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.
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.”
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.”