Possibly one of the most unexpected religious events in Australia, it will undoubtedly shock some to learn that Buddhism is currently Australia’s fastest growing religion. While it would seem that this is a recent trend perhaps brought about by a wave of immigrants, historical evidence shows us that this is not the case at all. Once you have decoded the Aussie history, perhaps this interest in Buddhism as a whole should not be so surprising or unexpected at all.
There are many anthropologists who have suggested that Buddhism may actually be Australia’s oldest non-indigenous religion, established before white settlement. While there is no material evidence to accurately prove this theory, there are some interesting clues that certainly seem to point in this direction.
It is well known that in the 1400s the Chinese Emperor sent sixty-two ships with the purpose of exploring southern Asia. Documented historical evidence proves that those ships reached the Aru Islands, but no conclusive proof has ever been established that those ships reached the mainland. However, within the coastal areas of the mainland many rock paintings have been discovered that depict images of what appear to be Chinese ship weighing anchor, and even depictions of the Buddha himself!
Some Northern Territory Koorie tribes carry belief systems that differ from tribes located elsewhere in Australia. Their belief systems include reincarnation, mental cultivation, even psychic phenomena. Could Ming Emperor Cheng-Ho’s ships have reached the mainland after all? Professor A.P. Elkin seems to think so. He hypothesizes that this, along with the rock paintings suggests these tribes had established contact with early Buddhists in the 1400s. Without concrete evidence it is little more than an educated hunch, but the clues definitely lead one to think that idea is not so far- fetched after all.
In 1876 the first permanent Buddhist community was set up and established on Thursday Island by Sinhalese immigrants. Prior to that, the first documented examples of Buddhists on the mainland happened during the gold rush of 1848. It was during this time that Chinese coolie laborers were brought into the country to work the fields, although most of them did not stay longer than five years.
After the gold rushes, many Japanese Shinto Buddhists arrived to take part in the pearling businesses, starting in the 1870s and continuing to arrive from there on after. It is not so impossible to consider that with all of this Buddhist influence Australia has been exposed to, that many would adopt their beliefs and practices. Perhaps this growing support for Buddhism is not such a new trend, but rather a completion of a long building cycle.