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Australians Flock to Embrace Buddhism


The Dalai Lama has just completed a tour of Australia, boosting what is the country's fastest-growing religion. Australia has more Buddhists per capita than anywhere else in the Western world. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports on how this religion has moved beyond Asian immigrant communities and into the mainstream.

Tibetan nuns chant traditional prayers - an increasingly common sight in Australia.

There are about 350 thousand Buddhists in the country in this mainly Christian nation, and government census data indicate that number is up almost 80 percent from 1996. The Buddhist population eclipses the size of Australia's Muslim population.

Mark Allon an expert on Buddhism from the University of Sydney says the faith's roots here were established by settlers from Asia.

"We have many immigrants from Buddhist countries. Many Asian immigrants recently and even historically - they brought with them Buddhism," Allon said. "So among those communities you have an interest in Buddhism, a preservation of their religion and culture. Then you also have an interest among the wider Australian community, non-Asian community, resident community, in Buddhism and that has been going on now for almost 100 years."

Experts who study religious trends in Australia say many converts to Buddhism found the teachings of some Christian churches too rigid and intolerant of questions about the faith.

Converts say Buddhism gives them freedoms they have never had before.

Renate Ogilvie is a German-born teacher at a Buddhist institute here in Sydney.

"In Buddhism you are allowed to ask questions and actually you're actively encouraged to doubt and to discuss and so on," Ogilvie said. "The Buddha said don't just believe because I'm very famous, don't just believe because many people believe what I teach. Be like the goldsmith, you know, apply the acid to the gold to test it and the acid being your mind, your intelligence. So in that sense it's a manifesto of intellectual freedom which is very, very appealing."

The Diamond Way retreat facility in Sydney is typical of many small Buddhist centers around the country.

It has 140 members and like many other groups here it follows the Vajrayana tradition from Tibet, seen as the third main branch of Buddhism alongside the Theravada and Mahayana.

Phil Carlisle is the host of the Diamond Way gatherings.

"I think that Buddhism really suits people who have independent thinking and are maybe discouraged or had enough of religions where they're told what to believe rather than being given an opportunity to see how something fits for them. Aussies are notoriously averse to authority figures," Carlisle said.

Anthony Hickson is a recent convert. He was brought up in a strict Catholic family.

The 27-year-old video editor has been attending meetings at the Diamond Way center since the start of the year and believes Buddhism is showing him a new way to live.

"I guess from coming here I don't think there's one truth" Hickson said. "I think there's [are] many truths. My brother's pretty active in the Catholic Church and that works really well for him and I've seen him grow and change a lot. So I think for me it was just a different path and a lot of the teachings made sense to me before I'd come here and coming here it was just being around people. There's a good energy, there's a good vibe. Things make sense."

The nuns offer a prayer asking for long life for the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader. The Nobel Peace Prize winner lives in India as the head of the community of Tibetans who have fled Chinese rule of their homeland.

His visit to Australia over the past several days created much excitement among Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Large crowds greeted him everywhere he went. Even Prime Minister John Howard met with one of the world's most recognizable religious figures.

For Buddhist nun Robina Caulton, the enthusiasm surrounding the Dalai Lama's visit shows how her faith has developed in Australia.

"The Dalai Lama has an enormous kind of following here. I mean I've observed that traveling around the world - now based in the States, right," Caulton said. "Australia's half the population of California and there're probably more Tibetan Buddhist centers and more flourishing ones than even actually in, say, the United States. … When he's in the States people in one other state wouldn't even know he's there but whenever he's in Australia the whole country knows so it's kind of interesting."

Despite such enthusiasm, Australia remains a very Christian country - with more than 75 percent of the population of 20 million belonging to a Christian church. Some Anglican leaders have said Buddhism has little community spirit but relies heavily on individual happiness. Buddhists disagree. Many Buddhist communities have charitable operations, and they say that a community's happiness depends on the lasting happiness of individuals.