Scientists and Buddhist scholars gathered from all over the world for Buddhism in the Austral-Asian region at the first annual International Conference “Buddhism & Australia”. The event took place in Murdoch University, Western Australia, 2-4 February 2012. The academic Buddhist conference was the first of its kind on Australian soil. Academics and Buddhists came together from many different countries around the world: USA, Canada, Germany, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Taiwan, Indonesia.
Behind the scenes: History and Idea
The main organizer and author of the conference “Buddhism & Australia” is Vello Väärtnõu, Head of Estonian Nyingma, who has been organizing the successful international “Buddhism & Nordland” conferences annually since 2006 in Europe (www.budcon.com).
Vello Väärtnõu founded the first Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood in 1982 and under his guidance the Brotherhood set the beginnings to practice Buddhist tradition and Nyingma tradition in Estonia. Väärtnõu has been building stupas since 1982. He was the first person to build Buddhist architecture in Eastern Europe during Soviet times; the 5th stupa was built in Estonia in 2008. He has also built prayer wheels and temples, and he is also the author of Buddhism Encyclopedia in the Estonian language. He is a founder of the Estonian National Independence Party and internationally recognized thangka-master. His dedication to Buddhist traditions are numerous.
The purpose of his initiating the “Buddhism & Australia” conference to address a few points for this area of the world:
1. Provide a channel for information of interest and relevance to scholars in Asian & Buddhist studies in Austral-Asia
2. Research and investigate the buddhavacana, the original teachings of the Buddha, without bias to any particular school or discipline (such as Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana)
3. To promote both the academic study of Buddhism, and the application of the teachings to daily life.
In his opening speech Vello Väärtnõu noted:
“The teachings of Buddha have spread throughout a variety of cultures spanning widely in geographical terms, especially in the last 60 years. It is thought that in a few thousand years the teachings of Buddha helped attain a totally different mental dimension and method of thinking compared to the forms we know today.
The world is changing in all its forms and so are we, things that surround become sources of knowledge and such is the way of Buddhist knowledge. From this concept manifested the idea of calling together monks, scientists, lay Buddhist and other people, who are interested in researching the way of the Buddha. This works to fulfill knowledge both within the context of practical wisdom and academic knowledge also.
We live in a period of increasingly rapid globalization. This means we have to talk about subjects within a wider geographical perspective tapping into the ways various countries think.”
The Event Itself
The 3-day conference covered a range of topics that included issues on Buddhist history and presence in Austral-Asian region, Buddhist psychology & philosophy, and Buddhist manuscripts. There were many discussions on strengthening the future regional collaboration, disputes of Buddhist view on globalization, and topics that shed light on the lasting validity of Buddhism in our modern world and society.
The conference was welcomed by Federal Senator Louise Pratt, Honorary Consul of Mongolia - Mr.Peter Stuart, Ajahn Brahamavamso from Bodhinyana Monastery, followed by messages from Lao Sangharaj, HH Phong Samaruks, Mr. Kim Hollow - President of Federation of Buddhist Councils of Australia, and many others.
Amongst the distinguished participants we should mention Ven. Otog Rinpoche from Drepung Gomang monastery, Ven. Dr. Ashin Ketu from State Pariyatti Sâsana University, Ajahn Brahm from Bodhinyana monastery, Ven. Dr. Bulgan Tumeekhuu from Gandantegchenling monastery, Prof. Emeritus Lewis Lancaster from Berkeley University, Dr. Hema Goonatilake from Sri Lanka Royal Asiatic Society, Ven. Dr. Wei Shan and Ven. Dr. Yuan Liu from Renmin University China PR, and Ven. Shih Lien Hai from the World Buddhist Association, Taiwan.
It is worth mentioning that the conference was held free of charge, which is unusual in our modern society. The conference was self-sponsored by the small group Estonian Nyingma, including accommodation, transportation and meals for guests and Sangha. The 2012 conference covered a large variety of topics, which clearly indicated the direction for the next year. All in all, Buddhism & Australia contributed over 30 scientific works in the first conference, which will be available to the public online: www.buddhismandaustralia.com.
Having visited the conference for all three long, but very interesting days of lectures, it felt as if every visitor found something of interest. Every presentation found an interested ear and only few of the presentations were left without questions from the public – and that said, only because the time ran out. The setup for presentations was greatly balanced: some presentations were more specific than others – being of interest mainly to other lecturers; others touched on more common ground with a visitor without too much previous knowledge of Buddhism. The public cheered over the opportunity to take part of in-depth Buddhist studies and to meet educated Buddhist scholars from around the globe whom they could ask questions from.
The friendly environment between the participants created a unique atmosphere and the bond of common understanding and activities was established. Many old and new friendships amongst Buddhists around the globe were made. Citing the guests of the conference: “The conference was a milestone for Australian Buddhism”. The 21st century is often labeled as the Asian century as the social, economical, political and cultural weight has shifted to this particular region. The foundation of successful business and communication is knowledge of cultural and an ideological space in which the partners interact.
Citing Vello Väärtnõu’s conclusion:
“Buddhism is not only the catalyst for spiritual development, but in many countries it is also a successful mediator for economic relationships. Australia is the economic polygon of Asia and Western Australia is especially popular and alluring for foreign investors. It is because of this that one could assume that Western Australia dedicates itself to researching its partner’s ideological, historical and cultural background. The most powerful of these ideologies that has been dominant in Asian continent for thousands of years is Buddhism. Because Western Australia is the center of Asian economic relations, it is also a suitable environment for an international conference on Buddhism and Australia”
The organizers are looking forward the next event, because the plans for that have already been made. In the end of the conference Vello Väärtnõu presented some of his ideas and projects to be introduced in the next conference. The International Conference “Buddhism & Australia 2013” will be held from 7 -9 August 2013 in Perth, Western Australia. The 2013 conference will have 4 working panels and the organizers estimate it to have 100-120 specialists from around the globe. The 4 working panels in 2013 will be divided into following categories:
3) Texts (Sutras, Tantras; Translations)
4) Open topics on Buddhism
Buddhists from all traditions, monastics, academics, scholars and others interested in Oriental and Buddhist studies are invited to present abstracts of their works. One of the ideas proposed by Vello Väärtnõu was to build stupas in Western Australia. The public’s reaction was very positive and supportive; the idea of building stupas had a great interest by everyone, as there are almost no existing stupas within Australia. Everyone agreed that the proposed ideas would contribute to the international co-operation amongst Buddhists from around the globe.