Buddhism in France

France has over two hundred Buddhist meditation centres, including about twenty sizable retreat centres in rural areas. The Buddhist population mainly consists of Sri Lankan, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, and Korean immigrants, with a substantial minority of native French converts and “sympathizers.” The rising popularity of Buddhism in France has been the subject of considerable discussion in the French media and academia in recent years. Buddhism has established itself as a significant spiritual and cultural presence in France, characterized by a diverse array of traditions, active communities, and a growing influence on French society. Here, we shall explore the history, development, and current state of Buddhism in France, highlighting its impact and significance in the French socio-cultural landscape.

Historical Background

The introduction of Buddhism to France can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily through the influence of scholars, travellers, and intellectuals fascinated by Eastern philosophies. One of the most important early French Buddhists was Alexandra David-Néel. In 1911, David-Néel travelled to India to further her study of Buddhism. She was invited to the royal monastery of Sikkim, where she met Maharaj Kumar (crown prince) Sidkeong Tulku. She became Sidkeong’s “confidante and spiritual sister” (according to Ruth Middleton), and perhaps his lover (Foster & Foster). She also met the 13th Dalai Lama twice in 1912 and had the opportunity to ask him many questions about Buddhism—a feat unprecedented for a European woman at that time.

Best known for her 1924 visit to Tibet, including Lhasa, David-Néel wrote more than 30 books about Buddhism, philosophy, and her travels. Her works, along with the translations of sacred texts and the establishment of societies dedicated to studying Buddhism, played crucial roles in popularizing Buddhist thought in France. Notable figures like Émile Senart also contributed significantly during this period.

The post-World War II era marked a significant turning point with the arrival of Tibetan lamas fleeing Chinese occupation and the establishment of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. This period saw the creation of the first Buddhist centres and the arrival of influential teachers like Taisen Deshimaru, who introduced Zen Buddhism to France in the 1960s. These developments laid the groundwork for the diverse and vibrant Buddhist community that exists in France today.

Diversity of Traditions

One of the defining features of Buddhism in France is its remarkable diversity. The three main branches of Buddhism—Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—are all represented, each with its distinct practices, teachings, and communities.

  • Theravada Buddhism: Predominantly practised by immigrants from Southeast and South Asia, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Theravada Buddhism has a strong presence in France. Numerous temples and cultural centres serve as focal points for these communities, preserving traditional practices and fostering a sense of cultural identity.
  • Mahayana Buddhism: This branch is represented by both Zen and Pure Land traditions. Zen Buddhism, introduced by Taisen Deshimaru, has gained a substantial following among French practitioners. The emphasis on meditation and simplicity has resonated with many seeking spiritual growth and inner peace. Pure Land Buddhism, primarily practised by Chinese and Vietnamese communities, also contributes to the Mahayana presence in France.
  • Vajrayana Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism has perhaps the most visible and influential presence in France, largely due to the efforts of Tibetan teachers and the establishment of numerous centres and monasteries. The Dalai Lama’s visits to France have garnered significant attention and support, further solidifying the country’s connection to Tibetan Buddhist practices.

Buddhist Centers and Institutions

As of 2023, France is home to a wide array of Buddhist centres, monasteries, and retreat facilities. These institutions serve as places of worship, study, and community gathering. Notable centres include:

  • The International Buddhist Centre of Le Bourget was founded by Venerable Parawahera Chandaratana and inaugurated in 1989. This was made possible by the efforts of a diverse group of devotees, including some French citizens, who were eager to learn about Buddha’s teachings. Venerable Chandaratana initially served as the Primate of the first Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist temple in France, established in 1984 by members of the Association Bouddhique Dhammachakka (“Dhammacakka Buddhist Association”) in the town of Ermont.
  • Plum Village: Founded by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1982, Plum Village is one of the most prominent and influential Buddhist communities in France. Located in the Dordogne region, it attracts thousands of visitors annually for retreats and teachings focused on mindfulness and engaged Buddhism.
  • Institut Karma Ling: Situated in the French Alps, this centre is a major hub for Tibetan Buddhism in France. It offers extensive teachings and retreats under the guidance of respected Tibetan lamas.
  • Pagode de Vincennes: Located in Paris, this pagoda is a significant centre for the Vietnamese Buddhist community and hosts regular ceremonies, meditation sessions, and cultural events.

Influence on French Society

Buddhism’s influence extends beyond its adherents, impacting broader French society in several ways:

  • Mindfulness and Meditation: The practice of mindfulness, popularized by figures like Thich Nhat Hanh, has permeated French culture. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and similar programs are widely practised, contributing to a growing interest in mental well-being and holistic health.
  • Interfaith Dialogue: Buddhism in France actively participates in interfaith dialogue, fostering mutual understanding and cooperation among different religious communities. This dialogue promotes tolerance and respect in an increasingly multicultural society.
  • Environmentalism and Social Activism: Many Buddhist practitioners in France are involved in environmental and social activism, drawing on principles of compassion and non-violence. This aligns with global trends in socially engaged Buddhism, addressing contemporary issues such as climate change and social justice.

Challenges and Future Prospects

Despite its growth and influence, Buddhism in France faces challenges. The integration of immigrant communities, maintaining traditional practices while adapting to modern contexts, and addressing misconceptions about Buddhism are ongoing issues. Additionally, the secular nature of French society sometimes presents hurdles for religious expression.

Looking forward, the future of Buddhism in France appears promising. The younger generation’s interest in mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality suggests a continuing and evolving engagement with Buddhist teachings. Moreover, the increasing visibility of Buddhist leaders and the establishment of more centres indicate a sustained and growing presence.