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Culture

100 Years of Enlightenment

As the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first Buddhist congregation in Germany approaches, the Dalai Lama plans to visit the country.

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The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan political and religious leader, will talk about non-violence global ethics in Germany this week.


The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, will be in Germany for this week's historic meeting between Catholics and Protestants in Berlin and to meet regional leaders from May 28 to June 2. His visit comes shortly before the 100th anniversary of Buddhism as an organized religion in the country.

Though he frequently calls himself "a simple monk," the Dalai Lama has successfully raised awareness worldwide of the plight of his Tibetan homeland, which has been ruled by China since he fled into exile in 1950. Nearly half a century later, in 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his consistent opposition to violence in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet from Chinese occupation.

But this week, his visit serves as a reminder of the unexpectedly rich history the eastern religion has played in Germany.

Buddhist mavericks

The odyssey begins back in August 1903, when Karl Seidenstücker founded the world's first "white" Buddhist congregation in Leipzig. Though the group was only made up of eight people, it received attention in Burma and Thailand, where observers believed the new congregation indicated Buddhism would make great inroads into the west, Dr. Heinz Mürmel, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Leipzig, told Deutsche Welle.

Composer Richard Wagner, novelist Hermann Hesse -- who wrote a fictional account of the life of Buddha in Siddhartha -- and philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer all dallied with Buddhism. That didn't explain German interest in Buddhism though, Mürmel explained, since, at the time, they mostly had an influence on intellectual circles.

"The roots can be found in German Romanticism and the diffuse feelings of veneration toward India," Mürmel said. He also suggested that theosophy, an influential movement that originated in the United States in 1875 and mainly following Buddhist and Brahmanic theories, was largely responsible for the early interest in Buddhism in Germany.

A first wave of Buddhist teaching in Germany took place in the 1920s, but its popularity didn't begin to grow until the 1980s, Mürmel explained. Then Zen Buddhism, a spiritual import from the U.S., began to attract more followers. In the late 1980s, Tibetan Buddhism became more popular too.

There is, however, no precise way of measuring the number of people who have turned to Buddhism, since statistics on the religion are not kept by the German government. The German Buddhist Union (DBU), an umbrella organization of 52 groups, estimates that around 270,000 Buddhists practice here now, roughly 150,000 of whom are German. The rest are Asian, mainly Vietnamese and Thai, they say.

But millions of Germans are interested in the religion, DBU spokesperson Michaela Doepke told Deutsche Welle. Interestingly, Buddhism, which welcomes people from all walks of life and religious, ethnic or national backgrounds, tends to attract more followers in times of crisis and war, the DBU has said.

Siddhartha

The religion is based on the life of the Buddha, or Gautama Siddhartha, who was born into a wealthy northern Indian family in the mid-6th century B.C. At age 29, he began a quest for enlightenment, which he is said to have reached years later through meditation. The religion developed from his teachings, expressed through the Theravada school of Buddhism.

A further school, Mahayana, sprung from Theravada Buddhism in the 1st century. Several independent Buddhist schools have evolved out of the Mahayana teachings, including Zen, Pure Land and Tibeten Buddhism, which is also known as Vajrayana Buddhism.

The Tibetan school is the strongest in Germany. Doepke attributed its strength to the influence of the Dalai Lama, as the international face of Tibetan Buddhism.

But Doepke pointed out that the Dalai Lama is not the only reason Germans turn to Buddhism. She said she believes Germans are attracted by the compassion and sensitivity the religion professes. In other words, in a country famous for its industry and order, some seem to be looking for the path to enlightenment.

"Perhaps the rituals accommodate our engineered society better," Doepke suggested.

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