Buddhism has been an integral part of German culture for over 150 years, rather than merely an intellectual fashion. The first contact between the German cultural circle and the teachings of the Buddha occurred in the south of Russia, where Volga-German settlers met the Buddhist people of Kalmuk as early as the second half of the 18th century. Isaak Jakob Schmidt (1779-1847), a Russian-German scientist, is considered one of the first Western academic Buddhist followers. He wrote the first books on Buddhism in German, which were published in St. Petersburg.
First Buddhist in Germany
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was the first prominent German to confess to Buddhism. He drew his knowledge mainly from books. In 1854, he wrote:
“In the first place, however, Indian wisdom will spread over Europe, but the entrance of Buddhism would not begin in the lower strata of society, as in the case of Christianity, but into the upper world, whereby these doctrines immediately appear in purified form and as free from mythical ingredients as possible become.”
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1873) also dealt theoretically with the teachings of Buddha. In 1891, the Austrian Karl Neumann began translating the original Sutratexten from the Pali.
Germans take to Buddhism
From around 1900, passenger ships travelled to Asia, and young Germans left for Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and India to get to know Buddhism from its practical side. The violin virtuoso Anton Walter Florus Gueth (1878-1957) was consecrated in 1903 in Burma under the Order name Nyânatiloka as the first German to become a Buddhist monk. However, he soon abandoned his attempts to build a traditional Buddhist monastery in Germany. After several stays in Sri Lanka, the doctor Dr Paul Dahlke (1865-1928) established the “Buddhist House” north of Berlin in the 1920s as the first stop for Buddhism in Germany. At the same time, Martin Steinke (1882-1966) founded the first association for Chan Buddhism. He had trained as a monk in China. The fact that educated Germans were interested in Buddhism at this time is evident in literature, as the later Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) placed the Buddha with his much-read work “Siddhartha” as a literary monument.
Buddhist groups that had entered the mentally narrow period of national socialism were slowly reawakened in the years following the Second World War. The predominant direction was initially the classical Theravada. In 1955, the “German Buddhist Society” was founded as an umbrella organization of German Buddhists (renamed “German Buddhist Union” (DBU) in 1958).
In 1948, a book by a German philosophy professor who had lived in Japan for several years aroused great interest: “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel (1884-1955). From the late 1960s onwards, interest in Japanese Zen Buddhism grew rapidly. Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), already established in the Rinzai tradition, had established a series of centres in the USA and repeatedly travelled to Europe. Taisen Deshimaru Roshi (1914-1982) lived in France in 1967 and was a pioneer in building many groups of Soto Zen. In the meantime, practically all important schools of Zen, with roots in Japan, Korea, China, and Vietnam, are represented in Germany.
The world knew almost nothing about Tibetan Buddhism until the years following the spectacular flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in March 1959. In addition to the young monk king, other high lamas or meditation masters were among the tens of thousands of Tibetans who left the country due to the Chinese occupation in a southerly direction. As a result, interest in the West increased with the comprehensive experience of Buddhism hidden behind exotic rituals of Tibetan culture. This was also true for Germany: some Tibetan scholars were called to universities in the Federal Republic, high lamas made visiting trips to Europe, and established centres of the different independent schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, some Europeans who learned in Asia and were authorized by their teachers to teach and base centres have also been active in Germany for several years.
Buddhism in Germany today
There are also Asian Buddhists who live in Germany and have established temples and pagodas. The largest group of them is about 100,000 people of Vietnamese origin. Most of them are boat refugees and their family members who were admitted to the Federal Republic between 1975 and 1986, as well as several tens of thousands of former contract workers in the GDR who remained in Germany after reunification and are building new existences.
Today, there are about 300,000 to 350,000 professing Buddhists in Germany. There are several dozen Buddhist associations with well over 600 contact points (centres, temples, meditation and study groups, monasteries, seminar houses, etc.). A total of 59 communities are members of the “German Buddhist Union” (DBU). The largest individual association is the Buddhist umbrella organisation Diamantweg e. V., to which 133 centres and groups of the Karma Kagyu direction have joined.
Further reading about Buddhism in Germany
For more information on the history of Buddhism in Germany (taking Austria and Switzerland into account), please refer to Culture Contact and Valuation: Early German Buddhists and the Creation of a ‘Buddhism in Protestant Shape’