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Buddhism in the German-speaking Countries


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2/2007, P. 111-118
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    There is an increasing enthusiasm for Buddhism in the German-speaking countries. CHRISTIAN RUCH, sociologist and member of the working group "New Religious Movements" of the Swiss Bishops' Conference, analyzes this phenomenon and warns of a too simple dissolving of the borders between the religions.


There is no doubt: Buddhism booms. All the same whether it concerns the Dalai Lama, Zen Buddhism practicing Benedictines or the Vietnamese Thich Nhat Hanh - long since also many Christians have been seized by the allegedly so gentle religion of Asia. Hence it is to ask how it could come so far that Buddhism for Christians in Central European became such an attractive second, secondary and in many cases obviously even alternative religion. Apparently Buddhism fills a spiritual vacuum, for which not the Christian churches alone, but they too, are to be called to account.

Ironically enough the Dalai Lama is very sceptically disposed towards the enthusiasm with which people moulded by the western way of life pounce on Buddhism, and advises them first to look in their own religion for spiritual fulfilment. He made the Buddhism enthusiasts take to heart:

"Caution is needed here. Avoid it at any price to become Buddhist without having really thought about it, without having at your disposal a basic knowledge. For if you only follow your desire then you will sooner or later discover that certain practices do not at all correspond or appear impossible to you." {1}

And further:

"One should further on respect the religious community from which one comes, and not deliberately isolate oneself from it. ... A conversion to Buddhism should be thoroughly considered. A spontaneous change of religion almost always proves as difficult and can also lead to heavy mental disturbances. The one who becomes converted to Buddhism should be content and not - with the religious over-eagerness of the convert - want to make everything quite differently. So an old Tibetan wisdom advises us: "Change your awareness, but leave your outward appearance as it is.'"{2}

Such admonishments are scarcely able to spoil the enthusiasm for Buddhism. Exotic things are in vogue and always more fascinating than what one already knows. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism is added that the interest in and the fascination by the myth Tibet also naturally prepared always a fertile ground for Tibet's religion. Tibet was even for Hollywood for a good while so interesting that in relatively short distances straight away three feature films were made on this topic and proved as very successful: "Seven years in Tibet", "Little Buddha" and "Kundun".



Since it was in these films also or even mainly about religious practices and questions, they worked as a kind advertising medium for Tibetan Buddhism.

But this does not at all mean that the most Tibet and Dalai Lama-enthusiasts now become, as it were, strongly catechized Buddhists. This might even be the exception. Far more often elements of the Tibetan Buddhism - rituals or faith contents - might be integrated into the own faith cosmos. To say it pointedly: On Sundays one goes from time to time to church and Thursday evening to a meditation course, without seeing therein even the smallest contradiction. The Catholic theologian Michael Fuss spoke in this connection of the "Buddhist Christians", thereby are meant people who insert Buddhist elements into their traditional Christian faith{3}. Besides that there are of course also those who let elements of Buddhism, Christianity and other traditions merge into a kind of private hyper-religion. Of course, this phenomenon concerns not only Buddhism but numerous other non-Christian religions.


On the Search for Illumination

At first sight it may appear contradictory that just such an individualized and emancipated society as that of the post-industrial western states feels attracted from religious forms, whether they are now of Buddhist or Hindu provenance, in which one ascribes very great authority to the person of the teacher, in case of the Tibetan Buddhism even an almost absolute authority. To formulate it pointedly: Pretty often those who pull the Pope's claim to authority to pieces show towards masters and gurus a completely uncritical obedience that can almost be called humble. Perhaps just the anti-authoritarian people of the west - "fatherless society" would be here a keyword - long for authorities; these can be represented by Tibetan Lamas, Zen masters or gurus as a kind of father replacement. It is obvious that this can encourage abuse, be it financially or sexually. Hence the Dalai Lama rightly warns: "Try out the guru for twelve years before you give up your whole life for him. Twelve years, not only one hour." {4}

But one has to take into account that often Buddhism is at bottom no longer seen as religion but rather as practical philosophy and so as one of the nowadays so dearly desired instructions about happiness: as "a religion without God as Creator and without the soul as unchangeable in its nature. But with tolerance, peace and sympathy ... Is Buddhism thus something like an almost ideal religion?



If one follows western followers and media, one could come now and then to this conclusion. Buddhism as the better Christianity with at least equally good ethics and more reasonable foundations, and in addition a doctrine that "does not put off people until the thereafter", so the Protestant-Reformed Swiss theologian Joachim Finger {5}. Besides, is it legitimate to speak about the Buddhism? Is it not necessary to differentiate and to regard the individual Buddhist schools of thought more in detail and thereby separately? This is to happen in the following.

First of all it is to be noted that European Buddhists are - regardless of their form - united in umbrella organisations: On European level the "European Buddhist Union" (EBU) with seat in the French Arvillard connects the different national organizations as well as the different Buddhist schools of thought. In the year 1998 the EBU proceeded on the assumption of roughly one up to three million European followers of Buddhism{6}.

There are on national level in the German-speaking countries: the "German Buddhist Union" (DBU), created in 1955 with - up to the turn of the century - 470 different Buddhist communities or organizations, centres or temples {7}; the "Swiss Buddhist Union" (SBU), created in 1978, with 88 member organizations (2000) {8}; and the "Austrian Buddhist Religious Community" (ÖBR) brought in 1983 into being with eight centres and 13 groups {9}. The establishment of the ÖBR by the way was connected with the national acknowledgment of Buddhism as official religion.

If one takes a closer look at the member structure of the DBU then one notices that in the year 2000 of the 470 groups of members and - centres 147 belonged to Tibetan Buddhism and 138 to Zen, thus both movements held more than half of the member federations; only 40 members belonged for example to the Theravada tradition. Hence with the Tibetan Buddhism as well as with the tradition of Zen is to be dealt briefly in detail.


Tibetan Buddhism

The West would probably have made more slowly and thus perhaps for both sides also more cautiously the acquaintance of Tibetan Buddhism {10} if in 1949/50 the so-called "People's Liberation Army" of the shortly before created People's Republic of China were not marched into the up to then actually independent Tibet. On 10 March 1959 a national Tibetan uprising happened that was brutally suppressed by the Chinese, and cost the life of roughly 87.000 Tibetans. Immediately after it the Dalai Lama fled into exile to India, and with him a large part of the political and religious elite.



By this the just topographically caused separation and isolation of the Tibetan culture area suddenly came to an end, so that the largest obstacle for the discovery of the Tibetan culture and religion by the West and vice versa of the West by the Tibetans was removed. Before the escape of the Dalai Lama into exile there had hardly been any contact between the Tibetan Buddhism and the West.

Young people who in the sixties travelled on their spiritual trip to Asia, and young Tibetan monks who were sent for training into the West, might probably have been the pioneers of the meeting between Tibetans and the West. They were followed by Tibetan Lamas who were invited at that time from their still few western followers to deliver lectures and to celebrate rituals. In 1973 the first European journey of the Dalai Lama took place. He became since then - particularly since the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 - the most important medium and advertising medium of Tibetan Buddhism. In the context of this journey in 1973 the Dalai Lama was also for the first time received by the Pope (Paul VI.). This marks something like the official beginning of the dialogue between Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism. It may not be overlooked that the Dalai Lama had already in 1968 found access to the Christian spirituality by his contact with the American Trappist Thomas Merton.

An important starting-point for the establishment of the Tibetan Buddhism in Europe was the in 1968 founded Tibetan monastery in Rikon near Zurich. In the beginning of the sixties Switzerland had taken up relatively many Tibetan refugees and harbours beside the USA the largest exile-Tibetan community in the West. In Germany (with which naturally is meant only the old Federal Republic), the visits and lectures of Tibetan Lamas began about the middle of the seventies.

But with the Lamas sent into the West not only the knowledge and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism were exported into the West but also its conflicts and problems. For even if Tibetan Buddhism may be considered as the perfectly peaceful religion of a just as peaceful people, there have been and are - as in any religious community -, disputes, power struggles and splitting. This became particularly clear when in the nineties within the Gelug school of the Dalai Lama the conflict began about the guardian angel Dorje Shugden and in the Kagyü school the violent arguments about the legal standard of the seventeenth Karmapa, and also western followers of the Tibetan Buddhism were affected by that {11}. But the problems arising from the clash of Tibetan tradition with western socialization are more serious: Many Lamas who came to the West were just as little prepared for the meeting with the westerners hungry for illumination as they for them. It is particularly problematic that some Lamas take advantage of the admiration of their female followers



and exploit them sexually on the basis of the absolute obedience that disciples have to show to their Lama according to the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism{12}.

A further problem is the imparting of Tibetan Buddhism: the western public can soon be overtaxed by the effort to learn it authentically. For the Tibetan Buddhism goes beyond the Dalai Lama's more or less generally valid wisdoms. It has an extremely complex theology. On the one hand it is, contrary to the Buddhist traditions of South Asia, a decidedly polytheistic religion: full of gods, guardian angels and demons. This is attributed to the fact that Buddhism, when it began to gain acceptance in Tibet, integrated numerous elements of the Bön religion practised by shamans{13}. On the other hand the Tibetan Buddhism is until today strongly affected by a magic up to occult thinking that has even influence on the policy of the Dalai Lama. Now as ever oracles and trance media are asked for important decisions of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Hence the one who wants to get involved in an authentic Tibetan Buddhism is confronted with a religious practice that seems almost archaic, and is not necessarily compatible with enlightened, western thinking - to formulate it cautiously.

Add to it that the Buddhist theology and religious practice, which can be learnt today by western consumers, is in Tibet hardly intended for laymen but was reserved for ordained monks and nuns. Tibetan laymen had hardly any possibility to go something like a spiritual way of instruction. This is noticeable up to this day, for usually the exile Tibetan has only an extremely rudimentary religious knowledge. This can lead to the paradox situation that western people interested in Tibetan Buddhism, who seriously busy themselves with this matter, know soon by far more about this religion as Tibetans.


Zen Buddhism

Contrary to the confusing flood of gods, ghosts and pictures of the Tibetan Buddhism the Zen Buddhism comes along decidedly sober. This may have contributed to the fact that it came to an actually Christian-Buddhist synthesis in form of "Christian Zen". Particularly in Catholicism it could widely spread - a development that met however not only agreement, both on Catholic and Buddhist side. On Catholic side the 'silence of penitence' imposed on the Zen master and Benedictine Willigis Jäger by the Vatican in the year 2002



- Jäger obviously does not intend to comply with it -, shows that borders are set to the compatibility of Christian and Buddhist ideas - at least from the Roman perspective. But critical voices became loud also on Buddhist side: The Zen organization "Mumonkai" saw in the middle of the nineties in the "Christian Zen" a pocketing by Catholicism, yes, even a fraud, since Buddhist and Christian teachings were simply not compatible{14}.

But neither such objections of Buddhist organizations nor the Roman-catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were able to prevent that there is today a multiplicity of Christian resp. Catholic educational establishments. Zen Buddhism, its teachings and ways of meditation are a firm part of their program, and they regard Zen as quite compatible with Christian theology. How did it come to that?

Zen Buddhism as result of a fusion of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism developed in the seventh century A.D. in China and spread from there to Viet Nam, Korea and Japan. For the West above all the Japanese form of Zen became important. In 1929 the Jesuit Hugo Mabiki Enomiya Lasalle (1898-1990) came to Japan and became acquainted there with Zen. In the end of the sixties he began to make known this tradition in the West on lecture tours in the West, and in 1978 a Zen Buddhist centre of meditation was attached to the Franciscan monastery in Dietfurt. Further well-known instructors of "Christian Zen" are among others the Swiss Jesuit Nicolas Brant, the already mentioned Benedictine Willigis Jäger or Sister Ana María Schlüter Rodes.

The problem of the term "Christian Zen" is at bottom that there are large and hardly bridgeable differences between Buddhism and Christianity: Christianity believes in a Creator God, proceeds from a personal conception of God and sees man in principle put under an "eschatological reservation", i.e. man is a being that on the one hand needs redemption but is on the other hand not capable of self-redemption. Buddhism knows neither a Creator nor a personal God and assumes in principle that man is able from its own strength to enter into Nirwana, i.e. that it is able to redeem itself.

The statements of Willigis Jäger, complained by Rome, show quite clearly that he too does not escape this contradiction, but that he draws from it the obvious consequence to take the side of a Buddhist view or at least the view of a non-personal God:

"God reveals itself in the tree as tree, in the animal as animal and in human beings as human being. It is the symphony that sounds. The composer stands not outside and conducts. It sounds as this symphony. It is its music, and all forms are only notes. What we call God, creates itself instant for instant anew."



This understanding has as consequence that Jäger said also good-bye to a genuine Christian soteriology in the sense of redemption by Jesus Christ:

"Redemption ... is the realization that all beings are one. Redemption is like an awaking to our true nature, to our true identity. It is a process of revelation and release. What we really are does not begin with birth and does not end with death. The pre-personal reality unfolds on a timeless background. The personal and individual being develops when this first reality steps out and pours itself into innumerable forms." {15}

The Protestant theologian Harald Lamprecht commentated on this view quite correctly:

"That Jesus Christ died 2000 years ago at the cross in Golgotha had for Willigis Jäger no longer a unique meaning. Redemption happened according to his opinion not by Jesus' deputy expiatory sacrifice, but via realization of man's internal unity with God. This ultimate unity included all religions. They all would lead in the end on different ways to the same goal. This were not to be seen in the outward range of cults and rites, but the esoteric ways of the religions would correspond to each other and would lead from different sides to the one summit of the mountain - i.e. to the realization of the essential unity with God or Brahman or Allah or the nothingness of Buddhism. He meant this, when he talked about the transconfessional nature of a mysticism that transcended the traditional borders of the denominations (with him also: of the religions). But how much such an interpretation of the mystical experience has still to do with the nature of the respective religions may and must be asked." {16}

Exactly this is the problem of "Christian Zen": it does neither justice to the respective characteristics of Christianity nor to those of Buddhism, hence it ignores and negates borders that are necessary and in the interest of both religions. But a mystagogic standard mash - by which at bottom the religious traditions become exchangeable - is not any achievement.

To avoid misunderstandings: Of course, it is not about the building up of apologetic defensive circles of wagons, as they can be found sometimes in the Evangelical fundamentalist camp. Christians should meet the various traditions of Buddhism with fairness, and with respect for an extremely rich inheritance, and should cultivate by their dialogue the things in common, without denying the own character and the separating things. Carl Gustav Jung probably gave the correct direction when he advised against "leaving our own foundations like survived mistakes and settling like homeless pirates and thieves on foreign coasts" {17}. Hence just the fascinating strangeness of Buddhism can help to discover one's own deficits but also one's own riches.




{1} Dalai Lama, Ratschläge des Herzens (Zürich 2003) 195.

{2}Dalai Lama, Das kleine Buch vom rechten Leben (Freiburg 1998) 127.

{3} M. Fuss, The emerging Euroyâna, in: The Way 41 (2001) 136-147.

{4} Cited after: Buddhismus. Faszination u. Grenzen einer Spiritualität, edited by J. Finger (Fribourg 2001) 31.

{5} In the same place 7.

{6} See G. Schmid u. G. O. Schmid, Kirchen, Sekten, Religionen. Religiöse Gemeinschaften, weltanschauliche Gruppierungen u. Psycho-Organisationen im deutschen Sprachraum (Zürich 2003) 376.

{7} In the same place 377.

{8} In the same place

{9} In the same place

{10} See V. Dehm u. Ch. Ruch, "Wenn Eisenvögel fliegen ...". Der tibetische Buddhismus u. der Westen (Berlin 2006).

{11} See in the same place 37-41.

{12} See in the same place 42-49.

{13} See in the same place 5-16.

{14} See U. Dehn, Das Klatschen mit der einen Hand. Was fasziniert uns am Buddhismus? (Hannover 1999) 99ff.

{15} W. Jäger, Symphonie des Einen u. Ganzen. Zur Diskussion: Erlösungstheologie - Evolutionstheologie, in CiG 52 (2000) 149-150, 149.

{16} Quoted from

{17} Quoted from Buddhismus (A. 4) 97.


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