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Zen in 2020 Australia

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Zen in 2020 Australia

The number of declared Buddhists in Australia according to the 2016 Census was 563,677 people, just under 2.4% of the total population. 33% of those people live in Greater Sydney (Sydney city and surrounding cities and suburbs) and 30% in Greater Melbourne. According to the Buddhist Council of New South Wales (NSW)’s Annual Report 2020, 6% of its members were of the Zen tradition. If the NSW figures are representative of Buddhism in Australia as a whole, approximately 30,000 people are members of or sympathetic to the Zen tradition. By “Zen tradition” is meant the Zen of Japan, Chan of China, Seon of Korea, and Thien of Vietnam, as well as the adaptations of Zen created mainly in the USA.


As Australia is an immigrant society, the Buddhist Council of NSW estimates that around three quarters of its members are what it calls “Eastern Buddhists,” in other words, members of Asian ethnic communities, migrants who brought their religion with them, as well as their children. For example, after the fall of South Vietnam, many Vietnamese refugees came to Australia. While the majority were Catholic Christians, there were also many Buddhists, some of whom followed the Thien (Jap. Zen) tradition. Some ethnic communities established temples and monasteries in order to practice their own religion and to preserve their culture for their children. Thus, some Zen organizations only cater to native speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean. Some of these “Eastern Buddhist” organizations maintain the practices and disciplines of their tradition, especially when the organization is led by monks or nuns (sangha).


In contrast, the “Zen” of people of Anglo-European descent ranges from the strict observance of one of the Zen traditions (a minority, it seems) to a practice of “Zen” in the broadest interpretation. Most of the groups are lay-centered and have meditation meetings once or twice a week, especially in the evenings, and longer sessions on the weekends, and occasional longer retreats. A few maintain monasteries and monastic discipline. A few of these groups interpret “Zen” as simply a method of meditation practice, even ignoring the Buddhist doctrinal content such as faith 信 and the Buddha-nature仏性 or tathāgatagarbha如来蔵. Thus, there is a Christian-Zen or practice of Zen in a Christian context (for example, The Way of Zen, led by Ama Samy SJ, a Jesuit priest. Ama Samy, an Indian, became a Catholic priest, and went to Japan through the assistance of Fr. Enomiya Lassalle, trained under Yamada Koun Roshi of Sanbokyodan, and was licensed to teach in 1982), and in some cases, zazen is taught together with vipassana or mindfulness meditation (for example, Kuan Yin Meditation Centre). Positively, this may be interpreted as ecumenical, but negatively, it may be interpreted as vagueness about the different meditation practices and their doctrinal bases. Several groups try to maintain traditional monastic discipline and practice, although adapted to Australian circumstances.


The types of Zen and the Zen organizations created in Australia are largely products of two factors; the influence of Zen as propagated in the major metropolitan centers, especially the USA; and the history of migration from Asia after the 1970s.


Metropolitan (Anglo-American) organizations

Very few Australians had any direct contact with Zen before the 1970s. The only knowledge Australians had of Zen was through books, which introduced elements of romanticism and transcendentalism. Other avenues of influence appeared from the 1960s, when Japan became a major trade partner for Australia, and some Australians became aware of Zen through their interests in the martial arts (mainly judo and karate) or tea ceremony (茶道) and ink-brush painting (墨絵). Many groups, especially up till at least the 1990s or even later, were guided by Zen masters who periodically visited from overseas to lead sessions for short periods, and did not reside in Australia.


Diamond Sangha and affiliates

Organized Zen practice in Australia exclusive of the immigrant organizations is dominated by Zen groups that have come to Australia via the USA. The most influential of these, the Diamond Sangha group, derives from the Sanbo kyodan (三寶教団) that was founded in Japan. Harada Dai’un Sogaku (1871-1961), a member of a Soto Zen lineage, began to incorporate elements of Rinzai into his teaching and he elevated the status of laypeople. His successor, Yasutani Haku’u Ryoko (1885-1973), founded the Sanbo kyodan in 1954, separating from the Soto lineage, forming “an independent lay stream of Soto Zen that incorporates aspects of Rinzai Zen.” Yasutani then began to spread his teachings beyond Japan, and his successor, Yamada Koun Zenshin (1907-1989) began to break down “the traditional sectarian barriers that separated Buddhists and Christians.” Thus, now “Sanbo Kyodan Zen masters are not necessarily Buddhists,” like Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle (1898-1991), a Jesuit priest.


The Diamond Sangha was founded by Robert Aitken (1917-2010. In 1948 he studied Zen in Japan with Senzaki Nyogen. He became close with Yasutani, who acted as a guide for the practice of Zen by the Diamond Sangha. In 1983, Aitken was authorized to teach by Yamada of the Sanbo kyodan. Then Aitken set up the Diamond Sangha as an independent lineage.


Aitken began visiting Australia from 1979 to guide the Sydney Zen Centre, and he visited every year for the next ten years. Aitken appointed John Tarrant, an Australian then living in the USA, as assistant teacher in 1984, and Tarrant led Diamond Sangha in Australia from 1988. More groups formed, and in 1991 two Australians, Subhana Barzaghi (female) and Ross Bolleter became assistant teachers in Australia, and later became Zen masters.


Diamond Sangha has the most centers in Australia, with a zendo and a monastery in NSW, plus groups meeting in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Freemantle (WA), Darwin, Hobart, and Canberra. It is largely a democratic organization, has some female masters, downplays ritual, and has a tendency towards Soto practice.


Sanbo kyodan

This is related to, if not ancestral to, Diamond Sangha. It has centers in the Brisbane area and teaches a mixture of Soto and Rinzai Zen, such as zazen, koan, kinhin. It speaks of Zen in daily life, of being a lay householder lineage.


Ordinary Mind Zen

This school was founded in 1995 by Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), who learnt from Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi (1931-1995) in Los Angeles. Beck received transmission from Maezumi in 1978. She founded the Zen Center San Diego, where she introduced modern psychology into Zen.


Beck visited the Sydney Zen Centre, and had an Australian student, Geoff Dawson, who was a member of the Diamond Sangha in the 1990s but soon left for Ordinary Mind Zen. There are groups meeting in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and zendos in Victoria and northern NSW.


The Way of Zen/bodhizendo

This group is led by Ama Samy, a Jesuit from India who was a member of the Sanbo kyodan in 1982, but left it in 2002. The headquarters is in Tamil Nadu state, India. The main group is in Perth, with another in Sydney. Ama Samy has written many books on Zen in English, published in Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu.


Seung Sahn (Korean) groups – Kwan Um School of Zen

These groups were founded by a Korean master of the Jogye Buddhist Order (South Korea), Seung Sahn (1927-2004). Seung Sahn became abbot of Hwagae-sa in Seoul in 1957. In 1972 he moved to USA. He founded the International Kwan Um School of Zen, which unlike the Jogye Order, did not require celibacy of monastics and allowed laypeople to wear monastic robes. There is a concentration on twelve koans, simple phrases in meditation.

In 1994, Seung Sahn visited Brisbane for a month, teaching at the Queensland Zen Group, which joined the Kwan Um School. The founding abbot, Dae Haeng (Peter Hart), started with the Brisbane Zen Group, then in 1988 opened the Queensland Zen Centre in Brisbane. He invited Seung Sahn in 1994, joined Kwan Um, and became abbot of Dae Kwang Sa Zen Centre. In 1995, he was ordained in Korea, and then spent three years studying at a Kwan Um center in the US. The Kwan Um School of Zen of Australia was established by the late Master Daejin in 2012. Its groups are found in the Brisbane area.


Queensland  Zen Centre/Da Kwang Sa 大光寺

31 Lingle St, Robertson, QLD. Founded in 1994, it is led by Master Sen Shin (Soen Sa Nim, nun), who had trained under Seung Sahn in the USA and also with Shoda Harada Roshi of Sogen-ji, Okyama, Japan. It provides regular training.


Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism

Founded by Thich (釋) Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), who was a student of Zen (禪, Viet. Thien) Master Thanh Quy Chan That in Vietnam. In 1961 Nhat Hanh studied at the Princeton Theology Seminary. In 1966 he founded Plum Village Monastery in Dordogne, France. The organization has centers and monasteries in the US, France, Germany, Australia, and Thailand. It teaches a mixture of Zen, Yogacara, and early Buddhism. There are two monasteries in Australia, Stream Entering Monastery (Bilpin, NSW, 2 monks and 3 nuns) and Mountain Spring Monastery (Porcupine Ridge Rd., VIC) and Lotus Buds Sangha, Illawong, NSW (local community, 20 to 30 members).


Dharma Realm Buddhist Association

This association was founded by Hsuan Hua 宣化 (1918-1995), who was born near Harbin, China. He became a monastic at 19, and in 1948 received the approval from Hsu Yun (Xuyun,虚雲, 1840?-1959) in Nanhua Monastery as a member of the Wei-Yang lineage of Chan. In 1949 he went to teach in Hong Kong. He taught in Australia for one year in 1961, and then went to San Francisco, teaching and establishing monasteries. He established the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association 法界佛教總會, with its headquarters in the USA. It has a monastery, Shurangama Monastery, Mudgeeraba, QLD. Meditation classes are led by Reverend Heng Sure. The abbot Heng Chih is an American disciple of Hsuan Hua. Most of the monastics are nuns.


The Order of the Boundless Way (Mugendo Zenkai)

Mugendo Zenkai was founded by Koro Kaisan (Miles) Roshi, an American who studied under Xuan Hua in San Francisco in 1973, and then studied martial arts under Danko Tsuniyama in the lineage of Omori Sogen. He then studied Soto before studying Chan in the lineage of Xu Yun. He leads the Open Gate Zendo in Olympia, Washington State, USA. This is open to non-Buddhists, and has close links to the martial arts.  In Australia, the group is called Silky Oak Zen 滑楢禪, and is at Kincumber, NSW. The teacher is Jishin Hoka, who studied Japanese, Korean, and Chinese Buddhism. He teaches Zen in the context of Western culture, but the Zen is derived from Soto and Rinzai. It has a Zendo.


Open Way Zen 道中禪

This network is the Australian teachings derived from Daido Hogen Yamahata 山端大道法玄(b. 1935), an heir of Harada Tangen原田湛玄 (1924-2018). Tangen was abbot of Bukkoku-ji, Fukui-ken, where he taught many Japanese and foreigners. Hogen visited Australia and uses koan in his meditation practice.  It has groups in Brisbane, northern NSW, Hobart, and Cairns. It has three hermitages, headed by monastics.


Jikishoan 直証庵Zen Buddhist Community

Founded in 1998 in Melbourne by Zen Master Ekai Korematsu 是松慧海(b. 1948), an heir of Ikkō Narasaki 一光楢崎(1918-1996). Ekai was born in Japan, but started to practice in the San Francisco Zen Centre (led by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi). He returned to Japan and in the 1980s practiced at Eihei-ji and other Soto monasteries. He received the approval from Ikkō Narasaki in the mid-1980s. Ekai spent seven years running Shogo-ji as a center for foreigners studying Zen. In 1998, Ekai and his Australian wife moved permanently to Melbourne, Australia. He tried adapt the rigidity of Japanese practice to the Australian environment, create a monastery, and combine Zen practice with volunteer work, as in drug rehabilitation and prison chaplaincy. He uses koan in teaching, but not in meditation or shikantaza. It is based on the bendoho of Dogen. Members range from associates to the ordained monks. By 2009, it had 139 members, 50 friends, and a mailing list of 500 names This group has grown, with branches in Canberra and Ballarat (VIC). In 2016 it had built a home monastery, which was formally titled Tokozan Jikishoan in 2018.


Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association NSW法鼓山澳洲護法會

The Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association was founded in Taipei, Taiwan in 1989 by Rev. Sheng-yen (Shengyan, 聖嚴 1931-2009). Becoming a monk at the age of 13, he is a successor of the Chan monk Dongchu 東初(1907-1977). Sheng-yen spent from 1961 to 1968 in solitary retreat. He then studied in Risshō University, gaining a doctorate there in 1975. In the Northern winter of 1975, he went to New York, where he founded the Chung Hwa Buddhist Center and Chan Meditation Center in Queens, New York (1978). He returned to Taiwan in 1978. He founded the Dharma Drum Mountain Association in 1989. Sheng-yen was recognized as a member of the Caodong lineage (1975) and Linji lineage (1978). The Australian branch seems to have been inspired by the US branch. There are regular meetings for zazen practice in Sydney and Melbourne


Foguang shan 佛光山

This group, founded in 1967 in Taiwan, does include meditation, but this is not its prime activity. The main center is the Bodhi Chan Centre, Brisbane QLD. It is led by Venerable Hui Chyuan, who is connected to the Fo Guang Shan tradition, and Venerable Fo Xing, who trained in the tradition of Seung Sahn from 1995 in Queensland Zen Centre Da Kwang Sa. Non-sectarian, with classes in English and Chinese.


Independent Groups

These are groups who were founded independently of the metropolitan centers or of major lineages, and those whose lineage is unclear.

  1. Ch’an Academy (Buddhist Discussion Centre), founded by John D. Hughes, who studied with “Chinese masters.” The abbot is Anita Carter. It practices the Way of the Brush (sumi-e).
  2. Perth Zen Centre, Jizoan, Perth WA. It teaches Japanese martial arts in the Japanese tradition. The head monk and martial arts instructor Mujyo Zenji.


Groups Catering to Immigrant Communities

Because Australia has many immigrant communities from countries where Buddhism is important (from Sri Lanka to Taiwan), many ethnic communities have established Buddhist centers. The most important for Zen have been the Vietnamese and Korean communities. These groups have been established via direct transmission from their home countries, and not via the USA and other metropolitan centers. As some of these groups have been established for their own communities, information is often not readily available, as there is little outreach to the wider Australian community.



  1. Upekṣa Meditation Village, Penfield SA. Founded in 1996 by Thich Thong Chieu, who arrived from Vietnam in 1978. His teacher was Thich Thanh Tu (b. 1924), who claimed to be self-enlightened to Thien (Zen). It has an English-speaking section and has sessions on Saturdays.
  2. Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, Cabramatta NSW. The original monastery in Vietnam was associated with the Truc Lam lineage of Zen.



The main Buddhist order (sangha) in Korea is the Jogye Jong 曹溪宗 (Chogye Chong), a Zen lineage. Therefore, most Korean Buddhist organizations in Australia probably practice Zen. There are small monasteries or temples in the Greater Sydney region, and one each in Brisbane and Victoria.


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