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Buddhism in Norway
Haavard Lorentzen

There are not many Buddhists in Norway, a country with 4.5 million inhabitants in the northern part of Europe. As a matter of fact, most Buddhists are of Vietnamese descendance, there are also a few with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, Thai and Cambodian background. And there are a few Norwegians too who have caught interest in this fascinating religion, and the number has increased slowly over the last couple of decades. It is difficult to estimate the total number of Buddhists in my country, because the different ethnic groups (Vietnamese, Cambodians etc.) are mostly organised separately. As for the Norwegian Buddhists only a few of them are organised or attached to a special group, mainly in the capital, Oslo. Buddhists throughout the country have to practice and study Buddhism on their own. In Oslo, however, there is a Theravada society, as well as different Mahayana schools, like the Chan (Zen), The Pure Land and also a small Tibetan monastery. So, a rough estimate of the total number of Buddhists in Norway would probably number approximately 10,000 people or so.

 The major religion of Norway is Christianity, the Lutheran (or Protestant) branch being the far largest. Christianity has been the dominant religion of my country for the last 900 years, the final change came after a major battle in the year 1030 which ended the Viking age and also the belief in the polytheistic Viking mythology where the major gods of worship were Odin (Wotan) and Tor. This religion was also mixed up with aspects of animism, a few traces of which we can still see in today’s Christmas celebration. Santa Claus being one, Originally Santa Claus was an underground, mysterious and magical figure, living in the deep forests, and he could both harm and be benevolent towards humans, dependent on whether he received food offerings or not.

 The second largest religion in Norway today is Islam, which numbers approximately 100,000 people, almost all of them of Middle East, Pakistan or North African origin. These people came to Norway during the 1970s as foreign workers, and also as refugees. There are several mosques in Oslo.

 The first people to introduce Buddhism in Norway were, ironically, Christian missionaries who had worked in East Asia, mostly in China. The missionaries had different attitudes towards other religions, many of them were quite hostile towards Buddhism, Taoism etc., while others caught a serious interest in these beliefs and advocated a tolerant and liberal attitude. Especially one person should be mentioned, his name was Reichelt, and he spent most of his life in China before the turn of the century. He spoke and read Chinese fluently, and translated several Buddhist and Taoist texts into Norwegian, among them the Tao Te-ching. Reichelt never changed in Christian belief, but he showed a tolerant and open minded attitude which deserves the deepest respect.

 There has also been a special interest for Tibet in my country, mostly because Tibet also was a country where Norwegian missionaries were active. After the Chinese occupation of the country, there has also been some political support for Dalai Lamas struggle for independence, although leading Norwegian politicians have been very reluctant to give him absolute support. When Dalai Lama visited Oslo in 1988, none of the leading politicians were willing to meet him. The risk of losing important economic contracts with China was probably the major reason for this cowardly act, which arose a lot of harm among ordinary people. However Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the year after.

 As mentioned earlier, one of the first to make Buddhism known in Norway, was a Christian missionary called Karl Ludvig Reichelt (1877-1952). His lexical data are as follows:

He was educated a primary school teacher, later he studied at the so-called Missionary School in Stavanger, and was sent out to do service in Ninsiang, Hunan province, China, in 1902. He stayed there for eight years, then he made further studies in Leipzeg, Germany, before going back to China as a teacher at the Lutheran Mission School, near Hankow. During a stay in Norway between 1920-22, he put forward plans for missionary work among Chinese Buddhist monks, based on other principles than those which had been used among Christian missionaries earlier. His main concern was based on a recognition of the religious values found in Buddhism, and he also wanted to integrate these values, together with rituals and concepts familiar to the Chinese, with the basic ideas found in the Christian religion. His employers in Norway could not accept these new ideas. Reinchelt therefore founded a new missionary institution based on his own principles in 1922. The center of Reinchelt’s mission was established in 1929. It was called Tao Fong Shan, located near Hong Kong.

 Reichelt spent most of his life in China, and wrote several books in Chinese, among others an introduction to The New Testament. Besides, he wrote several books about the religious life in Eastern Asia. The most important are the following: Kinas religioner (The Religions of China) 1913, Fra Ostens religiose liv (From the Religious Life of the East) 1922, Det rene land (The Pure Land) 1928, Mot Tibets grenser (Towards the Borders of Tibet) 1933, Fromhetstyper og helligdommer I Ost Asia (Piety and Holiness in Eastern Asia) 1947-49. (The titles given in English here, are direct translations of the Norwegian titles. Many of Reichelts books are translated into English and German, the titles of these editions may be different from those found in this article). In 1948 his book Laotse was published, this book included a translation of the Tao Te-ching. In a foreword to this book, the Norwegian professor Henry Henne writes: "First of all, Reichelt was a missionary. But he always kept an open mind. In a period when many of his contemporary’s looked down upon the traditions and the cultures of China, he himself felt a deep admiration for the people, the language and the country..(…). The study of the religious rituals and the texts, occupied much of his time. Through these studies, he achieved first hand knowledge about the literary sources, as well as the religious practices among both monks and lay people..(…). The deeper understanding achieved in this way, gave him the opportunity to see the tremendous religious and philosophical values found in Buddhism, as well as in newer and older forms of Taoism."

In 1947, one of Reichelts relatives, Gerhard M. Reichelt, translated and wrote an introduction to Hui Neng’s The Sixth Patriarch (Chinese: Lu-tsu Fa-pao-t’an-ching), as you know, the only Chinese Buddhist text given the honorable title of sutra. Together with D.T. Suzukis books, this was a major contribution to make ch’an Buddhism known in Scandinavia.

Other Scandinavians should also be mentioned here, first of all, the Danish scholar Poul Tuxen, who translated and commented on several major Buddhist texts. A new translation of the Dhammapada has recently been published in Denmark by Chr, Lindtner, a scholar also responsible for the translation of several of Nagarjunas texts (Ratnavali, Yuktisastika, Niraupamyastava, Paramarthastava), thus making the teachings of the Madhyamaka school available in a Scandinavian language.

 However, as Norwegian (as well as other Scandinavian languages) are spoken and read by rather few people, the majority of Buddhist texts will have to be read in English translations. As most Scandinavians speak and read English quite well, the major texts of Buddhism are made available through these translations. English has definitely become the language of Buddhism in the West.

 Knowledge of Buddhism in Norway today is mostly channeled through the Secondary School System. A brief introduction to Buddhism is given alongside with other major religions like Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Judaism and Christianity. As a teacher in these subjects for many years, I have noticed two different attitudes towards Buddhism among my students. One group finds it too abstract, too pessimistic and a bit peculiar, while others are catching a serious interest in the philosophical aspects of Buddhism. When I meet old students after many years and start to talk to them, surprisingly many say that they have been thinking about the lessons on Buddhism, they have borrowed books about the subject in the libraries, and a few of them have also started to study Buddhism at University level. All the four Universities in Norway offers the opportunity to study world religions, and after a basic course, the students may specialise in one particular religion.

 Like most other Western Countries, Norway has experienced a period when religion, philosophy and belief have lost much of its previous influence, but this development seems now to have come to a final end. There is a limit for material wealth too, and quite many young people start to look for deeper moral and philosophical values as fundaments in their lives. In this new development, Buddhism will play a major role.



Updated: 1-12-2000

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