History of Buddhism in Victoria

The Gold Rush Period

From the 1840s onwards, Chinese labourers and gold-miners began arriving in Australia.  The average stay was only five years, but others immigrated permanently. Only a very small proportion of Chinese would have identified as Buddhist, as most had syncretic beliefs and practices that included aspects of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Joss Houses, the earliest Temples, were established on the Gold Fields, and in South Melbourne, and were often constructed in a hostile and xenophobic environment (Croucher 1989: 2-4). According to Census data, there were 2, 677 Buddhists in Victoria in 1854 and 26, 223 in 1861 (Adam & Hughes 1996: 41).

Buddhism, Spiritualism and Theosophy

At the turn of the 20th century Spiritualism, Transcendentalism and Theosophy were quite popular among well-educated urban Australians, and Spiritualist and Theosophical bookshops in Melbourne stocked many books on so-called Eastern traditions, including Buddhism. In 1891, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, who co-founded the Theosophical Society (TS) with Madame Blavatsky, first toured Australia lecturing on ‘Theosophy and Buddhism’. They had taken refuge in Sri Lanka in May 1880, and were ‘great trail-blazers for Buddhism’ in the West and in Asia. Emma Harding Britten, an American Theosophist, had earlier visited Australia in 1978 and established the first branch of the TS in Tasmania in 1889. Elise Pickett, a Russian woman from New Zealand, set up the Melbourne TS in 1990, and is described as being perhaps the first “‘White Buddhist’ to have set forth on Australian shores’, with Olcott most probably the second (Croucher 1989: 6-9).
Alfred Deakin, who was later to become a three-time Australian Prime Minister, chaired Olcott’s 1891 Melbourne lectures. Deakin read widely in Theosophy, Vedanta and Buddhism, travelled to Sri Lanka and India in 1890, and was highly active in the TS until 1896. Olcott toured Australia again in 1897, however, the number of Buddhists in Australia and Victoria declined substantially, and interest in Buddhism waned, after the introduction of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia Policy (Croucher 1989: 10-13). The 1901 Census recorded 4, 807 Buddhists in Victoria and this number steadily decreased to only 177 by 1933 (Adam & Hughes 1996: 41).

Buddhism and the Arts

Buddhism influenced a number of Victorian writers and naturalists at the turn of the 20th Century, notably Bernard O’Dowd and E.J. Banfield, who had grown up in lived in Victoria before moving to Queensland. Buddhism appealed to these Australians, firstly due to its emphasis on rationality, but also its pacifist reverence for all life and realisation of its interdependent nature (Croucher 1989: 13-16).
Later many Victorian painters and poets including Godfrey Miller, who was actually from New Zealand but lived mostly in Victoria, Ethel Carrick Fox, Lionel Lindsay, Margaret Preston, Harold Stewart and Max Dunn were all influenced directly or indirectly by Buddhism (Croucher 1989: 28-29, 49-51).
Beat Zen had an even greater impact on the art scene in Australia, as many Victorian painters and poets were inspired by Jack Kerouac and his contemporaries, including Peter Carey, Peter Upward, Fred Williams, and Sidney Nolan (Croucher 1989: 63-65, 118).

The Buddhist Society and Visiting Teachers

The first Buddhist Study Group was established in Melbourne in 1938 by the architect Len Bullen. Bullen was born in England but grew up in Australia. He was a member of the Theosophical Society who became interested in the rational psychological aspects of Theravadin Buddhism. However the outbreak of war interrupted this study group’s activities (Croucher 1989: 27-28).
Les Oates studied Japanese at University High School in Melbourne and Zen Buddhism near Hiroshima for four years in the 1940s. At the same time, a fellow Victorian Len Henderson, was also living nearby on an island in Hiroshima Bay, working in a psychiatric hospital (Croucher 1989: 31). Bullen and haematologist Syd Hill resumed monthly Buddhist study group meetings in a coffee shop in Swanston St in April 1953, and Oates joined them in September. Larger meetings began occurring in October, which led to the formation of the Buddhist Society of Victoria (BSV). Bullen became president, and Henderson joined them in December that year. This coincided with a period of resurgence of Buddhism in Asia, and Australia’s well-established relationships with Burma and Sri Lanka, through the British Empire, led to the flow of Buddhism between Australia and these countries during this period (Croucher 1989: 43-44).
Several prominent Buddhist monks and teachers visited Australia in the 1950s, often lecturing in Victoria, notably U Thittila from Burma, Venerable Narada Thera from Sri Lanka, and Robert Stuart Clifton, from the Western Buddhist Order (Croucher 1989: 44-52).
Hill and prominent Sydney Buddhist David Maurice, attended the Sixth Great Buddhist Council in Burma in 1954. Hill went on to ordain in Phnom Penh in 1955, becoming the first Australian born Buddhist monk. Bob Shackleton and Fred Whittle, both BSV members, were ordained the following year in Sri Lanka and Burma (Croucher 1989: 52).
The BSV continued to meet monthly, now at the Henry George Club room in the city, with Bullen, poet Max Dunn, Oates, Henderson, Stewart and Whittle as members. Some of them also regularly contributed to the Australian Buddhist Metta magazine. Charles Knight, of the Buddhist Society of New South Wales (BCNSW), began instigating a national Buddhist body at this time and the first meeting of the Buddhist Federation of Australian (BFA) took place in 1959 in Sydney. Knight was made chairman, Oates secretary, Whittle treasurer and Natasha Jackson, from the BCNSW, editor of Metta (Croucher 1989: 61-64).
The poet Howard Stewart also held weekly comparative religion discussion groups at a city bookshop in the 1950s before he left for Japan in 1966. Stewart travelled and studied at the Higashi-Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto with his friend and architect Adrian Snodgrass, and with Melbourne musician Rodney Timmins, where after a relatively short period they ordained as priests. Snodgrass returned to Sydney, Timmins died in 1969 and Stewart remained in Japan (Croucher 1989: 73) until his death in 1995.
The founder of Soka Gakkai, Japanese Daisaku Ikeda and the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn both visited Australia in the 1960s. Elizabeth Bell also joined the BSV in the early 1960s and began holding meetings at her North Carlton home. Bell became the Chairman of the BFA in the early 1970s and Metta magazine moved to Melbourne, to be edited by Henderson and Larry Fayers-Jessop. Bell eventually became Metta editor in the mid-1970s and the BSV developed strong links with Sri Lankan and Thai traditions and communities at this time (Croucher 1989: 77, 81, 98), which remain to this day.

The Buddhist Boom

When Australia’s immigration restrictions were lifted in the 1970s the number of Buddhists in Victoria rose dramatically to 9474 in 1981 and to 42,349 by 1991, and Buddhism became Australia’s fastest-growing religion mainly as a result of immigration from Asia (Adam & Hughes 1996: 40-41). Buddhism also gained increasing popularity among Australians in the counter-culture years of the 1960s and 1970s and processes of globalisation enabled further to travel between Australia and Asia at the end of the 20th Century (Croucher 1989: 82-85, 89)
The first Buddhist temple in Australia, the Australian Buddhist Vihara, was established in Katoomba by Venerable R. Somaloka in 1973. Somaloka is a Singhalese monk who had been invited to Australia by Charles Knight and who had arrived in 1971 (Croucher 1989: 79-81).
Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche were the first Tibetan monks and teachers to visit Australia in 1973. They held many subsequent public talks and retreats in numerous locations and Lama Zopa Rinpoche continues to travel to and teach in Australia on a regular basis. Their organisation, the Federation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) went on to establish Centres in many Australian states and internationally and Australians still visit their main Center, Kopan Monastery in Nepal, for annual retreats. Melbournian Dr Nick Ribush and his partner Marie Obst, now Yeshe Khadro, first met the Lamas in Nepal. They encouraged their friends to attend the Kopan retreats and invited the Lamas to Australia. Together with Kathy and Tom Vichta, they donated land for Chenrezig Institute, the first Tibetan Buddhist retreat Centre to be built in Australia. Tara House was founded in Melbourne not long after in 1976 by Uldis Balodis. It moved from houses in Kew to St Kilda until the community purchased an old Catholic school in East Brighton in 1987, which became Tara Institute. Atisha Centre, an FPMT Centre, was founded in 1981, near Bendigo, Victoria on land donated by Ian Green. The Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery, adjacent to Atisha Centre was established in 1995 by Venerable Thubten Gyatso, and the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion, modelled on the Great Stupa of Gyantse in Tibet, is also being built on this site. Geshe Thubten Lodan was the first resident teacher at Chenrezig Institute who also later established his own Centres in East Melbourne and Brisbane, before purchasing a property in 1988 to build a Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Yuroke (Croucher 1989: 90, 92-93, 102, 112-113; Vasi 20116: 65-69, 80).
The Karmapa, head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, sent Chentse Rinpoche to Australia in 1979, and Kagyu Centres’s were established in Melbourne and Sydney soon after. Traleg Kyabjon Rinpoche headed Melbourne’s Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute (Croucher 1989: 114) from 1982 until his death in 2012. The Institute was first set up in houses in Kew, Hawthorn and Carlton, before the community purchased its current premises in North Carlton 1991. They also established the Maitripa Contemplative Centre for retreats in Healesville (Vasi 2006: 72).
The Thai forest tradition is also very popular in Australia. Phra Khantipalo, was born in London and lived in Thailand as a monk from 1963-1973. He arrived in Australia in 1973, and was shortly followed by Phra Chao Khun Parayattikavee. Phra Khantipalo and Ilse Ledermann, who was later ordained as Ayya Khema, led retreats in Northern NSW and Queensland and Phra Khantipalo also gave regular teachings at the BSV. Phra Khantipalo assisted with setting up the first Thai Temple in Australia, Wat Buddharangsee in Stanmore in 1975. Ledermann also donated funds to purchase land for a retreat centre in 1978 at Wiseman’s Ferry, which was named Wat Buddha Dhamma.  Wat Rattanapredeepa was founded in Adelaide in 1985 and Wat Dhamarangsee in Forest Hill in 1986. Wat Dhamarangsee was among the first Buddhist Temples to be established in Melbourne. Building commenced on a second NSW Temple in Campbelltown, on the outskirts of Sydney in 1987. These Temples were originally, and are still are frequented by Thais, Laotians, Cambodians, Burmese, and Australians (Croucher 1989: 90-91, 99, 106; Vasi 2006: 56).
Venerable Chi Kwang Sunim, a student of Phra Khantipalo’s who later studied and ordained in the Korean Zen tradition, returned to Australia in the late 1998 and established her first Centre in Victoria near Daylesford. This property was sold and another purchased in Emerald in 2002. This site also proved unsuitable and instead a property in Kinglake was chosen, where her current Seon (Zen) Centre was established in 2003 (Vasi 2006: 40-41).
The famous American Zen teacher Robert Aitken began visiting Australia annually in 1979 teaching at various Zen Centres in capital cities including Melbourne. Aitken also made a great impact on Australia and inspired many Australians to study and practice Zen Buddhism (Croucher 1989: 118-120).
 During the 1970s, hundreds of young Australians travelled to India to undertake Vipassana meditation courses with the Indian teacher S. N. Goenka, who had studied in Burma with U Ba Khin. Goenka first conducted retreats in Australia in 1980 and his Vipassana Foundation centres have since been established throughout Australia (Croucher 1989: 109).
The first Vietnamese Buddhist societies were formed around the same time in Melbourne and Brisbane in 1978 and in Sydney in 1979. The first Vietnamese Buddhist monk to arrive in Australia, Venerable Thich Phuoc Hue, lived at Tara House in 1980 and founded the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation of Australia in 1981 (Croucher 1989: 102). The Melbourne Vietnamese community established the first Quang Minh Temple in Sunshine in 1986. In the early 1990s the community acquired land in Braybrooke and built their first Temple in 1994 (Vasi 2006: 32). A much larger Temple has more recently been constructed on this site under the direction of its current Abbott Venerable Thich Phuoc Tan. Another Vietnamese Temple, the Quang Duc Temple, was founded in 1990 in a house in Broadmeadows. The community and Abbott Venerable Thich Tam Phuong purchased a former primary school in Fawkner in 1997 and the Temple was opened in 2003 (Vasi 2006: 28-29).
Inter-faith dialogue, in particular Christian interest in Buddhism, began in Australia in the 1970s with Melbourne Quaker’s and Catholics playing an active role (Croucher 1989: 110). The Dalai Lama first visited Australia in 1982 and has since visited and taught in Australia on numerous occasions drawing large audiences (Croucher 1989: 115). Thich Nhat Hahn also returned to Australian shores in 1986 (Croucher 1989: 103).
Many more temples have also been established in Victoria and in other Australian states since the 1980s of various Asian Buddhist traditions. Communities building these Temples have often been met with difficulties, of a similar nature to those experienced during the Gold Rush period. They have often faced strong opposition from neighbours and been involved in challenging negotiations with local councils (Croucher 1989: 104-105). More research needs to be conducted on these Temples and Centres, that is beyond the scope of the first stage of this research project. When we obtain more funding we hope be able to continue this project and update this website accordingly.
Given the growing diversity of Buddhism in Victoria (BCV), Gabrielle Lafitte, a Tibetan Buddhist first initiated the formation of the Buddhist Council of Victoria in 1985. However, these plans weren’t actualized immediately. The BCV was actually formed in 1995, by Tibetan Buddhists and community workers Brian Ashen and Robin Rankin, in consultation and in partnership with other ethnic and Western Buddhist communities in Victoria (Vasi 2006: 84-89).
In 1996 the number of Buddhists in Victoria increased to 62, 898, and by 2001 there were 111, 664. According to the Buddhist Council of Victoria there were 45 Buddhist Centres in Victoria in 1996 and 96 in 2001 (Vasi 2006: 14, 17). This number has been steadily growing ever since and in the last 2011 Census there were 168, 636 Buddhists in Victoria, the second highest religious group after Christianity.
Adam, E. & Hughes, P.J. (1996) The Buddhists in Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Croucher, P. (1989) The History of Buddhism in Australia 1848-1988. Kensington: New South Wales University Press.
Vasi, S. (2006) Profile and Contribution of Buddhists in Australia: A Study into Selected Buddhist Communities in Victoria. Melbourne: Buddhist Council of Australia.