A historical moment Buddhism in Australia Research Project launched at Nan Tien Institute

The NTI-led multi-institution research project “Buddhism in Australia” was launched at Nan Tien Institute. photo/The Life News Agency

Nan Tien Temple
November 20, 2023

On November 9th and 10th, the NTI-led multi-institution research project “Buddhism in Australia” was launched at Nan Tien Institute. Sponsored by Hsing Yun Education Foundation, this three-year project is a collaboration between Nan Tien Institute, Deakin University, Western Sydney University and Charles Darwin University and. The launch was attended in-person by Abbess Manko, Chief Abbess of Fo Guang Shan Australia and New Zealand, Venerable Juefang, General Manager of Hsing Yun Education Foundation, Venerable Dr Juewei Shi, Director of Humanistic Buddhism Centre at Nan Tien Institute, Professor Cristina Rocha, anthropologist at Western Sydney University, Associate Professor Anna Halafoff, sociologist at Deakin University, and Dr Sioh Yang Tan, research assistant at Humanistic Buddhism Centre, Nan Tien Institute. Dr Kim Lam and Dr Ruth Fitzpatrick from Deakin University, and photographer Freeman Trebilcock were present online.

Dr Sioh Yang Tan took visitors on a tour of Nan Tien Institute. photo/The Life News Agency

Buddhists comprise 2.4% of the Australian population in the 2021 census, yet it has a long history with Buddhism being brought to this land multiple times since the mid 19th century. "Buddhism in Australia: Well-being, Social Engagement and Belonging” aims to use mixed methods to comprehensively explore the state of Buddhism in Australia from then to the present. Dividing the history of Buddhism in Australia into three periods in time, before 1901, 1901 to 1973, and 1973 to 2025, the investigators aim to: (1) document the presence of Buddhism in Australia and the religious lives of Buddhist migrants from the 1800s; (2) Identify factors that affect a sense of belonging of Buddhists in Australian society; (3) analyse Buddhist contributions to health, wellbeing and social engagement in Australia; (4) investigate the ongoing relationships between Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Buddhists in Australia; and (5) produce educational resources on Buddhism in Australia.

Co-investigator Anna Halafoff is Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at Deakin University. As a Buddhist, she noticed that there had not been very much research conducted on Buddhism in Australia. Where there was it focused on cities such as Sydney and Melbourne and not much attention has been paid on the Far North and West of Australia. These are places with a very long history of Buddhism through Chinese, Japanese and Sinhalese migration into Australia dating back to the gold rush period. Her preliminary fieldwork at temples, cemeteries, and sites of sacred trees in the Far North has uncovered the remnants of very old communities that still had a contemporary lived culture. 

Drawing from her experience in this preliminary fieldwork and the crowd-funded oral history project “Buddhist Life Stories of Australia”, Associate Professor Halafoff hopes to conduct in-depth research to obtain a comprehensive portrait of Buddhism in Australia. “The project was more than ten years in the making,” she said. She was very grateful that this important project has finally been launched today, led by Nan Tien Insittute and with the support of Hsing Yun Education Foundation.

Professors were grateful that this important project has finally been launched, led by Nan Tien Insittute and with the support of Hsing Yun Education Foundation. photo/The Life News Agency

Co-investigator Cristina Rocha is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Religion and Society Research Cluster at Western Sydney University. An accomplished researcher with an interest in globalisation, religion and materialities, Professor Rocha co-edits the Journal of Global Buddhism. Her book Buddhism in Australia, co-authored with Michelle Barker in 2011, is a valuable resource this current project will build upon. She said that the two-day meeting was mainly about formulating plans for the next three years. This was Professor Rocha’s first visit to Nan Tien Temple, and she was impressed by the beautiful temple and its native bush surrounds. Sioh Yang Tan from the Humanistic Buddhism Centre introduced Professor Rocha to Venerable Master Hsing Yun’s One Stroke Calligraphy, mentioning the Venerable Master’s modest heartfelt words, "Don't look at my handwriting, look at my heart." Professor Rocha said she was very happy to be able to contribute to Buddhism and to advancing knowledge on Buddhism in Australia.

Collaboration between Associate Professor Halafoff, Professor Rocha and Dr Juewei Shi of Nan Tien Institute began in 2021 when they worked together to establish the multidisciplinary “Buddhism in Pacific Research Network". The collaboration led to a special issue on "Flows and Counterflows of Buddhism in the Sea of Islands" in Journal of Global Buddhism in 2022. Dr Juewei Shi said that the research team will work closely with various Buddhist organizations and communities in this project to tell the story of Buddhism in Australia. Dr Shi also hopes to connect Fo Guang Shan and Nan Tien Institute with Buddhist organisations across Australia, explore the diversity of “Australian Buddhisms”, and gain an insight into how Humanistic Buddhism may respond to local socio-cultural contexts throughout the course of this project.

Dr Sioh Yang Tan(middle), Professor Cristina Rocha(left), anthropologist at Western Sydney University, and Associate Professor Anna Halafoff(right), sociologist at Deakin University. photo/The Life News Agency

Apart from reporting the research outcome through academic publications, the research team will also turn the research data into public educational resources about Buddhism in Australia to give back to the people who tell the stories. The story of the people and the communities is what Buddhism in Australia is really about.

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