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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 countries.

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 Turner.

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 Dalai Lama.

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 enlightenment attained.

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 than Shangri-la.

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 ordained.

"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 Australian visit.

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 decade ago.

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 internet site.

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 coincide."

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 cringe."

Joyce Morgan (25-September-2001)


Updated: 26-9-2001

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