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Zarko’s Lecture on Buddhism in Europe (Dharma Drum Vancouver Center, 10/23)

On Sunday, October 23rd, Zarko Andricevic, lay Dharma heir of Master Sheng-Yen, delivered a two hour lecture, and participated in a lengthy question and answer segment. The topic was Buddhism in Europe. For those who don't know Zarko, he's an experienced meditation practitioner and teacher, specializing in Silent Illumination (mozhao). He has a warm yet intelligent speaking style, delivered through a pleasant bass voice. The Dharma hall was packed with everyone from monastics, to those who had participated in Zarko's seven day retreat, to newcomers. Curiosity and awe reigned.

Zarko began by filling us in on the history of Buddhism and its interactions with European culture. Contact between Buddhism and European culture was present from an early time, but only fleeting in nature, and didn't have a lasting impact until recently. During the time of Alexander the Great, who conquered from mainland Greece all the way into present day Pakistan, Buddhism had its first meeting with European culture. We heard about a Greek philosopher named Pyrrho of Elis who traveled to Buddhist territory and brought back a few Buddhist ideas and practices to the west. With the dawn of Christianity every other religion was purged from the west for a long time. As Europe began to recover, explorers like Marco Polo came into contact with Buddhism in China. However, it wasn't until after the Enlightenment that Europeans began a serious, systematic study of Buddhism, beginning with the Pali texts.

Academics and intellectuals interested in the philosophical aspects of Buddhist doctrine started reading and translating the Pali Nikayas (Sanskrit Agamas), thinking that they'd found some sort of rational, humanistic, scientific form of religion. This intellectual curiosity took time to gain steam and translate into actual practice.

After World War II the works of DT Suzuki on Zen Buddhism opened up European minds to a new kind of Buddhism, with a different aesthetic flair. Tibetan Buddhism also became more well known following the Chinese crackdown in 1959, with people travelling to India and Nepal to mingle with the Tibetan exile community. Some Westerners even ordained, or studied and practiced with the Tibetans for years. It was only in the late 90s that Chan started to gain a foothold, after Zarko attended a three day retreat with Shifu Sheng-Yen.

We learned that in Europe the situation as regards Buddhism varies a lot from country to country. In general, poorer countries have less religious tolerance, and less religious diversity. Catholic majority countries also tend to be a little less inviting to foreign religions. On the other hand, even a very conformist traditional country like Austria places Buddhism in the same favoured legal status as Catholicism, as does Italy. The picture is very mixed. Similar to North America, there is a lack of qualified monastics as well, Buddhism is more of a lay lead movement than in Asia. Buddhist leaders of various sects get along together, and even have a pan-Buddhist advocacy group called the European Buddhist Union, trying to improve the legal status of Buddhism and facilitating cooperation among groups.

The crowd was happy to hear that Dharmaloka is more than half finished, with the land purchased, foundations laid, and the outer frames of the buildings up. Fundraising is still going on for the remaining construction and infrastructure work. My impression is that when complete, this will be a full-service facility, with a meditation hall, room for residents and retreatants, and some horticultural land. The property is in the beautiful rolling hills outside the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. Besides the hired workers, dedicated volunteers have also contributed labour and expertise in the building process.

Zarko fielded a number of questions, some in great depth. He was asked about the role of monasticism going forward in European Buddhism, tactics and organizational strategies that could be borrowed from the world of business, and how Buddhism can navigate the grim political climate. Zarko was wise in his answers, explaining situations and details first, only giving his opinion after having laid everything out. None of the questions were softball questions. The gist of what he said was that Buddhism has to evolve organically, and it may take one hundred years or more to firmly establish itself. The role of monastics might change, adherence to the vinaya code of monastic discipline might be different, immigrant Buddhism might fuse with "European" Buddhism, etc. Each answer could have been a separate lecture. I found it pertinent that Zarko mentioned that as Buddhists, it's incumbent upon us to examine how our individual behaviour contributes to peace in the world or lack thereof.

We all benefited from the knowledge and the attitude coming from Zarko and he was invited back for next year.

By Merle Langlois





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