Italy is probably the last European country where the Catholic faith is still evidently predominant. According to a 2012 survey on global religious practices published by the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, 83.3 per cent of Italians identify as Christians, of whom 81.7 per cent are affiliated with the Catholic Church. Within that 81.7 per cent, a fraction probably identify as Catholic merely for historical or social reasons. Indeed, according to a 2005 Eurobarometer poll, “only” 74 per cent of Italians believe there in God. Some 16 per cent think there is “some sort of spirit or life force,” and just 6 per cent are complete atheists. The Pew Research Center indicates that 3.7 per cent of the population are Muslims (the presence of Islam can be almost entirely explained by immigration), and only 0.6 per cent belong to other spiritual traditions. It is in this tiny fraction of the population that the few Italian Buddhist practitioners can be found.
The introduction of Buddhism in Italy followed a similar pattern to the rest of the West—although at a slower pace, since Italy had practically no immigration at the beginning of the 20th century and no colonial ties with Asian countries, unlike Britain and France.* Scholar Martin Baumann’s assessment still perfectly applies to the situation of Buddhism in Italy: a purely theoretical interest in Buddhism among Italian intellectuals in the late 19th century, the first waves of individual conversions at the turn of the century, under the influence of the Theosophical Society—and we know how distorted the image of Buddhism was among Theosophists—and, finally, the establishment of consistent Buddhist communities, under the authority of Western and Asian masters, from the 1920s onward.
The Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s and the subsequent global popularity of the 14th Dalai Lama have also had a positive impact on the appreciation of Buddhism in Italy, as in the rest of the world. Certain Italian personalities also fostered the development of Buddhism in this country. The most famous among them is probably Salvatore Cioffi (1897–1966), an American citizen of Italian descent who became interested in Buddhism after reading the Dhammapada. Cioffi traveled to India and then to Sri Lanka and Burma to learn more about his new faith. He officially converted to Burmese Buddhism in the late 1920s, became a monk, and took Lokanâtha as his Dharma name. He was one of the first Buddhists to organize group pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya in the 1930s.**
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Lokanâtha was arrested and imprisoned by the British authorities for his ties with Indian and Burmese nationalists. After the war and the declaration of Burmese independence, Lokanâtha was released and spent his time and energy raising funds for Buddhist missions to help itinerant monks organize themselves, and publishing books and pamphlets on Theravada Buddhism. In the 1950s, he became a representative of Burmese Buddhism in world conferences, such as the World Fellowship of Buddhists, and was received with other members of the Burmese sangha by Pope Pius XII. With the funds he collected, Lokanâtha built a stupa for world peace in Rangoon (now Yangon) as well as a replica of the cavern in which the first Buddhist council took place.
Another important Italian figure is, of course, the renowned explorer and Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci (1894–1984), who spurred interest in Buddhism and Tibet among scholars and laypeople alike. After his long stays in Tibet, India, Afghanistan, and Iran, Tucci returned to Italy to publish his works and in 1933 founded the Istituto Italiano per il Medio e Estremo Oriente (the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East). Until it was merged in 1995 with the Istituto Italo-Africano in Rome, to form the Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (the Italian Institute for Africa and the East), Tucci’s institute aimed to promote cultural, political, and economical relations between Italy and Asian countries. It is through this institute that translations and works on Buddhism were edited and published, and Tibetan masters were invited. One of whom was Geshe Jampel Senghe, who initially came to Italy for an academic project and then, as was often the case with Tibetan lamas in Europe, was asked to teach his religion to the locals. The Geshe then opened a Dharma center, the Istituto Samantabhadra (Samantabhadra Institute), in the Gelugpa tradition, which is still very active today.
Also a significant contributor to Italian Buddhism is Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (1938–2018), who came to Italy at the invitation of Tucci. The two men met in Sikkim in the 1960s, when Namkhai Norbu was unable to return to his country due to the Chinese occupation. The Tibetan lama began working at the Italian Institute for the Middle East in Rome and then became a professor of Tibetan language and literature at the Academic Oriental Institute of Naples. There he began to teach Dzogchen, and later created his International Dzogchen Community, with its most important retreat center in Arcidosso, near Grosseto in Tuscany.
With the momentum generated by these pioneers, Buddhist centers started to open all over the country from the late 1960s onward. In the early 1980s, the need was felt to create a national structure that could help harmonize the Italian Buddhist landscape. To this end, the Italian Buddhist Association was founded in 1985. As a member of the European Buddhist Union, it aims to both coordinate the activities of all schools present on Italian soil and to represent them in governmental institutions. In 2007, the association was officially recognized by the Italian state. According to a national study published the same year,*** there were 160,000 Buddhists in Italy (0.3 per cent of the population). The amount may have decreased in the years since as the Italian Buddhist population is now estimated at 112,500.**** Although all Buddhist traditions are represented, the predominant school by far is Japan’s Soka Gakkai, with 93,000 members. Such is its influence on the Italian minority religions’ landscape that the Italian government granted the association special status in 2015, recognizing Soka Gakkai as an official national religion, on the same level as the Catholic Church and 10 other religious groups, and it is now consulted by the government on special occasions. Soka Gakkai is also allowed to appoint chaplains in the army and to receive public funding from taxpayers.*****
* This essay mostly relies on Massimo Introvigne’s description of Buddhism in Italy: https://cesnur.com/il-buddhismo-in-italia/
** A. Morniroli, Ven. Lokanatha: Breve ricordo della leggendaria figura del Ven. Lokanâtha pioniere italiano del monachesimo buddhista theravâda; www.mahayana.it
*** Il panorama multireligioso in Italia (Internet Archive)
**** According to the census: https://cesnur.com/il-buddhismo-in-italia/
***** Official governmental document: http://presidenza.governo.it/USRI/confessioni/intese_indice.html