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Buddhism and monastic communities in Germany by Carola Roloff

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What do ‘Australia’ and ‘Buddhism’ have to do with Buddhism and monastic communities in Germany? There were at least two German Buddhist monastics who not only influenced Buddhism in Germany, but also in Australia, either by their translations and publications or through personal contact.

I will come back to this soon. But first let me introduce my topic: Buddhist monasticism in the West seems to reside a certain ambivalence. Asian and German Buddhist monks and nuns in or from Germany have individually played a very important role in the history of Buddhism, inside or outside Germany, but as of yet we have not seen a Buddhist monastery erected in Germany.

At least not in the strict sense of a complete saṅgha of four fully ordained monks or nuns living together in a vihāra that belongs to the saṅgha itself. I have no ready explanation for this, but will make an attempt to analyze possible reasons. My talk consists of four key points:

My comments are not based on a thorough research in the subject at stake, but rather on personal observations owed in large parts to my biography: I am German and since 1981 am being trained as a Buddhist nun; in 1997 I began my academic studies and research on Buddhism at the University of Hamburg.

1. The beginnings of Buddhism in Germany


Buddhism in Germany reflects a history of over 150 years. The first Buddhist text available in German was the Dhamma­padam, translated by the German Indian scholar Albrecht Weber (1825-1901), which was published in a journal of oriental studies, as early as 1860.[1]

We owe the first translation of large parts of the Pāli canon into German to the Indologist Karl Eugen Neumann (1865-1915) who had come to Buddhism through the great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who considered himself a disciple of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and who was one of the earliest and probably best known Germans influenced by Buddhism. The famous German poet Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), author of the novel Siddhartha, which was published in 1922, praised the beautiful language of Neumann's trans­lation of the Pāli canon.

During the first three decades of the 20th century more important translations followed by Nyānatiloka, Geiger, Dutoit and Seidenstücker. The latter founded the first so-called Buddhist Missions Association for Germany (Buddhistischer Missionsverein für Deutschland) 1903 in Leipzig.

However, except for Wilhelm Geiger, Professor at the University of Munich, these first translations were not drawn up at universities, but were accomplished either by adjunct professors or by learned German monks.

2. Examples of the impact and relevance of Buddhist monks and nuns on the development of Buddhism in Germany and beyond its borders

The most outstanding and first German Buddhist monk was Nyānatiloka Mahāthera (1878-1957), born 1878 in Wiesbaden as Anton Gueth.

Through his great love for philosophy, especially for Schopenhauer, he converted to Buddhism. In 1903 at the age of 25 he was ordained as a sāmaṇera and one year later as a bhikkhu in Burma, where he shared a room with the English Bhikkhu Ānanda Metteyya.

He­muth Hecker, author of the first chronicle of Buddhism in Germany, refers to this English bhikkhu as the first in Europe, but as Stephen Batchelor has recently shown, the first European Buddhist monk was actually a man called Karlis Tennisons (1873-1962), a Latvian who in 1923 was appointed by the 13th Dalai Lama as the Buddhist Arch­bishop of Latvia (or perhaps even of the three Baltic states). He was ordained in Buryatia in 1893.

But back to Germany: I apologize in advance for everybody and every tradition that will not be mentioned here, but I will restrict myself to only a few very famous persons that stand out with regard to German Buddhist monasticism.

The first Pāli-German translations of Ven. Nyānatiloka, were published in 1905, one year after his full ordination. Beside his many translations, his Buddhist Dictionary is to this day one of the standard references in Buddhist Studies worldwide. Nyānatiloka had many disciples, at least ten ordained by himself in Sri Lanka.

Hecker gives a list and short biographies of about 30 German men who, alone in Burma and Ceylon, were ordained as Theravāda bhikkhus between 1910 and the late 1970s.

However, it is important to note that none of them became ordained in Germany, but that all left Germany to become a monk. Until today most Germans receive their ordinations in Asia, especially full ordination. This is due to the lack of monasteries, lack of support by Buddhist laity and lack of communities who have the required number of qualified monks and nuns to perform such ordination rites.


The most famous disciple of Nyānatiloka was Bhikkhu Nyānaponika (1901-1994). He received his ordination in 1937 at the Island Hermitage Polgasduwa in Sri Lanka, founded by Nyānatiloka in 1911.

In 1910 Nyānatiloka had been invited to Lausanne to start a small Buddhist monastery in Switzerland. But as with Ānanda Metteya in England, this did not work out, and Nyānatiloka returned to Sri Lanka (Batchelor 2011: A Buddhist Voice for Europe).

In 1914 he set off to Tibet but due to unfavorable conditions was forced to return to Colombo, just in time before the outbreak of World War I. In May 1915 Nyāna­tiloka was deported to Australia, where he was interned with Buddhist monks and German missionaries until they were awarded clergy status.

I doubt that Nyāna­tiloka's stay in Australia had any direct impact on Buddhism here, but his publications definitely did. During World War II, in 1941, again he was driven away from his island, interned in India. There, in Dehra Dun, for two years he was interned with Nyānaponika, the later German Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898-1985) and the Austrian Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006), author of the famous book "Seven Years in Tibet".

After the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the flight of H. H. the 14th Dalai Lama to India in 1959, the first Tibetan refugee settlement would become established in Dehra Dun.

Tibetan Buddhism in Germany became first known through German translations of the books by the French Tibet researcher Alexandra David-Neel (1878-1969), the English anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) and Lama Govinda, who became a Buddhist at the age of 18.

As many others who followed, he was mainly influenced by Theravāda literature, but may have also been aware of early Mahā­yāna translations into German such as Max Walleser's translation of Nāgār­juna's Mādhyamikaśāstra, published in 1911 (in Heidelberg), and Richard Schmidt's trans­lation of Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra, published in 1923 (in Paderborn). However, his first book on Buddhism was already published in 1920. In 1928 he moved to Sri Lanka and stayed as a brahmacārin and anagārika with Nyānatiloka.

In 1929 he was instrumental in founding the International Buddhist Union. Although he wanted to become a Buddhist monk, he was discouraged by Anagārika Dhamma­pāla to do so, since then it would become difficult for him to travel. In 1931 Govinda went to the All-India Buddhist Conference in Darjeeling.

In nearby Sikkim he met Tomo Geshe Ngawang Kalzang (1866–1936) and embraced Tibetan Buddhism.[2] After the death of his teacher in 1947, Govinda married a Parsi artist from Bombay. Together with her he joined the Drikung Kagyü school.

This leads us to the question: "Where are the women?" As we know the Buddha made a prophecy that he will not pass away until all his four groups of followers (catuṣ­pariṣat) have come into being: fully ordained monks, fully ordained nuns (bhikṣu/ bhikṣuṇī), and the male and female lay followers (upāsaka/ upāsikā).[3]

Only if these four communities have been established, the respective country is considered to be a "central land" (madhyadeśa), not in a geographical sense, but in the sense of a country where the Buddha Dharma is fully established.

Thus for the maintenance of Buddhism, monasteries have always been considered essential. Not only men, but also women had the possibility to follow the Buddha's shining example by going forth from home into homelessness in order to seek liberation.

But now, in the 21st century's world, where women are not only playing major roles in all aspects of secular life, but are also keenly interested in participating fully in religious live, full ordination for nuns in the Tibetan and Theravāda traditions has disappeared. Most of the teachers from Asia coming to the West are either monks or laymen.

Only in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism we find fully ordained nuns. But even there, gender equity is not fully reflected in Buddhist leadership.


Only a few German women made their ways in the chronicles. Hecker writes for example about Else Buchholtz, born in 1888 in Hamburg, who passed away in Colombo in 1982. She had studied music in Berlin, inherited a great fortune but left there for the Odenwald in central Germany to help young people.

Here she came across the famous sentence from MN 8 that only someone standing on solid ground can pull out one who is sunk in the mire.

She continued reading the Buddha's speeches up to the 10th Satipatthāna Sutta and made this her main meditation. She met Bhikkhu Nyānatiloka accompanied by Bhikkhu Vappo, took them into her home in 1919, and travelled with them to Japan where she became a language teacher.

In 1928, under the bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, she became Uppalavannā, a dasasīla­māta, staying for 25 years in a hermitage, established by Lama Govinda. In over 50 years she never fell sick and radiated kindness and clarity.

It seems that at that time most German monks were interested in study and translation of Buddhism, while the women were more interested in meditation.

This is also true for Ayyā Khema, another famous German nun, of the next genera­tion, who was born to Jewish parents in Berlin 1923. She escaped the Nazis' persecution during World War II to Scotland and China and moved to the US in 1945.

In 1978 she is said to have founded or helped to establish the Australian Monastery "Wat Buddha Dhamma" close to Sydney. One year later she was ordained as dasasīlamāta in Colombo.

There she set up the International Buddhist Women's Center as a training center for Sri Lankan nuns, and in 1984 the Parappuduwa Nuns' Island. Ayyā Khema became a famous Buddhist teacher and book author. She was very engaged in interreligious dialogue and became the spiritual director of Buddha-Haus in Germany, established in 1989.

In June 1997, a few months before her death, she inaugurated "Mettā Vihāra", the first Buddhist forest monastery in Germany.

I met Ayyā Khemā for the first time in 1987 during the First International Conference on Buddhist Nuns in Bodhgaya. Although she was more experienced in Buddhism than myself, technically speaking, I was senior to her.

Despite of her increasing age she was still a "de facto novice", while I had become a bhikṣuṇī in Taiwan in 1985. Only in 1988, in the Taiwanese Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles, Ayyā Khema, together with other Thera­vāda novices from various Asian countries, was able to take full ordination. This was the starting point of the revival of the bhikkhunī saṅgha in the Theravāda tradition.

Another famous female Buddhist teacher from Germany, who left for California in 1967, was Gesshin Myoko Prabasha Dharma Zenji (1931-1999), born in 1931 in Frankfurt, a painter and poet. In 1968 she started her training under the Japanese Zen master Joshu Sasaki. In 1972 she was ordained as Rinzai Zen Master.

From 1980 onwards she taught mainly in America and Europe.

Starting in1 983 she came to Germany for regular Zen sesshins. She became the 45th patriarch or matriarch in the Vietnamese Lam Te Zen Lineage and left behind a large inter­national saṅgha and also a meditation center in the Netherlands. Although she was not a bhikṣuṇī, she always remained celibate.

Long before this, the first Tibetan monastery in Europe had been founded in Rikon close to Zürich in 1967/68. Western monks were not allowed to stay there. The sole purpose of this monastery has remained the same and that is to host Tibetan monks of all four tradtions of Tibetan Buddhism to counsel Tibetan refugees in Switzerland.

When the Dalai Lama visited it in 1973, he also came to Germany for the first time. Visits of other high ranking Tibetan lamas followed.

This ushered in a boom of Tibetan Buddhism in the 1980s. In the mid 1960s, a shift of focus had taken place from a more intellectual reception of Buddhism towards practice of Buddhist medita­tion.[4] Thus Zen sesshins became very popular. Parallel to this and starting in 1966 the Dalai Lama began sending Tibetan lamas to Germany. Most of them returned their monk precepts and became lay teachers.

The first was supposed to teach a group of refugees from Kalmykia, but due to a lack of financial support, he started teaching at the university.

In 1977 the Tibetan Center Hamburg was founded under the patronage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This was the first Tibetan Buddhist Center that became a member of the German Buddhist Union, which had been founded in 1955 and up to that point had been dominated by German lay Buddhists of the Theravāda tradition, nowadays an umbrella organization that represents 57 member communities.

In 1979 my teacher, the late Ven. Geshe Thubten Ngawang (1935-2003) from Sera Monastery in India, was sent to become a resident teacher in the Tibetan Center, a Buddhist study and meditation center in Hamburg, set up by an English journalist and a group of German Buddhists following various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1982, the patron of Tibetan Center, H. H. the Dalai Lamad it for the first time and also gave his first public lecture in Germany at the main hall of the University of Hamburg.

3. The present situation of monastic communities in Germany


First, let me point out that I would like to emphasize that I distinguish between "monastic community" and "monastery". Although German monastic communities exist or are under develop­ment, no monastery or abbey has been erected so far.

The establishment of the first German bhikṣu saṅgha and bhikṣuṇī saṅgha did not take place in the Theravāda, but in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and were initiated by my teacher, who passed away in 2003.

The bhikṣu ordinations were given by H. H. the Dalai Lama in Switzerland, and the nuns were sent for bhikṣuṇī ordination to Taiwan and Los Angeles, after having received śrāmaṇerikā ordination in the Tibetan tradition. The bhikṣu saṅgha was completed in 1988 and the bhikṣuṇī saṅgha in 1995.

It seems that I happened to be the first German bhikṣuṇī. Our present bhikṣuṇī saṅgha consists of five bhikṣuṇīs. We meet for the poṣadha ceremony every half month, but do no longer live in the same house. By now, all German monks in the Tibetan tradition, not only in our center, returned to lay life, and continue to serve as Buddhist teachers or translators.

By contrast Vietnamese refugees, about 80,000 in Germany, have developed pagodas headed by monks or nuns. They are partly supported by the German government and follow either the pure land school or the Lin-chi tradition. The largest pagodas are located in big cities such as Hannover, Hamburg, Berlin and Frankfurt.

Each of them houses about 10-25 monks or nuns. The founder abbot is the Most Ven. Thich Nhu Dien, who today lives in Australia part-time. The most senior abbess is the Ven. Thich Nu Dieu Tam who runs a temple in Hamburg.

In Frankfurt and Berlin there is also a nunscommunity of the Taiwanese Fo-Guang-Shan Order. They emphasize that their organization is not a monastery but an International Buddhist Culture Association.

The oldest Theravāda monastery was founded 1957 in Berlin.

Twelve other vihāras and wats followed during the last few years, housing one to three monks each. The first was founded in 2003, close to Heidelberg, by a community from Laos. Three monks are currently living in the Mettā Vihāra founded by Ayyā Khema.

In 2007 the only nunnery, Āneñja Vihā­ra, was set up, headed by a German Bhikkhunī, who was ordained in 2004 in Los Angeles[5]. In 2008 Muttodayā Monastery in Stammberg in Franken was opened. At present it has two monks, one being German the other Czech.

For 13 years the senior German monk lived in Bodhinyana Monastery right here in Perth.

So overall it is fair to say that apart from the Vietnamese communities, during the last one hundred years most attempts to start Buddhist monasteries or nunneries for Germans failed or have not been realized yet.

And this although by 1997 the German Buddhist Union listed 413 Buddhist groups in Germany and despite the fact that within two decades the number of groups had grown tenfold from 40 to 413 then.

The total number of Buddhists in Germany is estimated at around 130,000 German Buddhists and approximately 120,000 Asian Buddhists, mainly Vietnamese and Thais. But altogether there are not more than 70 Buddhist monks and nuns. It is difficult to start a monastery. A saṅgha of monks or nuns consists of at least four fully ordained monks or nuns.

To train new comers, a fully ordained monk or nun has to be trained by a senior who him or herself must have been ordained for ten to twelve years. To carry out legal monastic acts you need a minimum of 4-6 fully ordained monks or nuns. A vihāra should belong to the saṅgha itself and used for it.

4. A concluding brief analysis of the main causes of the weakness of monastic communities in Germany


German as well as Asian monastics in and from Germany, as individuals, have largely contributed to the understanding of the original teachings of the Buddha and its spread, not only in Germany, but also beyond German borders.

Through all their activities, the Buddhist monastics have significantly contributed to Buddhism, such as

  • performing and guiding daily practice and meditation,
  • counseling

But despite the fact that for more than 2500 years monasteries have been the main pillars for the preservation of Buddhism, and despite our observation of a growing interest in Buddhism outside Asia, Buddhist monasteries, except from Asians for Asians, have hardly come into being in the West. As a monastic, it is very difficult to live in a modern society, especially outside of Asia.

The weakness seems to lie in

  • the lack of resources,

  • the rigidity of conservative Buddhist monks when it comes to coping with challenges related to the times and circumstances they find them­selves in, e.g. when disciples have been educated in modern ways and with different takes on gender equity and democratic principles, and the revival of full ordination for Buddhist women

In Germany as well as in other Western countries there seems to be a tendency to erect Buddhist centers instead of founding traditional monasteries.

The main teachers are Asian monks or laypeople. It is doubtful whether Buddhism in the West in the long run can survive without its own monasteries. This may either lead to oversimplification of Buddhism or to a continuous dependency on Asian monastics.

But it will be difficult to establish monasteries that serve as spiritual nucleus for Buddhist communities without adaptation to the needs of societies in today's modern world.

Interbuddhist and interfaith dialogues, for example with Christian monasteries, may be helpful to learn how they organize themselves in Germany. German speaking monastics gather for interbuddhist dialogue once a year.

Regular Vinaya con­ferences and training courses discussing issues such as "Vinaya in Modernity" and "Living as Buddhist monks and nuns in the West" could give fresh impetus for monasteries in Asia and help to establish monasteries in the West.

In this context it is not only important to discuss how to practice the ancient rules in modern times, but also to provide Buddhist education and leadership training and very practical things such as finance models including provision for old age and those in need of care.


  1. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft. The article can be downloaded for free here: (access January 22, 2012). For further information see Hellmuth Hecker's chronicle of Buddhism in Germany (Chronik des Bud­dhis­mus in Deutschland), published in 1985 by the German Buddhist Union (DBU).
  2. (access January 22, 2012).
  3. Lhasa Kanjur, 'dul ba, vol. nga, 53a6-7: dge slong dang, dge slong ma dang, dge bsnyen dang, dge bsnyen ma rnams byung bar ma gyur pa … nga yongs su mya nga las mi 'da 'o. Cf. vol. da, 378a6-b2.
  4. Cf. Martin Baumann: Buddhismus in Deutschland - Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tibet and Buddhis­mus 47/1998): (access Feb. 3, 2012).
  5. Her abbess was Ven. Karuna Dharma, head of the IBMC, who was ordained in the Vietnamese Zen tradition in 1976 in Los Angeles and was the first American bhikṣuṇī. For more information see Januar 2009).


Author: Carola Roloff