Developments in Australian Buddhism by Michelle Spuler

Michelle Spuler. Developments in Australian Buddhism: Facets of the Diamond. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. Hardcover, xv + 199 pages.

Buddhism has come west and keeps on coming. It is the fastest growing religious tradition in Australia. The first Buddhist Zen master to come to the West was Shaku Soyen, who participated in the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. Chinese immigrants to Australia, however, had brought Buddhism to that continent already in 1848, and the first documented Buddhist organization was founded in 1925, which signaled the beginning of Australian converts to Buddhism. In the mid-1950s, under the influence of the Beat Zen generation, the first Zen organizations made their appearance in Australia. By 1996, nearly 200,000 Australians identified themselves as Buddhists, which amounted to 1.1% of the population. However, only about were converts. In 2000, there were some 315 Buddhist groups in Australia, which demonstrates the growing interest in this age-old tradition.

Michelle Spuler, a former editor of the Journal of Global Buddhism, has produced a very systematic work with a strong emphasis on theoretical principles, notably models of change within a religious tradition. She correctly notes that the few studies that exist on Buddhism’s adaptation to a Western cultural context are seldom based on ethnographic fieldwork and also often do not adequately take into account the various theories on religious change.

In her work, Spuler opted to focus on the immensely popular Diamond Sangha organization, which is one of the largest Zen lineages in the West. It was founded in 1959 by Robert Aitken, who also cofounded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and has authored some dozen books. Its teachings are based on the Japanese Sanbo Kyodan (Fellowship of the Three Treasures), which is a school of Soto Zen (the gradual path to enlightenment) incorporating certain elements of Rinzai Zen (the sudden path to enlightenment).

The democratically run Diamond Sangha is composed of at least eighteen affiliated groups in six countries, including Australia. The author is basing her findings on interviews with members of the Diamond Sangha, personal participation in the group’s programs, and analysis of its literature. She has organized her data into three categories: practical, sociological, and ideological.

Spuler argues that the Australian Buddhist practitioners have created a hybrid that incorporates features of Western psychology and democracy and is based on translations of traditional scriptures rather than their original versions. Innovations like the appointment of female teachers, new rituals, and new methods of teaching have given Australian Buddhism its distinct flavor. Some of the innovations have led to incongruities, such as the retaining of traditional Japanese chopsticks and a teaspoon for meals composed of pasta and salad.

This monograph, which is part of the publisher’s Critical Studies in Buddhism Series, offers an excellent analysis of the ritual practice, social realities, and belief system of the Diamond Sangha. The author’s adopted framework is that of the sociology of religion, and she has succeeded in contributing significantly to the discussion. It might have been appropriate to see both the specific focus on the diamond Sangha and the sociological perspective reflected in the book’s title and subtitle. Spuler’s work should prove helpful in studying other Buddhist traditions, notably Tibetan Buddhism, both in Australia and other Western countries.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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