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Buddhism and Europe

Interactions between Buddhism & Modern European culture

The oldest documented meeting between a Western Christian and an Eastern Buddhist was in 1253 when the king of France sent an ambassador to the court of the Mongol Empire (The Mongols would later, in the 17th century, found Kalmykia, till present the only Buddhist nation on the European continent. Today, the Republic of Kalmykia belongs to the European part of the Russian Federation).

In the same century, European international travellers started writing the first reports about Buddhism (and Nestorian Christians in the East), the most famous amongst them undoubtably Marco Polo. The 13nd century book ‘Livre des Merveilles du Monde’ (literally ‘The Book of the Marvels of the World’ but in English better known as ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’) contains the first complete narrative on the life of the Buddha in the West.

However, it was not until 16th and17th centuries that the first attempts were made by Christians to understand Buddhism properly, which was mainly the work of the Jesuit missionaries in Asia.

The Italian Ippolito Desideri (1684 – 1733) had been a Jesuit missionary in Tibet and was the first known European to study Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan monasteries for several years. In 1728 he finished the most complete and accurate European account of Buddhist philosophy to be written until the 19th century. Unfortunately, the Vatican curia did not approve it to be published, so the manuscript disappeared into the Church’s archives.

Meanwhile, Europe was still unfamiliar with ‘Buddhism’. “European travellers in Asia had failed to understand that what was being practised in Ceylon, Thailand, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan and Korea belonged to the same religion. They thought that all these different aspects of Buddhism were different regional cults. It was only towards the end of the 18th century that the full extent and diversity of Buddhism was recognized. And we had to wait until the middle of the 19th century before the first scholarly understanding of Buddhism began to emerge.”

“The key figure here was the Frenchman Eugène Burnouf (1801-1852), who was the first to provide Europeans with a coherent understanding of Buddhism as a philosophy and a way of life.

And then suddenly Europeans were surprised to discover that in Asia there was a figure, the Buddha, comparable in many ways to Christ, who predated Jesus by several centuries, whose teaching was not only disseminated as widely as that of Christianity, but also appeared to embody many of the virtues that Christians espoused. It came as a rather startling discovery. “

(Stephen Batchelor, A Buddhist Voice for Europe)

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 by Thomas William Rhys Davids “to foster and promote the study of Pāli texts”. It publishes Pāli texts in roman characters, translations in English and ancillary works including dictionaries, a concordance, books for students of Pāli and a journal. Most of the classical texts and commentaries have now been edited and many works translated into English.

In 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society. Branches of the Society were created in the US (1897), Germany (1911) and Great Britain (1926).

Chicago 1893 World Parliament of Religions Dharmapala left

Dharmapala’s (in white on the left) speech to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, got a lot of media attention and was seen as a sign of the Buddhist revival at the end of the 19th century.

The first Buddhist monasteries 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 / the oldest Buddhist temple (outside Kalmykia) in Eastern Europe was built in 1909 in St. Petersburg).

The first European Buddhist Congresses took place in the 1930’s. The first European Buddhist congress was at Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin (23-25 September 1933), the second at The Buddhist Vihara in London (22-23 September 1934) and finally Paris (16-18 June 1937, organised by Les Amis du Bouddhisme).

European Buddhism is growing fast. From 1970 to 2000 for example, the number of Buddhist organisations in the UK grew from 74 to 400, and in Germany from 40 to 500 (Baumann, “Global Buddhism: Developmental Periods, Regional Histories, and a New Analytical Perspective,” in Journal of Global Buddhism, volume 2, 2001).

Today, the political authorities of most European countries have come to some form of official recognition of Buddhism. An EBU survey made in 2012 compared figures of the number of Buddhists in Europe given by our member organisations to those of other international estimates: given the available data, we assume there are approximately 3 million people self-identifying as Buddhists in Europe (including Russia).


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