The Roots of Buddhism in Austria
The first earnest contact of an Austrian with Buddhism occurred somewhere in the 17th or 18th century through a Jesuit missionary who came in contact with Vajrayana Buddhism somewhere deep in the Himalayan mountains. No more is mentioned in the chronicles. It is interesting though that today Vajrayana Buddhism has the greatest number of followers in Austria. Nonetheless, it took until the end of the 19th century before the first evidence of Buddhism in Austria could be found. It is the work of Karl Eugen Neumann, whose legal estate is stored in the Austrian Buddhist Society (ÖBR) archive. He was the first translator of the Pali Canon into German. The Pali Canon is the so-called Three-Fold Basket—the original holy texts of Buddhism: The Basket of Discourses, The Basket of the Discipline for Monks and Nuns, and The Basket of Higher Teachings. At that time Buddhism mainly aroused scientific interest and not so much a spiritual one. Only after World War II did the first Buddhist groups appear—the predecessors of today's Austrian Buddhist Society.
In the middle of the last century, this religion, with its completely new concepts and philosophical approaches, gained wider attention in the West. It is a religion without the belief in a creator god and without dogmatism. These aspects, so contrary to the Abrahamic religions of the West, were exactly the reasons why people who had been disappointed in their own religions were attracted to Buddhism; and they found in this new religion a way to liberate themselves and to find a new spiritual home.
Buddhism did not come to us through missionaries. It was first imported by scientists, and then religiously inspired people invited nuns and monks from Asia to introduce us to their teachings. Also many Westerners travelled to Asia, to study the Dharma (the teachings), and then they became valuable teachers in Europe and in Austria.
Before Buddhism spread into the West, it had mainly existed in its traditions, isolated in the various countries where it had originally been practiced. Only after Buddhism found its way into the West did the individual traditions of Buddhism meet; and thereby, a new form of development started. Up to this day there is no "Western" Buddhism. Each variation of Buddhism in the West has its roots in one of the different Asian traditions. They all co-exist here at equal value.
Since 1983 Buddhism is officially acknowledged as a religion by the Austrian government. In order to meet the normative requirements of the West, the Austrian Buddhist Society was founded as an umbrella organisation, under which all Buddhist traditions and groups in Austria are united. With this organisation, Buddhism was officially recognised by the Republic of Austria in February 1983, and it exists on a par with the other officially recognised religions in Austria.
Thus Austria was one of the first countries in Europe where Buddhism became an officially recognised religion. This kind of recognition also demonstrates how a peaceful and beneficial cooperation of various religions is possible.
For the ÖBR, this acknowledgement was a gift of great value, and equally, a huge responsibility towards both the state and Austrian society. This task however, is not seen as a burden, but as a wonderful opportunity, since it is a part of the Buddhist practice and of the Buddhist path to take care of the wellbeing of all sentient beings. Naturally this means taking care of the welfare of the society in which the respective Sanghas (the Buddhist communities) exist. It is also the reason for the many years of engagement in the European Buddhist Union.
The Austrian Buddhist Society has grown slowly but steadily in the last decades, and so have its tasks and requirements. Buddhism in Austria was barely noticed by the general public when it started out. The tiny plant of the Buddha's teachings germinated and grew slowly, well-sheltered in private homes that were turned into temples. They were the predecessors of today's Buddhist centre in Vienna’s first district.
After the death of the first president,Walter Karwath, the Austrian-born Zen monk, Osho Genro Koudela, presided over the ÖBR for 15 years. During his lengthy term in office, and thanks to his calm and careful management, the teachings of the Buddha in their huge variety of traditions were wholesomely established and developed. After him, his secretary general, Peter Riedl, followed as the third president. Since 2006 Gerhard Weissgrab has been the President of the ÖBR.
Buddhism in Austria Today
Today it is our enormously important function to give Buddhism in Austria a clear profile that can be identified by everybody. The fundamental and important traditions must be preserved. In the overview of all ÖBR groups you will find all the major traditions of Buddhism.
We do not want to build a new western tradition from these diverse existing traditions. We want to use the precious offerings of the different traditions in such a way that we, with our western way of thinking and cultural roots, may realise and practise the essence of the Buddha's teachings in their authentic form.
The Dharma (the teaching) is neutral, clear, and pure, like a beautifully cut diamond: place it upon blue velvet and it shimmers blue; place it upon red velvet and it shimmers red. But in its essence its clarity remains the same. Ultimately it is about recognising and practicing this clarity.
Especially the teachings of the Buddha with their largely peaceful history and outstanding form of tolerance can make a significant and helpful contribution. Buddhism does not regard itself as the only true doctrine; rather, it regards itself and all other religions as equal and equivalent ways, which can offer people help in their spiritual distress and, most pragmatically, with their daily burdens. Buddhism does not regard itself as rival to other religions, but as an offer for those who cannot find their path in other religions. It is not about who offers the better path, but about everyone finding the right path for themselves.
The way of the Buddha is, above all, a path for the development of every individual. It should lead the individual to insight and knowledge, and through the development of the individual, society itself may develop.
The future of Buddhism in Austria lies in showing possible answers and ways for those who are searching. And the task of creating the best possible conditions for this lies with the Austrian Buddhist Society.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes!
May all beings own happiness and the requirements for happiness!
May all beings be happy!
Karl Eugen Neumann (1865, Vienna – 1915, Vienna)
Neumann was the first person to translate most parts of the Pali Canon into German, and he is considered as an important pioneer of Buddhism in Europe.