What does Australian Buddhism look like?

There’s a discussion going on now among the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils about a new logo. Just a bit of PR, really, but it raises some interesting questions about Buddhism in Australia, and how we go about finding an identity, and expressing that visually.

One suggested logo is a lotus on a map of Australia. I don’t like it: it’s too obvious. And it’s not integrated: take a symbol of Buddhism, put it next to a symbol of Australia, and voila! Instant Oz Buddhism. But it’s really just two separate entities stuck together: “Australia” “Buddhism”, not “Australian Buddhism”.

What’s much more interesting for me is to look at how aspects of Buddhism have genuinely resonated with Australia.

The most obvious thing is “light”. Think of temple names in Australia: Dhammaloka, Buddharamgsee, Aloka. They all mean “light”, and reflect the local Buddhist’s response to Australia’s brilliant sunshine, a light that reflects the light imagery that is so pervasive in Buddhism.

Light is connected with the Dhamma wheel, which originated partly as a solar symbol (the other main symbolic source is the wheel itself, especially the two-wheeled chariots of the Aryans).

One of the common Buddhist flags reflects this imagery. Not the garish multi-colored .modern flag, but a traditional design, often seen in Thailand, of gold background with a red Dhamma wheel in the center.

The red center! Now that’s pretty Australian. The design is also a little reminiscent of the Aboriginal flag, which also has a sun in the center.

I think this is getting to some aspects of what it means to be an Australian Buddhist. There’s a brightness, a relaxed optimism, a morning freshness. There’s also a sense of great space. This is, for me, one of the essential things: we cling to the margins, and somehow we always know there’s a great big empty heart. This is not a negative thing, it’s an openness, a feeling of room to move, where horizons just keep on receding. And they recede over the ground, that great, broad, flat earth.

It is, of course, this sense of place that creates the many
magnificent works of Aboriginal art. It speaks to us, it feels like home, even for the many Australians, like myself, for whom the involvement with indigenous culture and the outback is marginal.

Dots, then; maybe a Dhamma wheel done in dots? Or too obvious?

Or another tack. The Australian crest features a kangaroo and emu facing a shield; not altogether unlike the classic image of the Buddha being served by a monkey and elephant. How about it? A Buddha being attended by a kangaroo and emu? Yes!

Any ideas? What does being an Australian Buddhist mean for you? And for those living elsewhere, how is Buddhism felt in your landscape? How has your place, peiple, story shaped your experience of the Dhamma.

34 thoughts on “What does Australian Buddhism look like?

  1. Bhante,
    “What’s much more interesting for me is to look at how aspects of Australia have genuinely resonated with Australia.”
    Did you make a wrong typing here? Should it be: What’s much more interesting for me is to look at how aspects of Buddhism have genuinely resonated with Australia.
    Peter is absolutely right here:”I don’t think that Buddhism needs to find an identity which is connected to a nation or state.”
    Buddhist ideas like pure water, have no color and shape, but they will be shaped and colored by the cultures where it is blended with.
    However, the idea: “Koala in a Lotus Position with expounding the Dhamma mudra.” look real nice! How about a Koala & a hare? though the later is a migrant one. Christian call their followers “sheep”; Hindu have ‘cows’, i do not know what is the symbolical animal of Muslim & Jews. Dear or antelope should be a good animal for Buddhists, or rabbit?
    Bhante a little bit chauvinist when mentioned only the name of Theravada monasteries.

  2. no seriously…the red Dhamma wheel on the gold background sounds beautiful…maybe you could make it a red and black Dhamma wheel…

  3. You do know the symbolism of the “garish multi-colored .modern flag” don’t you?

    When you propose “a traditional design, often seen in Thailand, of gold background with a red Dhamma wheel in the center.” you are recommending something that is used only in Thailand and thus limited only to Thai Theravada.” And for some people, mightn’t it be just too similar to all those royal Thai flags, banners, symbols etc? Which makes me wonder — what is the history of the Thai Buddhist flag, anyway. Why do I suspect it is rather modern too?

    • Yes, the colors come from the commentary to the Patthana, which says that these colors radiated out from the Buddha’s body as he contemplated the 24 paccayas after enlightenment…

      As for the Thai flag, i wonder. Perhaps the very idea of a Buddhist flag is modern.

    • Unfortunately Bhante, an old “Buddhist” flag had been pressed into military service by the ancient Siamese (Ayyuthya period). They had little Buddha images called “Phra Yod Thong” stuck onto their battle flag staffs. Not at all edifying…

  4. Something with gum leaves and bodhi leaves intertwined? The Buddha sitting under this? The southern cross overhead?

    Or the gum leaves and the bodhi leaves intertwined could form an outer circle or outer heart shape? With the Buddha sitting in the middle?

    Perhaps the leaves of the two species of tree could be of a rainbow of colours as well as the traditional grey-green and dark-apple-green…in order to symbolise the diversity within Oz and within Oz Buddhism.

    Thanks for asking us our opinion on something so mundane; it’s appreciated.

    • How about a gum tree trunk at left and a bodhi tree trunk at right. The branches grow (with leaves) and meet and intertwine in the middle-top. Some how the whole thing forms the outline of a heart (metta)…perhaps the tree trunks angle in toward the middle-bottom-point of the heart. Inside sits the beautiful Buddha.

      Just a midnight thought!

    • All getting a bit complicated! A logo has to be simple, usable in many settings.

      I had another idea: use the classic Dhamma wheel and two deer, which is common in tibetan Buddhism, but recognizable by all Buddhists:

      Dhamma wheel with deer

      And replace the deer with kangaroos. Yes! It would be reminiscent of the ozzie coat of arms;


      O, and while searching for that image i came across this, which has nothing to do with the thread:


    • Fantastic ! I prefer the incorporation of both the Kangaroo and the Emu which are characteristic of Australia. The (Red) Kangaroo and the Emu symbolize progress (moving forward all the time) and they move the Dharma wheel forward, symbolizing the advancement in the spiritual path of purification. They also incorporate Australian values of compassion, fairness, justice and equality.

    • Perhaps, but i was a bit wary of too closely imitating the Australian coat of arms. This way, it’s an ancient Buddhist symbol, with the deer replaced by kangaroos, which happens to have a resemblance to the coat of arms….

    • Bhante! It looks like a pair of kangaroos playing “Wheel of Fortune”. Perhaps supplicating paws might look better?

      How about wombats, per your Cula Wombat Footprint Simile Sutta?

    • Ha ha! But isn’t the Dhamma wheel precisely the Wheel of Fortune? This is just a cut-&-paste monkeup, a real designer would take care of these things….

  5. I agreed with Peter Durham that Buddhism does not needs to find an identity which is connected to a nation or state. However, if there is the necessity for an icon to represent Australian Buddhism, it must avoid any ethnic inclination (eg: lotus, lion, dragon, etc) which is the greatest fetter towards indigenisation of Buddhism in Australia. Ethnic Buddhism or “exported Buddhism” (as they essentially duplicate the practice of their host countries) is harmful for the healthy development of a true Australian Buddhism. The future generations of Australian (including the children and grandchildren of migrants) will find difficulty to identify themselves with ethnic Buddhism and make sense with their traditional practices. We need a true Australian identity.

  6. Forgot to mention in my earlier post that the same bad experiences have been felt in many countires where Buddhism were mainly “exported” through migration of different ethnic groups and when they refused to integrate with main stream society, they stagnated as ethnic Buddhism which only served the interest of the migrant generation. Half a century later when these migrants aged and passed on, their offsprings who were integrated into the main stream society with indigenous language and education, they find it hard to identify themselves with these ethnic Buddhist groups especially with their traditional practices. Hence the rapid decline of Buddhism in these countries. Fortunately there are now a new movement of young educated locals in these countries to reform the teaching and practices of Buddhism and there is a revival now of reformed Buddhism with the indigenous indentity. Examples are Singapore and Malaysia.

    • Yep, we own the copyright! I thought everyone knew that.

      Seriously, though, I do think fairness is a value that’s perhaps more appreciated in australia than elsewhere; we have an affinity with the underdog. Not that we always live up to it, of course!

    • And compassion too… I don’t think Aussies make a big deal about it… But you just need to notice the huge numbers of volunteers in human service organisations. Not to mention the huge amounts that get donated/raised for various good causes (in Oz and overseas).

    • Would you say that Australians are more compassionate than the French or that an Australian would have a better sense of fair play than a Korean (for example)?

    • I’ve lived in Oz most of my life and ‘am still learning about the place and all it’s folk…

      I haven’t lived in France or Korea so I have absolutely no idea about the current trends within these countries/cultures!!

      Sorry, can’t answer your question. 🙂

    • I think that would be terrific… very grounded and real. perhaps a little obscure, though, as the footprint is not so well known as a symbol.

    • I see what you mean…I was thinking that the Dhammacakka could be included on ‘soles’ as is often customary…rather than any old random footprints! 🙂

    • Well, yes, that might work. I love the footprints thing. We’re planning to carve a footprint in the big rock out the front of our cave….

    • Hmm, instead of lines, a footprint composed of dots (a la Aboriginal painting) will be really Ozzie in spirit.

      Maybe 2 footprints – one for the Buddha Gotama, and the other for the Pangaean Buddha Kassapa…

    • Yeah, but some people don’t like the idea of ‘appropriating’ aboriginal motifs. Perhaps if it was done together with a circle of Aboriginal elders and artists…

    • Maybe some Dhammaduta to the Aboriginal communities to pave the way?

      Anyway, the footprint with spokes hardly counts as an Aboriginal motif. The dots are the stylistic idiom that is being used to materialise the concept. Surely nobody is clamouring for a moral cultural monopoly over style? I thought only Anna Wintour and Lagerfeld do that…

  7. A late comment, Regarding the image of animals and Dhamma wheel.
    2 points.
    1.In Northern Australia there is a species called the Antilopine Kangaroo and they rest in a nice pose like the deer.
    2. In Eastern Arnhem Land the emu and kangaroo belong to the 2 different moieties . Different names in other part of Australia. East Arnhem Land they are Dua and Yirritija. Dua is water Yirritija is fire. etc. (here fire and water are not opposites rather complimentary partners. Fire prepares the land, activates seeds preparing for the water/rain.

    EVERYTHING is either one or the other. People, Plants, Animals, clouds. (black cockatoo herald rain is Dua – White cockatoo with fire colours in crest is Yirritija) A Yolngu person seeing the Australian crest might say ‘Our Law is on that one too.” With two there can be relationship.
    A Dua person and a Yirittija person working together reflects Yothu Yindi balance meaning mother child balance.

    The band Yothu Yindi had aboriginal and non-aboriginal members, mixing aboriginal and non-aboriginal song and music styles…..balance or rather 2 parts in right relationship.

    Lotus also grow in Northern Australia.
    Enough for now
    John Allan

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