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Buddhism and Buddhist Studies in Sweden: Untapped Potential

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A 2015 stamp from Sweden Post featuring the Helgo Buddha statuette. From lionsroar.com
A 2015 stamp from Sweden Post featuring the Helgo Buddha statuette. From lionsroar.com

There are two instances—attested to by archaeology and historical records—which give some idea of the complex interaction between Sweden and the Buddhist tradition. The first is the Helgö Buddha, an eighth century statuette that was unearthed in the old trading town of the same name. It is unknown how this beautiful sacred item ended up at a quiet Viking outpost on a small island in Northern Europe. It was most likely brought along one of the many trading routes between South and Central Asia and the eastern trade routes of the Norse people before being rediscovered in modern-day Sweden. Excavated in 1954, the statuette is now on display at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. The second instance is the history of Sino-Swedish relations, which formally began in the 17th century. The Swedish East India Company was China’s trading partner from 1731–1813, making more than 130 trips between Gothenburg and Canton, where the Swedes had their own trading “factory” or hong alongside those of other European trading companies. Sweden rapidly grew wealthy from imports of tea and porcelain. The Swedes were much less prominent than other countries in China’s extremely troubled century or so that followed 1842, the year the First Opium War ended, up until the end of the Chinese Civil War. Notably, the Swedes, in general, never entered the opium trade. Furthermore, Sweden was the first Western country to recognize the People’s Republic of China in May 1950—less than a year after its establishment in 1949.

The almost accidental Buddhist presence in Helgö and the relatively smooth relationship between Sweden and China in the early modern period lead one to think what could have been were it not for the vicissitudes of history. In thinking about Buddhism in Sweden, the Dharma has been present in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries for several generations, but its impact on culture and academia has been marginal, almost invisible. There are pockets of communities, but they are sustained mostly through devoted and energetic individuals with the time, funds, and connections to spare. There is awareness of Buddhism among the public through figures such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but there are few teachers in Sweden and even fewer scholars.

Broadly, across Northern Europe, there are several thousand Buddhists who are members of different Buddhist traditions, monasteries, temples, and other organizations. In Sweden, each community has its own local history, enriching Swedish culture and society by different cultural customs, rituals, and festivals. Organized Buddhism has its roots in the 1970s, mostly through Swedish converts. Over the past few decades, Buddhist communities have expanded thanks to immigration from Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. Nowadays, all three vehicles of Buddhism have diffused throughout the country. The Swedish Cooperation Council provides a picture of the diverse groups operating in the country, although their website has not been updated since 2016.

The Helgö Buddha statuette. From irisharchaeology.ie

One of Sweden’s more pronounced deficits compared with, for example, Germany or the UK, is Buddhist studies, as an academic discipline distinct from Buddhist practice (although there are plenty of practitioner-scholars around the world). A cursory web search does not bring up any local center or program of Buddhist scholarship connected with a Swedish university. The closest result on the first page of Google are Religious Studies and History of Religions webpages listing research foci at the University of Gothenburg (ironically, the city where Swedish traders first set out for China)—none of which include anything to do with Buddhism. The University of Lund also has Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, but the lack of any Buddhist scholars—even a single academic that might be regionally recognized as the local expert on Buddhist matters—is noticeable.

In this context, projects that seek to combine Buddhist practice with Buddhist studies seem to struggle to find funding and manpower in Sweden. One Swedish citizen and Buddhist teacher, Vello Vaartnou, has had considerable difficulty in galvanizing support for his Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia. Despite Sweden’s reputation for generous social welfare and an open, curious society, Vaartnou has spent his own finances and time constructing a database that, he believes, can be of benefit to diverse educational institutions. However, he has discovered that thanks to a lack of a Buddhist studies base in Sweden, there is no institutional “clique” or circle that can embrace his project.

“Swedish Buddhist studies will bring Buddhism together on the same level as Christian and Islamic studies,” Vaartnou said. “Islam and Christianity are both world religions, but Buddhism is also one. It is strange that Swedish culture doesn’t seem to agree, despite the fact that Buddhism is older than both Christianity and Islam and is one of the monastic religions. Swedish popular culture accepts Middle Eastern cultures, but doesn’t want to go further East to include Buddhism. Why there is this aversion to Far Eastern influences is unclear to me.”

A meditation session at Zenbuddhistiska Samfundets in Stockholm, 2014. From flickr.com
A meditation session at Zenbuddhistiska Samfundets in Stockholm, 2014. From flickr.com

One of Vaartnou’s students explained: “Vello Vaartnou is 69 years old and still working every day. He’s devoted his knowledge, accumulated over many decades of practice and Buddhist associations around the world, to his Chinese Buddhist Encyclopaedia. Since arriving in Sweden, he has also created a Swedish Buddhist studies association, which I think plugs a very large hole in the scholarship of the humanities in this country.” She further noted: “Maybe it is time for Sweden to let in Buddhist studies, to give it the due attention it deserves. The time is right for Swedes, especially those that see themselves as cosmopolitan, spiritual, and interested in the wider world, to have a closer look at people who have a vocation of taking care of society and human happiness. Old ways of thinking need to disappear to give way to new paradigms.”

Present geopolitical tensions between China and Sweden may play a role in the relative lack of interest in projects like a Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia. A survey published in 2019 by the Pew Research Centre found that things are quite different from the days of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911): 70 per cent of contemporary Swedes harboured an unfavorable view of the Chinese government, and we can extrapolate that activities related to modern China will not always be seen in the most positive light. However, there may be deeper roots that are not immediately discernable and are possibly sociological and historical in origin. These conditions probably prompted Vaartnou to note: “I wrote about my work [the Chinese Buddhism Encyclopedia] to universities, the Swedish Royal Academy, newspapers, and to politicians. None of them answered. I did a survey in universities and wrote them about my work and Swedish Buddhist studies project, and nobody was interested to develop Buddhist studies.”

Despite the great potential for Buddhist-oriented projects in Sweden, the strong foundation provided by this open and vibrant society has some way to go in being matched by the scholarly infrastructure that allows for the flourishing of the Buddhist tradition. There are encouraging signs: interest in Buddhism, for example, transcends political considerations, and there are plenty of Buddhists of non-Chinese vehicles who will gladly participate in a Mahayana-centric project if it is academic and scholarly in nature rather than spiritual and committal. Marju notes that many years ago, Vaartnou was perhaps the first person to introduce the Chinese Ming-era classic Journey to the West to Estonia, the country of his birth. With some support and goodwill, perhaps he might be one of the first people to help plant the roots of Buddhist studies in this Nordic nation.

See more

The Helgo Treasure: A Viking Age Buddha (Irish Archaeology)
How did a Buddha statue land in Viking hands? (Lion’s Roar)
Members of the Swedish Buddhist Cooperation Council (SBCC)
Swedish Buddhist Studies

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