixties onwards Zen-Buddhist groups spread all over the country. After the time of intellectual reception of Buddhism, meditation-practice became more and more the center of interest. Several Japanese Zen-master visited Germany and other European countries regularly in order to conduct meditation-courses, a few even settled down, e.g. Taisen Deshimaru Roshi in France.

In 1962 only 2000 Buddhists were registered in the 1955 founded German Buddhist Union (DBU), the umbrella organisation of today more than 30 German Buddhist groups. Now, there are altogether some 70000 Buddhists living in Germany (with a population of about 80 million), both Asian migrants (about 40000 Buddhists) and native Germans. All the big Buddhist branches are represented: Theravada-Buddhism, Mahayana-Buddhism and an impressive number of followers of the Tibetan tradition (Vajrayana). Although the number of Buddhist followers is still small, Buddhism is very popular. Bookstores are full with Buddhist literature and the interest in meditation practice is very high. But compared with the centerfold tradition in Vietnam and other Asian countries, Buddhism is still at the beginning in Germany. There is not a German Buddhism, yet (like Vietnamese Buddhism) and there is a lack of qualified Buddhist teacher. Rather there are several Asian Buddhist traditions practiced in Germany. But there is also a chance. While in Asian Theravada – and Mahayana-Buddhism are strictly separated (except in Vietnam), in the West the different traditions can come in contact with each other and exchange their knowledge and different approaches. At present Buddhist studies are unfortunately not accepted at the German Universities, unlike Christian studies are. While in Asia mainly ordained monks and nuns are teaching the Dhamma, in the West there are also many lay-followers (women and men) among the teacher. But due to the fact that more and more migrants settle down in Germany, the country becomes also more multi-religious. More than two million Muslims are already living in the country and the number of Buddhists, too is increasing. So we can be hopeful, that in Germany the Lotus flower will have bright blossoms in the future.



Updated: 1-12-2000

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