Buddhism in Europe

Its contribution to European Institutions

by Gabriela Frey

(Founding President of Sakyadhita France and
EBU Council member & coordinator of the European Affaires Committee)

When the great Buddhist masters come to France, their disciples from different European countries rush to listen to them and study their teachings together, translated into different languages. This is the European experience of Buddhism.

One wonders, however, if these European Buddhist practitioners know the conditions of the religious practices of their co-disciples in other countries. In effect, different judicial and social legislations and different political systems of each European country have an impact more, or less, favourable on religions and ways of thinking; amongst others, Buddhism. Moreover, the links that governments create with dominant religions differ considerably from one country to another. In this field, France holds a singular place in Europe, thanks to its constitution, which advocates secularism, thus relegating the religious practice of each citizen into a sole private sphere, since religion is totally separated from the state.

The 47 member states of the Council of Europe, all of whom have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), count around 3 millions of Buddhists from all traditions.

  • Article 9 of the ECHR decrees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to change religion or convictions, and lastly the right to demonstrate for one's religion or convictions, individually or collectively, in public and in private. This article also expresses the liberty to proceed to cults and rites, as well as liberty to give doctrinal teaching.
  • Article 14 of the ECHR prohibits all discriminations including those founded on religion.

Upon closer examination, it can be observed that the recognition of Buddhism as a religion in its own right and given the same consideration as those religions historically present, varies according to the application of the ECHR which is made in each member state.

I would like to indicate the example of Germany, which does not have the same severe separation between different church and state. This is because Buddhism meets difficulties in being recognised as a religion in its own right as well as an organisation of public law (corporation under public law).

Churches in Germany benefit from specific rights consecrated by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany (23 May 1949), which were inspired by the Commission of Weimar (11 August 1919).

Experts consider that these rights present a discriminatory character, in particular in the field of the right to work, because it permits churches (they count amongst the largest employers in Germany) to discriminate against employees with other beliefs, without any sanction. An employee working in a hospital, a children's pre-school organisation, or a school, even financed by public funds, but managed by a Catholic or Protestant organisation, can be made redundant if he or she decides to leave the church, or if for example he or she decides to divorce. And also a non-Christian will not be recruited in these confessional establishments, even when it is only a maintenance or cleaner job.

This "injustice" institutionalised encouraged me, with other friends (and members of Sakyadhita), to see if I could in future come to the aid of my Buddhist friends in Europe, having understood that Germany is not the only country where religious minorities are discriminated against. Even if a just and perfect recognition of all kinds of spirituality is still a long way off, the path is incontestably that of seeking and finding that recognition at European level. After two world wars, which devastated Europe, the Council of Europe was founded in 1949 with the aim of pacifying all countries in an irreversible way. In order to do this, it was necessary to rebuild in a common way that could not be overturned or ignored: - human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Besides the governors and elected members of parliament, civil society constitutes an important factor the democratic process, and gives citizens alternative means, parallel to those of pressure groups and political parties, of conveying different points of view and a guarantee of the taking into account of diverse interests in the political decisional process.

Upon becoming a member with Sakyadhita France in the European Buddhist Union (EBU) in 2008, I undertook those demarches enabling the organisation to integrate into the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations of the Council of Europe (CoE). It was necessary to undertake numerous formalities until the Secretary General of the CoE validated the candidature of the EBU, and then recommended it to the Committee of Ministers, who finally conferred on it participative status on 29 December 2008. Buddhism was thus recognised for the first time at European level.

Since then, with welcome help from Michel Aguilar, we have carried out real pioneering work, and have participated in three themed committees at the OING Conference (human rights - democracy - education and culture). Over a four-year period, we have also contributed to the elaboration of the report "Human Rights and Religions", as well as, amongst others, a complex text on the intercultural dialogue. From 2014 until June 2017, Michel Aguilar was elected President of the Commission of Human rights at the OING Conference, the first Buddhist to exercise an important responsibility, visible in the heart of the Council of Europe.

In 2010, a Buddhist representative was at last invited to participate in the high-level work of the Committee of Ministers on the religious dimension of inter-cultural dialogue (http://www.coe.int/fr/web/cm/exchanges). A permanent platform for this dialogue is claimed by the Parliamentary Assembly, but has not so far obtained the agreement of the Committee of Ministers.

The promulgation of the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union (27 member states) in 2009, requiring a regular dialogue with religions and ways of thinking, marks in an assured way a supplementary and important step. Today, certain European countries have issued official recognition of Buddhism, even by providing, for certain of them, public aid for national Buddhist Unions, as for example in Norway, Belgium, Austria and Italy.

In the present context, and to better prepare the future of Buddhism in Europe, we have to follow up without pause quality work. I hope that we will obtain some serious support from all Buddhists in order to perpetuate to encourage an equal recognition of Buddhism in all European countries. This will enable us as well to continuously participate in various fields to work for more gender justice, as we did in 2006 with the participation of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.

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