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Buddhism comes to Australia

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Apart from the traditional Koorie (Aboriginal) religion, which has existed on Australian soil for at least 40,000 years, it is suggested, by some anthropologists, that Buddhism may have been the earliest non-indigenous religion to reach our shores. Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese Ming Emporers sent an armada of sixty two large ships under the command of Cheng Ho, to explore the south. Evidence exists that several ships of this armada landed on the Aru islands, 480 kilometres north of Arnhem Land, but whether they set foot on the mainland is not confirmed. Professor A.P.Elkin seems convinced that certain Koorie practices such as the belief in reincarnation, psychic phenomena and mental cultivation can only be explained in the light of early contacts with the Orient. Unfortunately, no hard evidence exists to support his hypothesis.(5.)

In 1882, a ship called the "Devonshire" arrived in Mackay, Queensland, where two hundred and seventy five Sri Lankans were landed. Two days later, another two hundred and twenty five Sri Lankans disembarked at Burnett, to be met by an angry group of 'Anti-Coolie Leaguers' who pelted stones at them. This violence was met with retaliation by the Sri Lankans who drew knives to protect themselves. This racist encounter later came to be known as the 'Battle of Burnett'.(6.) A certain Bastion Appo is recorded as having sworn an oath on a 'Buddhist Bible' when bringing assault charges against an Australian in a Mackay Court in 1885. This 'Buddhist Bible' is thought to have been a Buddhist textbook which the Sri Lankans had brought with them. (7.)

During the 1890's, almost five hundred Sri Lankans, mainly pearlers, settled on Thursday Island and established the first Buddhist temple in Australia. It is thought to have occupied the site where the post office now stands. All that remains to remind us of this Buddhist community are two Bodhi trees (Ficus religiosa) descendents of the original tree under which the Buddha sat, when he attained Enlightenment, more than 2,500 years ago. Despite his minor flirtation with Buddhism, it was Alfred Deakin who introduced the Immigration Restriction Bill in 1901 which was the forerunner of the notorious White Australia Policy. (8.) This heralded the decline of Buddhism in Australia for the next fifty years.

It was not until the early 1950's, inspired by the visit of the American born Buddhist nun, Dhammadinna, that the Buddhist Society of New South Wales was formed under the Presidency of Leo Berkeley, a Dutch born Sydney businessman. This society is the oldest Buddhist organisation extant in Australia. Its membership was and still is comprised mainly of people of Anglo-European ethnic background.

In November, 1960, a lineage holder in the Chinese Cha'an (Zen) sect arrived in Sydney, where he stayed until the end of 1971. He was the famous master Hsuan Hua. (9.) He gained the impression that there were no Buddhists among the local Chinese community as he was largely ignored and, was, at one stage, on the verge of starvation due to the lack of support. At the end of 1961, he left for California, where, with the support of his many followers he established a monastic centre known as the 'City of Ten Thousand Buddhas'.

It was not until the 1970's and 1980's that true ethnic Buddhism made its appearance and became firmly established in New South Wales.