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The ethnic Buddhist communities of New South Wales

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The Burmese

In 1987, Sydney's small Burmese community rented a cottage at North Parramatta to serve as a temporary Buddhist Vihara (Monk's residence and place of worship) as the first step towards establishing a permanent Burmese temple in the Sydney area. The Abbot, Venerable Sayadaw U Zagarabhivamsa, took up residence there in January, 1988. He is a highly respected teacher and scholar, being formerly a professor at Nalanda Buddhist Institute in India. In 1989, larger premises were purchased by the Burmese Buddhist Society at Merrylands, also in the Parramatta district from where it currently conducts its activities. Many of the local Burmese community are middle class professionals, some of Chinese ethnic background, who were expelled by Ne Win during one of his purges of non-ethnic Burmese.

The Chinese

On January 23rd, 1972, Eric Liao, a Chinese businessman, formed the Chinese Buddhist Society of Australia. Initially, he invited Venerable Somaloka to conduct services in a garage adjacent to his home. With the assistance of Bill Jong, another businessman, he acquired more central and suitable premises in Dixon Street, in Sydney's Chinatown district. This newly established temple in Dixon Street was later named "Prajna Temple".

A tragic fire destroyed the premises on November 14th, 1985. All that remained after the fire was the statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, Kwan Yin Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and approximately one thousand books, including the Tripitaka (Buddhist cannonical literature). The abbot of the temple, Venerable Sik Chee Ming, and his supporters later re-established the temple at Hornsby, a northern Sydney suburb. In 1989, premises in Dixon Street, vacated by the Chinese See Yup Society, were acquired and the central Chinese community, again, has a place of worship. The form of Mahayana Buddhism followed by most Chinese and, indeed, the Vietnamese, is a fusion of Cha'an (Zen) and Pure land (Messianic Buddhism). As Paul Croucher (10) observes:

'The elemental Chinese religion is, of course, a kind of nature polytheism, onto which aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have been grafted. The Chinese brought with them a syncretic blend of beliefs and practices in which the demarcations were ill-defined and the influence of Buddhism only mild. As in China, those who identified themselves with Buddhism probably amounted to no more than one per cent of the population. Most were content to wear 'a Confucian crown, a Taoist robe, and Buddhist sandals', and when pressed had some difficulty in describing the religion they practised.'

Although a small number of the Chinese Buddhist community in Sydney is very devout, the greater number is quite pragmatic regarding religion and regard it as solely of use in rites of passage.A Monk who eschews non- Buddhist practices amongst his congregation is Venerable Tsang Hui, who arrived in Australia from Taiwan in 1977. In 1979, from a rented house in Redfern, an inner city suburb, he established the Hwa Tsang Monastery. Being a qualified school teacher as well as a Buddhist monk, he employed the 'skillful means' of attracting young people to the Monastery by conducting classes in academic subjects. The monastery later moved to Greenacre, where regular religious services were conducted and later to a second location at Homebush, where a new monastery has been built.

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In addition to conducting religious observances, the monastery continues to attract many high school students to its daily classes in Buddhism, chemistry, Chinese language, English, general science, physics and mathematics. Due to these special classes, many of the students gained places at Sydney's universities and have later graduated to the professions. As an outcome of these Buddhist students attending the universities, joined by overseas students studying in Australia, university Buddhist societies were formed in the early eighties. The first student society was the University of New South Wales Buddhist Society, also known as UNIBUDS, which was founded, in 1981, with Venerable Tsang Hui's support.

It was followed a year later by the formation of the Sydney University Buddhist Society.The proposed development for the recently opened Hwa Tsang Monastery at Homebush, in the Strathfield Municipality, created a furore among some of the older Australian residents of the district. Although figures are not available for the Strathfield Municipality alone, the 1986 Commonwealth Census reveals that in the Inner West Region of Sydney, of which the Strathfield Municipality forms a part, 10,513 residents are of Asian ethnic background - a not insignificant number. (11) An intensive letterboxing campaign under the names of H.J.Heath and Marie Heath J.P. (next door neighbors of Ven.Tsang Hui) stated:

If this type of development is allowed in A2 Class residential area your street may be next, or even the back garden next door. The value of your home, your most valuable asset will be eroded. What some people or organisations would like to put in our garden suburb!!! It WAS called "Oasis in the West" in our Council's Centenary year JUST three years ago!!! I know that most of us have worked all our adult life to own a place of our own to relax in, in the evening of our life. Not to be faced with a fight to maintain our peace and tranquility and protect our landscape and view, and the sight of native birds feeding in our garden and nestled in the many trees, that would be affected by this proposed development. Please act now, you have only until 4 p.m. Friday 19th August, to protest in writing. You may view the plan and model as suggested in the letter (from the Council), but your own intelligence will paint in your mind's eye this hideous development to a back garden landscape. (12)

The Strathfield Municipal Council, noted as one of the most conservative councils in Sydney, despite receiving 890 individual letters and a petition contaning 840 signatures supporting the application and a petition, organised by the Heaths, containing 273 signatures opposing it, unanimously rejected the Monastery's development application, so an appeal was lodged with the Land and Environment Court of N.S.W.. Venerable Tsang Hui stressed that should the Buddhist community accede to the Council's decision without putting up a fight, the door would be open to all other Councils to reject development applications for religious premises from the minor religions. Mr.Justice Cripps of the N.S.W. Land and Environment Court ruled, on June the first, 1989, in favour of the Monastery's development application. He stated in his judgement:

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It became plain that the intensity of the opposition to the subject development was, in some instances, influenced by the circumstance that the religious institution was a Buddhist monastery. All residents were at pains to volunteer that their views were not "racist" and I accept their assessment of their objections.

The question of what does or does not qualify as "racism" was not explored in the proceedings but because the word was bandied about during the course of the hearing, I feel bound to express my opinion that I do not think any objector is a "racist" just because he or she objects to a Buddhist temple functioning next door or in the near vicinity. It was stated explicitly by some and was implicit in the evidence of others that the opposition would not have been so intense had a comparable Christian establishment been proposed. By way of illustration, none of the residents seems to be duly concerned about the activities of the Lutheran church (nearly opposite).

It is made clear by the evidence, there is a need for the monastery in the sense that there are many people who wish to congregate as Buddhists. The subject land is zoned residential but churches and educational establishments are permissible in residential areas. There are many churches in residential areas in Sydney, some of which have functions and undertake activities more intrusive than the subject proposal. It is, of course, not possible to speculate on the attitude Mr. and Mrs.Heath will have to the development if it proceeds. I am, however, confident that most other people who have expressed hostility to the concept will, with the passage of time, accept the monastery in the same way they presently accept the Lutheran church. (13.)

Reluctant to accept the umpire's decision, the Heath's formed an organisation called 'Strathfield Overdevelopment Saviours (S.O.S.)' which enlisted the support of the local State Member of Parliament, Paul Zammit, who possibly saw political mileage in siding with racists. He requested the Council to seek further legal advice in the hope that an appeal could be lodged against the judgement. In a letter to the Town Clerk, he wrote: I therefore respectfully request Council to urgently call an extra-ordinary Council meeting to discuss this matter in the hope that a second legal opinion be obtained with the full knowledge of certain inconsistencies and possible moral turpitude that have come to light. Should Council decide to proceed to hold this meeting I strongly urge that S.O.S., on behalf of the residents, attend this meeting. (14.) A copy of this letter was circulated to the local residents. When Ven.Tsang Hui's solicitor queried Zammit regarding his allegation of I'moral turpitude', he suggested that he suspected that the signatures on the Monastery's petition were faked. He withdrew this comment after it was suggested that a defamation action could result unless he did. The Town Clerk wrote to the N.S.W. Minister for Local Government and Planning, Mr.Hay, requesting that he overturn the Court's decision. The Minister replied:

I have noted the Council's views on the development, however, the council has presented its case to the Land and Environment Court and I have no Power to overrule decisions of the court. It is therefore inappropriate for me to meet with the council to discuss the issues. Should the council wish to pursue the proposal further within the court, it should seek further legal advice. (15.)

The Council's 'further legal advice' was that there were no grounds for an appeal. Many councils and citizens of Australia still seem slow or resistant to accepting the policy of multi- culturalism. This causes much hurt, not to mention expense, in our new citizens and causes them to feel that one law applies to old Australians whilst the new have a constant battle for the acceptance of their lifestyles and culture.

The Hwa Tsang Monastery is not alone in facing trials and tribulations with Councils and local residents. The Taiwan based Fo Kwang Shan organisation, is currently constructing a huge multi-million dollar complex on a ten hectare site at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After a minor battle with the Wollongong City Council over its increasing the originally agreed price for the land, (16.) a bitter newspaper debate ensued in the 'Letters to the Editor' collumn. Fortunately, they had the support of the then Lord Mayor, Alderman Frank Arkell, who was also the local State Member of Parliament, so they are currently proceeding with the project which will comprise three prayer halls, two meditation halls, twenty classrooms, a dining hall for 500 people as well as sleeping quarters. Fo Kwang Shan also maintains centres in Hong Kong and in Los Angeles.

This latter centre was the venue for the 16th Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1988, the first time that it was held outside Asia. Another ethnic Chinese religious group, whose members are mainly refugees from the Indo-Chinese countries, has constructed a temple at Bonnyrigg, west of Sydney, which is one of the largest in Australia. This is the Confucianist, Buddhist cum Taoist lay organisation, the Australian-Chinese Buddhist Society. Future plans involve the construction of a school for the young and a retirement village for the elderly. This temple is one of the few serving the Indo-Chinese community which is completely privately funded.