About the EBU

Buddhism

Interactions between Buddhism and European culture

Contrary to common belief, the roots of a settled Buddhist presence in the West go back much further than the 1960’s, and can be traced back all the way to the late 19th century.

In 1881 the Pali Text Society was founded in the UK, and in 1899, the Jodo Shinshu denomination of Pure Land Buddhism founded the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, the oldest Buddhist Temple on the American continent that is still in use. The first Buddhist temples in (Western and Central) Europe were established in the 1920’s (Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin in 1924 and The London Buddhist Vihara in 1926, both Theravada).

Already in the 1930’s, European Buddhists felt the need to meet and get acquainted. The first European Buddhist congress took place in Berlin in 1933 and the EBU was founded in 1975. 

But pre-Christian Europe had more contact with Buddhism than is generally assumed, arising from the creation of the ancient Persian Empire (ca 500 BCE), which resulted in economic, diplomatic and philosophical connections between central Asia, Persia, and the Mediterranean.

After the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the Islamic conquests of Persia and India in the 7th century, the connections that had existed in the ancient world were largely lost. Buddhism and Europe became cut off from each other. Not until the 16th century was contact renewed.

Ancient Europe

The Achaemenid Empire (or Ancient Persian Empire, 550-330 BCE) was the largest empire in ancient history, stretching from Thrace and Macedon in the Balkans to Bactria and Gandhara near the Indus. Under the Pax Persica, there was freedom of movement and religion, which made trade and exchange of ideas possible from Europe to the Indus. Due to the Persian Empire, northern India was familiar with the Ionian/Greek culture of the Buddha’s time.

After the Macedonian conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), new Greek cities  were founded in the eastern part of the previous Persian Empire, creating a large area of Hellenistic culture in present day Afghanistan/Pakistan/North-West India (today’s Punjab). This eventually resulted in an Indo-Greek kingdom and was the start of a more intense and abiding interaction between Buddhism and Hellenism.

Pyrrho of Elis was a Greek philosopher, who travelled with Alexander the Great all the way from Greece to India. He stayed there for two years and then travelled back to Greece, where he spent a great part of his life in solitude. He taught a practical philosophy of life, which ultimately leads to undisturbedness/tranquility (ataraxia, ἀταραξία), for which he was admired by his contemporaries. There are good arguments to assume that his teachings were influenced by Early Buddhism. They formed the start of Pyrrhonian Skepticism in Europe.

Pyrrho’s declaration about the ‘three characteristics of all things’ might even be the earliest known bit of Buddhist doctrinal text. The Greek reference to it is firmly dated three centuries earlier than the Gandhari texts.

Graeco-Buddhism was a syncretism between Mediterranean Hellenistic culture and Indian Buddhist culture, and flourished for many centuries in Bactria/Gandhara (present day Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, and north-west India).

The Greek king Menander is known in the Pali language as king Milinda, and the book ‘Questions of Menander’ (in Pali: ‘Milinda Panha‘) is a part of some Theravada Pali canons.

The 2nd-century church father Clement of Alexandria wrote the west’s oldest known reference to the Buddha: “Among the Indians, there are those philosophers who follow the precepts of Boutta (Βούττα)” (Stromata, book 1, chapter 15). He also mentions Buddhist monks from the Graeco-Indian kingdom of Bactria when he makes a list of those ancient philosophies that influenced Greek philosophy.

Up until the year 393 AD (when Emperor Theodosius prohibited any non-Christian religious customs in the Roman Empire) religious interactions between India, Persia and the Mediterranean were manifold. It is for example documented that Buddhist monks were present in Alexandria.

More info on Interactions between Buddhism & Ancient European Culture

Due to the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the Islamic conquests of Persia & India in the 7th century, the connections that existed in the ancient world were largely lost and Buddhism and Europe became cut off from each other for many centuries. With Muslim invasions, both Graeco-Buddhism and Indo-Buddhism got largely destroyed.

NBO UK pic1

Modern Europe

In the 13nd century, European international travellers started writing the first reports about Buddhism (and Nestorian Christians) in the East to Christians in the West, but it was not until 16th and17th centuries that the first attempts were made by Christian Europeans to understand Buddhism properly, which was mainly the work of the Jesuit missionaries in Asia.

The only Buddhist nation on the European continent is the Republic of Kalmykia (in the European part of the Russian Federation, at the far eastern edge of the continent). Buddhist presence in Kalmykia dates back to Mongol settlers in the 17th century.

Contrary to common belief, the roots of a settled Buddhist presence in the West go back much further than the 1960’s, and can be traced back all the way to the late 19th century.

In 1881 the Pali Text Society was founded in the UK, and in 1899, the Jodo Shinshu denomination of Pure Land Buddhism founded the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, the oldest Buddhist Temple in America.

The precursors of the first National Buddhist Unions in Europe were created at the beginning of the 20th century (Germany in 1903 and the UK in 1907), and the first Buddhist monasteries in (Western) Europe were established in the 1920’s (Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin in 1924 and The London Buddhist Vihara in 1926, both Theravada).

European Buddhism is growing fast and today, the political authorities of most European countries have come to some form of official recognition of Buddhism. Based on a 2012 survey, we assume there are approximately 3 million people self-identifying as Buddhists in Europe (including Russia).

More info on Interactions between Buddhism & Modern European Culture

The European Buddhist Union

Already in the 1930’s, European Buddhists felt the need to meet and get acquainted. The first European Buddhist congress took place in Berlin in 1933.

The EBU was founded in 1975. The venue of the Annual General Meeting changes from year to year and is provided by member organisations of the EBU. Just before the end of the Cold War, a meeting was held on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain (Hungary, 1989).

The EBU re-started organising international congresses on Buddhism in Europe. The first of these EBU congresses took place at the UNESCO building in Paris in 1979. With more than 2000 participants, the 1992 congress in Berlin was the largest EBU event to date.

In 2008 the EBU obtained official participatory status with the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations at the Council of Europe.

More info on History of the EBU

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