Buddhism Spreads Down Under as Asians Change Australia

by Andrew Lam, Pacific News Service, Jun 30, 2005

Once oriented toward Europe, Australia today describes itself as part of Asia, a change reflected in many Australians' embrace of Buddhism, the second-largest religion in the country. But tensions resulting from Asian immigration remain.

SYDNEY, Australia -- In West Sydney, the smoke one sees drifting over from a neighbor?s fence may not be the shrimp sizzling on the old barbie, but drifting incense. Buddhism is rising fast here in the land Down Under, and is now the second-largest religion after Christianity.

Immigrants can constitute up to half of the population in certain West Sydney districts. Citywide, more than 50 temples dot the landscape, and in New South Wales, Australia?s most populous state, there are more than 150. They range from the enormous Chinese Mingyue temple that sits on three acres to the tiny, converted private residence that is now the Vietnamese Thien Hoa Nunnery. Buddhism is changing a country whose compass had once steadfastly pointed toward Europe.

In the posh Mingyue compound, which boasts a handful of the largest temples in the southern hemisphere, the visitor gets the feeling of being in Beijing or Taipei. Golden statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva line the walls, while throngs of worshippers bow and chant in Chinese amid drifting incense.

In the Cambodian or Vietnamese temple, on the other hand, one is surrounded by children?s laughter and old folks cooking in the courtyard. It?s typical of immigrants? temples, doubling up as a place where children come to study, do their homework, learn temple music, dance and speak their own language.

According to Cuong Le, an Asian Art expert for the Liverpool Powerhouse Art Center, which will curate the exhibition ?Buddha in Suburbia? for the Fall 2006, there?s a tour ?mostly for Australians? that visits Buddhist temples in West Sydney, because so many have sprung up so quickly there. ?I myself keep finding more temples, more variations, and the exhibition is getting much bigger than I?d expected,? Le says.

Australia, once a homogenous Western country founded by convicts sent from England in the late 18th century, had traditionally kept its doors closed to immigrants from Asia. But in the mid-1970s, the doors slowly opened to Asian immigrants as trade with Asia increased. These days, the continent publicly describes itself as ?part of Asia.? Asian immigrants now make up 10 percent of the population of 22 million. Asians are expected to reach a quarter of the population in 2020.

Buddhism is an inevitable outcome of the demographic shift. Yet, not all is well in the country whose favorite line is ?No worries, mate!? Fear of Asianization has caused some political leaders to have second thoughts about Australian hospitality toward Asia, and hate crimes are not unknown here.

According to the documentary ?Over the Fence,? shown on public television recently, Buddha is apparently not welcome in every suburb. Some neighbors of a Cambodian Buddhist temple complained that the chanting was frightening their horses. In another neighborhood, residents called the police because the Buddhist chanting was too loud and the number of cars on weekends was creating traffic in the small street.

While the government is still committed to cultural diversity, there?s a growing backlash fueled by the fear that multiculturalism will put an end to Australia?s national identity.

For instance, Pauline Hanson, a one-time independent member of Australia's parliament, vaulted into the international limelight by delivering anti-immigrant diatribes. ?I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians -- if I can invite who I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country,? she once declared.

But for isolationists, perhaps it?s too late. The influx of Asian has changed Australia radically, and according to some, for the better. In a recent article on Buddhism in Australia, art historian B.N. Goswamy, wrote: ?The number of distinguished Australians -- scholars, members of the business community, bureaucrats -- who are not only drawn towards Buddhism, but are practicing Buddhists, comes, at least to the outsiders, as a surprise.?

Yet, Buddhism first came to Australia not through recent Asian immigration but a via Dutch migrant named Leo Berkeley, who came into contact with a Sri Lankan monk and was instructed into the Dharma -- Buddhist teachings -- 50 years ago. Berkeley went on to found the Buddhist Society of New South Wales, which continues to flourish today.

Cambodian monk Achang E, at Wat Khemarangsaram, says there?s no real problem with the temples? neighbors. ?When we have big events, we go around the neighborhood to ask permission and to ask them to join in. I find people are generous and tolerant in general.?

It also helps that non-Asians are converting en masse. John Brown, an artist, has been a practitioner of feng shui and Buddhism for 15 years. ?I love everything about Buddhism. From ceremonies to the idea of enlightenment to the idea of being compassionate to others and all living beings,? he says.

Perhaps Buddhism, a traditionally non-proselytizing religion, is thriving in places like Australia because it is, in many ways, compatible with the needs of living in an increasingly global society. Barrie Unsworth, former premier of New South Wales, once addressed the Buddhist community thus: ?As followers of [Buddha?s] Path, you bring to your new life in New South Wales that same spirit of tolerance and gentleness and kindness that has continued through more than two and a half thousand years of your culture. That spirit is entirely complementary to the path of multiculturalism that I see as the future of this state.?

But for Cuong Le, who hails from Vietnam and is himself a Buddhist, the ?Buddha In Suburbia? exhibition has proved anything but calming. ?It?s been exhausting trying to coordinate with all the monks and artists.?

Still, Le has plans for something that seems obvious but potentially explosive as a follow-up exhibit -- the influence of Asian culture on Australia. ?We?ll call it ?All Things Asians Are Becoming Us.??

Andrew Lam is a PNS editor and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," forthcoming from Heyday Books this fall.