Buddhism is, in this respect, not an intellectual fashion, but has been an integral part of German culture for more than 150 years. The first contact between the German cultural circle and the teachings of the Buddha took place in the south of Russia. As early as the second half of the eighteenth century, Volga-German settlers meet the Buddhist people of the Kalmuk. The Russian-German scientist Isaak Jakob Schmidt (1779-1847) is considered one of the first Western academic Buddhologen. He wrote the first books on Buddhism in German, which are published in St. Petersburg.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 to 1860) is the first prominent German who confesses 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 deal theoretically with the teachings of Buddha. 1891 begins the Austrian Karl Neumann with the translation of original Sutratexten from the Pali.
From about 1900 passenger ships travel to Asia. Young Germans are leaving for Sri Lanka, Burma and India to get to know Buddhism from their practical side as well. 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 the Buddhist monk. 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) in the north of Berlin in the 1920s with the “Buddhist House” 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 in this time German educated citizens have a certain interest in Buddhism is shown in the literature: The later Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) places the Buddha with his much read work “Siddhartha” a literary monument.
Buddhist groups, which had entered the mentally narrow period of national socialism, were slowly reawakened in the years following the Second World War. The predominant direction is 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 is growing rapidly. Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), who was already established in the Rinzai tradition, had already established a series of centers in the USA and traveled repeatedly to Europe. Taisen Deshimaru Roshi (1914-1982) lives in France in 1967 and is 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 knows almost nothing about Tibetan Buddhism. This changes in 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 are among the tens of thousands of Tibetans who leave the country due to the Chinese occupation in a southerly direction. As a result, the interest in the West increases with the comprehensive experience of Buddhism, which is hidden behind exotic rituals of Tibetan culture. This is also true for Germany: some Tibetan scholars are called to universities in the Federal Republic, high lamas make visiting trips in Europe and establish centers 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 centers have also been active in Germany for several years.
There are also Asian Buddhists who live in Germany and have established temples and pagodas. The largest group of them are about 100 000 people of Vietnamese origin. Most of them are boat refugees and their family members, who were admitted in 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 some 300,000 to 350,000 professing Buddhists in Germany. There are several dozens of Buddhist associations with well over 600 contact points (centers, 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 organization Diamantweg e. V., to which 133 centers and groups of the Karma Kagyu direction have joined.
More information on the history of Buddhism in Germany (taking Austria and Switzerland into account) in an article of “Buddhismus Heute” No. 34 and 35: