According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are nearly half a million Buddhists in Australia and this number is growing rapidly, doubling between 1996 and 2006. Broadly speaking, at least three quarters of Australia’s Buddhists are what can be called Eastern Buddhists, from Buddhist families originating from Asian countries, who have migrated to Australia in recent decades. The remaining quarter, Western Buddhists, are generally Australian-born Caucasians and have probably grown up in either a Christian or humanistic family.
In regards to interfaith relations, there is generally much goodwill from other religions towards Buddhists. This stems from the perception that Buddhists are generally peaceful and non-threatening. The challenge for Buddhists engaged in interfaith dialogues is to find the common ground, for example, shared values of compassion and kindness, and to explore with other faiths the spiritual, existential and day-to-day issues of living. Australian Buddhism is a picture of ethnic and cultural diversity, as well as diversity of practice. Some traditional practices have survived centuries and some others have emerged recently due to the conditions of contemporary Australian society.
Diveristy of Buddhist practice
To the newcomer, the different types of Buddhist practices may look inconsistent. Buddhist practice can involve daily chanting and prayers, regular visits to temples to make food offerings to monks and nuns, the occasional meditation retreat, or even participating in social or community activities. Even Buddhists with years of practice may not be aware of the full extent of Buddhist teachings and practices.
There are three different schools within Buddhism. These are Theravada (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma), Mahayana (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam) and Vajrayana (Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan). Whilst all maintain the basic teachings, the emphasis and interpretation may vary to accommodate the needs of individual practitioners with different traditional and cultural backgrounds.
There are festival days celebrated by Buddhists throughout the year such as on new moon and full moon days. The most important Buddhist occasion that is widely celebrated by all traditions is Vesak Day, which usually falls in the month of May every year. On this occasion, the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha are commemorated. Different traditions also have their own dates and festivities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists celebrate Chökhor Düchen, also known as “the Turning of the Wheel” festival. This event commemorates the day the Buddha “turned the Dharma wheel”, by beginning to give teachings. In Australia, Buddhist Festival Month in May brings together all traditions of Buddhism to celebrate the life and teachings of the Buddha.
The Buddhist holy books are a collection of many, many dozens of volumes (depending on the source language and tradition). The closest approximation to the Christian bible is what is called the Dhammapada, which commences with the famous teaching that everything originates in the mind.
Cultural & language barriers
Some cultural norms are adapted into Buddhist practice because they may reflect current important rituals and values, for example generosity and respect for monastics. While not being part of the core teachings, rituals nevertheless can become part of Buddhist practice. While cultural practices may be appropriate and reasonable when and where they originated, some cultural practices may present an obstacle for those new to Buddhism, for example bowing or chanting in an unfamiliar language.