Buddhism in Europe


Buddhism in Europe

At the beginning of the 21st century, the presence of Buddhism in Europe is characterized by a diversity of traditions, schools, orders, and lineages:

Since the 1970s interest in Buddhism among Europeans has grown steadily, accompanied by the arrival of Buddhist refugees and immigrants from Asian countries. Of Europe’s estimated 1 million Buddhists, about 2/3rds are of Asian ancestry.

Nevertheless, Buddhism’s public face in Europe and its representation in the media are dominated by convert Buddhists, leaving migrant Buddhists for the most part unseen and unrecognized.

The beginning of Buddhism in Europe can be dated to the mid-19th century, though fragmentary information about Buddhist customs and concepts had trickled into Europe since the 17th century.

From the 1850s onward, Europe witnessed a boom of translations of Buddhist works, as well as studies and portraits of Buddhism:

European philosophers and scholars such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922), and Hermann Oldenberg (1854-1920) helped spread Buddhist concepts through their treatises and translations:

These scholars clearly favoured the teachings of the Pāli Canon, which they assumed to be pure and original.

The first converted European Buddhists appeared during the 1880s in response to these studies; most converts were educated middle-class men.

In accordance with the dominance of Pāli Buddhist ideas, a few young men from England and Germany became Theravāda monks in Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Śrī Lanka):

Most prominent among these were

- Allan Bennett (1872-1923), who was ordained as Ānanda Metteyya in 1902 and established the first Buddhist Mission in the United Kingdom in 1903,

and Anton W. F. Gueth (1878-1957), who was ordained as Nyanatiloka in 1904.

Ethical and intellectual interest in the teachings of Theravada Buddhism gained organizational momentum in Europe with the founding of new Buddhist societies:

The first of these was the Society for the Buddhist Mission in Germany, formed by the Indologist Karl Seidenstucker (1876-1936) in Leipzig in 1903.

Through lectures, pamphlets, and books, the first professed Buddhists tried to win members from the educated middle and upper strata of society.

During the 1920s further Buddhist societies and parishes evolved, many with the support of the Ceylonese reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933).

In 1922 Hermann Hesse published his famous work "Siddhartha", which has been translated into many languages.

Leading Buddhists included Georg Grimm (1868-1945) and Paul Dahlke (1865-1928) in Germany, and Christmas Humphreys (1901-1983) in England.

In 1924 Dr. Paul Dahlke established the first German Buddhist monastery, the "The Buddhist House" in Berlin.

The schools of Grimm and Dahlke continued their work within small private circles during the Nazi period, when Buddhists were regarded with suspicion as pacifists and eccentrics.

With the exception of those who had abandoned Judaism and become Buddhists, however, no official or open persecution of Buddhism took place.

After World War II, small numbers of Buddhists reconstructed former Theravāda-oriented groups or founded new ones.

Beginning in the 1950s, Japanese Buddhist traditions, such as Zen, Jodo Shinshū, and Soka Gakkai, were brought to Europe.

Zen became especially popular during the 1960s and 1970s; many local groups were established and Zen teachers began touring Europe.

The Zen boom was followed by a sharp rise of interest in Tibetan Buddhism:

Beginning in the mid-1970s, high ranking Tibetan teachers conducted preaching tours in Europe. Within two decades, converts to Tibetan Buddhism outnumbered converts to all other Buddhist traditions in many countries.

This rapid increase in the numbers of European Buddhists, accompanied by an expansion of already existing institutions, led to a considerable rise in the number of Buddhist groups and centres:

In Britain, for example, the number of Buddhist organizations increased from 74 to some 400 between 1979 and 2000.

In Germany, interest in Buddhism resulted in an increase in the number of Buddhist institutions from around 40 in 1975 to more than 500 meditation circles, groups, centres, and societies by 1999.

Comparable growth rates occurred in other European countries, such as Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

Eastern European countries also witnessed a growing interest in Buddhism following the political changes of 1989:

Numerous Buddhist groups, Tibetan and Zen in particular, were founded in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and western Russia:

Visits by European and North American Buddhist teachers, as well as a longing for spiritual alternatives to the established Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, brought about a steady growth of Buddhism in Eastern Europe.


A Side-note:

Being among the first of those who met Buddhism in Eastern Europe, in a small Baltic country Latvia – I would like to add:

My later observations of European Buddhists show an important diversity of motives that brought European people into Buddhism:

In Eastern Europe – in former Soviet Union and probably most of the Soviet Block countries – we had no religions at all, in a traditional sense, for a period of 50-70 years, prior 1991….

Indeed, a few of traditional Christian churches existed, but they were completely pushed out of the public eye, almost underground and very, very quiet and regulated by the Communist Party;

It means – a couple of generations were grown up without any scarce idea about religions at all;

However – many goodwill people – believed – in Communism, or at least – what was known as a Popular Communism – through literature, movies and so –

- We were grown up always believing in moral improvement and perfection, service to the humanity and those in sufferings, believed in a better future world – when everyone would be a morally perfect being, there would be no more any suffering or crimes or weeping….

Also – many believed in spiritual/ extrasensory healing, psychology and such; but we knew very little if anything about God or Religious cults….

So, when Communism system fell down, and many other religions opened their doors – Buddhism was a natural choice for many former Soviet & East European idealists.

What I meant to say with the above…

Many West European people where in a very different circumstances…. Many have come into Buddhism – after being either intentionally Atheists & Non-Religious or as a reaction or some antipathy against their traditional religions.

It is easy to notice….

While for me – every religion – is a new form of a Communism,

many Westerners try hard to disassociate themselves from “Religion” – they better call themselves “Buddhism is a science” or “Vedic Science” and so on….


In addition to Western convert Buddhists, considerable numbers of Asian Buddhists have immigrated to Europe since the 1960s:

In France, especially in Paris, large communities of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have emerged.

In Great Britain, the Netherlands, and other Western European nations, refugees, immigrants, and businesspeople from Asian countries have found work or asylum.

In the process of settling down, religious and cultural institutions were established to help immigrants preserve their ethnic identity and build a home away from home.

Still, relative to their absolute numbers, Asian Buddhists in Europe have established few Buddhist institutions.

The rapid rise in the number of Buddhist centres and societies is largely due to the work of convert Buddhists, who, in addition to following established forms of Theravada, Mahāyāna, and Tibetan Buddhism, also founded new Buddhist orders:

These include the Ārya Maitreya Maṇḍala order, founded by the German Lama Anagārika Govinda (born Ernst Lothar Hoffmann, 1898-1985) in 1933,

and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, established by the British Sangharakṣita (born August 26, 1925 as Dennis Philip Edward Lingwood) in 1967.

In many countries, however, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism remain foremost, superseding the early dominance of Theravada.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Buddhism in Europe became firmly established in organizational form:

In addition to the numerous local Buddhist groups and centres, in many countries national umbrella societies were created to enhance Buddhist dialogue and activity:

In Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, such national societies have become well respected representatives of Buddhism.

The European Buddhist Union was founded in 1975, but this organization has had little impact.

Austria officially recognized Buddhism as a religion entitled to special rights, such as school teaching and broadcast time, in 1983.

Representatives of the various Buddhist traditions in Germany adopted what they called a “Buddhist Confession” in 1985, although they failed to win state recognition.

The dynamic growth during the 1970s and 1980s included a professionalization of European Buddhism in terms of leadership, book and journal marketing, and the staging of public conventions.

In addition, an increasing number of female and male convert Buddhists took on professional roles by becoming priests, nuns, monks, or full-time lay teachers.

A second generation of European Buddhist teachers is maturing now, an important development that has not yet caught on among immigrant Buddhist communities.

Though Buddhism is likely to remain a minority tradition in Europe during the 21st century, secure foundations have been laid, ensuring that Buddhism will become an accepted part of Europe’s landscape of religions.