This information sheet aims to raise awareness and understanding of Buddhist religious and cultural practices to assist service providers in the government and not-for-profit community sectors to improve service development and delivery.
Western Australia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural society. Religious freedom and mutual respect for all religions are integral parts of our shared culture and are important underlying principles of multiculturalism and democracy.
There are a number of international treaties and national laws that recognise freedom of religion and belief as fundamental human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986.
In Western Australia it is unlawful under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 to discriminate against a person because of their religious conviction in certain areas of public life including employment, education, the provision of goods, services and facilities, in accommodation, clubs and in application forms (see the Equal Opportunity Commission website).
Service providers and employers who recognise, value and promote cultural and religious diversity can address more fully the needs of their clients and staff, thus providing services based on good practice. Respecting the roles of religion in various cultures is part of courteous, ethical and professional behaviour, which promotes a just and equitable society.
Though records are sparse, it is likely that Buddhism was first brought to Australia around the mid-19th century by Chinese miners joining the gold rushes. Japanese pearl divers and their families arrived shortly after the Chinese, bringing Buddhism with them to Broome, Darwin and Thursday Island. Celebration of Buddhist festivals became a popular feature of life in Broome, ceasing only during World War II internment of Japanese residents.
The mid-1970s saw a turning point in the history of Buddhism throughout Australia with the arrival of large numbers of ethnic Buddhists as refugees from the Indochinese wars. Most were from Vietnam but there were also numbers of Lao and Kampuchean Buddhists.
The 2011 Census has indicated that there are 47,542 people who identify themselves as Buddhist in Western Australia, representing an increase of 13,189 people, or 38.4 per cent, since the 2006 Census.
Between the 2006 and 2011 Censuses, the number of people in Australia who identified themselves as Buddhist increased by 110,222, an increase of 26 per cent.
Siddhattha Gotama was born as a prince in what is now Southern Nepal over 2500 years ago. Seeing that life’s pleasures fade quickly, he set out in search of lasting happiness. After six years of mainly solitary practice committed to cultivating and purifying the mind, he discovered the timeless truth of existence and realised enlightenment: the complete cessation of greed, hatred and delusion, which are at the root of all discontent deep within the mind.
Henceforth known as the Buddha, he devoted the remaining 45 years of his life to teaching and helping others to attain the same sublime happiness of liberation that he had discovered.
Today, two main strands of Buddhism are recognised:
- Theravada Buddhism, the main religion of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos but also prevalent in Malaysia, Singapore and Nepal.
- Mahayana Buddhism, the main religion of Tibet, Mongolia, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Japan but also prevalent in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Nepal.
- The variations in practice among Buddhists from person to person and country to country are often shaped by cultural rather than religious factors.
The following are the key Buddhist beliefs:
- All Buddhists believe in reincarnation. This belief shapes their attitude to life and death, making them more at ease with a premature or unexpected death of a loved one and more accepting of their own death when it is imminent. Carers should bear in mind that such stoicism in the face of tragedy comes from their religious beliefs and not from fear or denial.
- Buddhists also believe in the Law of Karma, which explains that one’s own happiness or suffering, success or failure, health or illness and so on, are caused by one’s own bodily, verbal or mental actions (karma means action). Karma is not fatalism, since Buddhists realise that karma is ‘work-in-progress’ so that even now they are generating the causes for future prosperity or failure. Thus, in times of distress, Buddhists will seek to do good karma to alleviate any unpleasantness.
- Buddhism is not a God-centred faith. Thus Buddhists do not worship, nor surrender their fate to a divine being. However, the majority of Buddhists will have statues of the Buddha, Kuan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy), Maitreya (the future Buddha) and other icons in their temples and houses, and pray in front of them for favours. Though these images are meant to be merely images of reflection, to generate inspiration, they are regularly used as a focus for aspirations, that is, praying. Also, Buddhists accept the truths of science, such as evolution, the ‘Big Bang’, genetics and so forth.
- Buddhists place strong emphasis on compassion. Since Buddhism holds that one can be reborn from the animal, ghost, heaven or lower realms, and that one can also reincarnate back into those realms (as well as back to the human realm), Buddhists show compassion to animals and insects. In practice, compassion takes the form of not doing anything that harms another or oneself, but instead strives to bring happiness to all beings, including oneself. This leads on to the basic moral conduct for Buddhists, called the Five Precepts.
- Buddhists try to live by the Five Precepts of harmlessness. However, if they fail, they are still fully accepted within the Buddhist community. The Five Precepts are strongly encouraged:
- Refraining from intentionally killing any living being
- Refraining from any form of stealing
- Refraining from sexual misconduct, in particular from committing adultery
- Refraining from any form of lying
- Refraining from taking alcohol and non-medicinal drugs.
- Some Buddhists from South-East Asian countries are reluctant to make contradictions, disagree or refuse requests directly, as this would be considered impolite. ‘No’ may be expressed or hinted at indirectly.
- For some Buddhists from South-East Asian countries, direct public criticism may lead to ‘loss of face’. For them, this is a state of severe humiliation, loss of reputation and emotional upheaval.
Nonverbal communication has a powerful effect on relationships and effective service provision. Nonverbal signals acceptable in one culture may be completely unacceptable or even offensive in another.
- On entering a temple or monastic building—and in many cases a Buddhist home—shoes and any head covering should be removed.
- At monasteries, temples and shrines in homes, Buddhists will usually bow three times before a statue of the Buddha, as a means of paying respect to the example of the Buddha, to his teachings, and to the Enlightened monks and nuns. Non-Buddhists are not expected to bow.
- Lay Buddhists will often bow as a mark of respect to monks, nuns and, in some cultures, to elders.
- Some Buddhist monks and nuns are generally not allowed to come into direct physical contact with members of the opposite gender.
- Police and soldiers (or any other person) should not carry weapons into a Buddhist temple or monastery.
- In some traditions pointing the soles of the feet towards a statue of the Buddha, a shrine, monks, nuns, or people in general, is considered very impolite.
- Touching the head of a person is considered to be impolite. The only exceptions relate to special circumstances, such as during medical treatment, in which permission should be sought and will generally be readily granted.
The following sensitivities need to be observed on greeting or introduction:
- It is inappropriate for some Theravada Buddhist monks and nuns to shake hands.
- A common Buddhist way of greeting is to put the palms of the hands together and raise them to the chin.
Buddhist monks and nuns can be addressed as ‘Venerable’, ‘Roshi’, ‘Ajahn’, ‘Master’, ‘Bhante’ or ‘Sister’, depending on their tradition. Buddhist clergy generally prefer to laugh at any mistakes in protocol and rarely take offence.
The following dress codes apply:
- Buddhist monks shave their heads and wear a robe that is usually brown/tan, orange, red, maroon, grey or black. Buddhist nuns also shave their heads and wear a robe which is usually brown, maroon, white, grey or pink.
- Lay Buddhists follow the Australian dress code and are indistinguishable from the majority.
- Visitors to Buddhist temples or monasteries should dress and behave modestly, as is customary in any religious place or building.
The following sensitivity needs to be observed in seating arrangements for interview purposes or hosting official functions:
- The rules for some Buddhist monks and nuns do not allow them to be alone with the opposite sex. Lay Buddhists of both genders have no such requirements.
Recognising appropriate foods and beverages is essential in responding to the needs of religious communities. When hosting people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, always serve a selection of vegetarian and meat on separate trays as a matter of good practice. A variety of non-alcoholic drinks should also be available at any official function. The following issues relating to food, drink and fasting should also be understood:
- Traditions vary over whether or not the Buddha prohibited the eating of meat. Because the Buddhist code of virtue includes compassion to animals, many Buddhists are vegetarian, however, they do not take offence at others eating meat.
- Some monks and nuns eat meat and others are vegetarian.
- Some Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people do not eat in the period from noon until the dawn of the next day.
The following key religious festivals and significant cultural and religious days are celebrated:
- The Buddhist ‘Uposatha’ (a day of renewed dedication) is observed roughly every seven to eight days (on the waning, new, waxing and full moon days). It is a common day for visiting a monastery.
- Vesak Day (Vasaka Puja) is the full moon of May. It commemorates the birth, Enlightenment, and final passing away of the Buddha. It is the major Buddhist festival of the year.
- The Rains Retreat (Vassavassa, or Vassa) is approximately from the full moon of July to the full moon of October. During this time Theravada monks and nuns devote more time to meditation and study and do not travel for long from their monastery.
- The Kathina Ceremony is sometime in October/November (depending on individual monasteries). Monastic supplies are offered following the monks’ three-month annual retreat.
The differing family characteristics of different religious groups should be appreciated. These include:
- Most Buddhist monks and nuns do not perform marriage ceremonies but often give a blessing after the civil ceremony.
- In some Buddhist families, the most senior male is considered the head of the family, though often the eldest son will represent the family in any discussions or interviews.
- Where possible, doctors, nurses, and other medical service providers treating Buddhist monks or nuns should be of the same gender.
- The family of a sick Buddhist in hospital will often be very keen to attend to their sick relative.
- Sick Buddhists in hospital may also request a visit from a monk or nun, but in some Buddhist cultures this is only for the terminally ill.
- Refer to the sections on ‘Body language and behaviour’, ‘Language and communication’ and ‘Seating’.
- Buddhist monks, nuns and some lay spiritual leaders are highly regarded by their communities and are often called upon for counselling and advice.
Death and the grieving process are particularly significant and important for all religious communities. Some sensitivities related to Buddhism include the following:
- A Buddhist would normally do their best to help a dying person attain a good rebirth by ensuring that the quality of their final moment of consciousness is as peaceful and free of fear as possible (see above, ‘Key beliefs’). This is helped if visitors stay serene and calm and help the dying person recollect their good actions. A calm and peaceful environment is helpful.
- Often a dying Buddhist will ask to see a Buddhist monk or nun of their own tradition to give him or her encouragement, spiritual support and sometimes chanting of Buddhist scriptures or blessings.
- Dying Buddhists may request that all pain killing or other drugs, which impair clarity of mind, be withdrawn shortly before death.
- Buddhists would usually have no objection to an autopsy, though most Buddhists would prefer that the body be left in an undisturbed state for as long as possible. Mahayana Buddhists prefer the body to be left untouched for up to eight hours while Tibetan Buddhists usually wish it to be undisturbed for three days.
- After a Buddhist has died, his or her relatives will often perform acts of generosity or religious observance in their name and dedicate the power of that goodness to the wellbeing of the deceased.
- Buddhism does not prescribe any particular preparation of the corpse or type of funeral so this will vary depending on cultural traditions. Cremation is common, though Chinese Buddhists prefer burial. Sometimes the ashes of the deceased are kept or enshrined in a Buddhist temple or monastery.
- Buddhist funeral services are normally performed by Buddhist monks or nuns.
This information sheet has been produced by the Office of Multicultural Interests with the support of the Buddhist Society of WA. For further information please contact the Buddhist Society of WA.
Correspondence can be forwarded to:
The Buddhist Society of Western Australia
18–20 Nanson Way
Nollamara WA 6061
Telephone: (08) 9345 1711
Fascimile: (08) 9344 4220