Rue Capouillet 35 at 1060 Brussels.
Since when Buddhists have been present in Belgium?
Having no colonial links with Asian Buddhist countries, the development of Buddhism in Belgium is quite late compared to other European countries. Alexandra David-Neel, who lived several years in Brussels, introduced the Maha Bodhi Society to the Congress of Free Thinkers in Brussels as early as 1910. There was reportedly a group of those interested in Buddhism who met in Brussels in the period between the two World Wars. Buddhism had already attracted Belgian academic attention through the works and translations of the two famous indologists Louis de La Vallée Poussin at the University of Ghent and his student Etienne Lamotte at the Catholic University of Leuven, founders of what is internationally known as the Belgian School of Buddhist Studies.
The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism considers Louis de La Vallée Poussin (1869 – 1938) as "one of the foremost European scholars of Buddhism during the twentieth century". His major works include a six-volume translation of the Abhidharma-kosa, and the first complete translations in a Western language of the Bodhicharyavatara and the Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi. He studied Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan at the University of Louvain early in his academic career. He continued his studies of Sanskrit under the direction of Sylvain Levi and Victor Henry, while studying at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole des Hautes-Etudes. Later, to further his studies of Buddhism, he learned Chinese and Tibetan.
His main student, Étienne Lamotte (1903 – 1983), a Belgian priest and professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, was one of the few scholars familiar with all the main Buddhist languages: Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. He is known for his French translation of Nagarjuna's Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa (Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom) in five volumes. Lamotte also composed several other important translations from Mahayana sutras, including the Suramgamasamadhi sutra, and the Vimalakirti sutra.
During the 1950’s, the growing interest for Zen Buddhism saw Robert Linssen trying to create the first Buddhist community “Les Amis du Bouddhisme Zen”, while in Antwerp Adriaan Shituko Peel and Raymond Kiere started a “Centrum voor Boeddhistische Studies en Voorlichting” under the spiritual authority of Francis Allen, a British Theravadin monk. The centre stopped its activities in 1956.
It was in the 1970s that the interest in Buddhism in Belgium became more important. Socio-cultural factors and the arrival of many immigrants from Asia then led to the creation of various centres for the study and practice of Buddhism by Asian refugees on the one hand, and by natives in search of new forms of spirituality on the other. The foundation by the Japanese Zen master Deshimaru of the Association Zen Internationale in Paris in 1970 had its repercussions in Belgium with the creation of several groups forming the AZB (Association Zen de Belgique), which is still very active with over ten dojos all over the country. Other Japanese Zen groups have been founded such as Zen Sangha in Ghent and Shikantaza in Mons, as well as the Korean Kwan Um Zen School in Brussels in 1985. The Vietnamese Zen school of Thich Nhât Hanh is also very present with four groups active in Liège, Brussels and Antwerp. This exceptional master has been visiting Belgium several times to give lectures for a very large public.
The foundation in 1967 of the first Tibetan Buddhist centre in the Western world, Samye Ling in Scotland by Chogyam Trungpa and Akong Rinpoche, opened the way for the introduction in Europe of Tibetan Buddhism with the visits of high Lamas such as the 16th Karmapa, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and others that had fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. The first Tibetan Buddhist centre, Karma Samten Ling, was founded in 1974 in Antwerp by Akong Rinpoche during the first Belgian visit of the 16th Karmapa and the second centre, Kagyu Samye Dzong in Brussels in 1977 during the second visit. The heads of all the main Tibetan lineages as well as the Dalai Lama have since then visited these centres and others such as Yeunten Ling in Huy, giving teachings and empowerments, and several Lamas have settled in Belgium. There is nowadays a community of about 5.000 Tibetan refugees, although the main public of the Dharma centres are native Belgians and Europeans. The creation of other Tibetan Buddhist centres followed in the eighties, the nineties and beginning of the 21st century, such as the Kagyu centres Tibetaans instituut in Schoten and Institut Nalanda in Brussels linked to Yeunten Ling, as well as Kagyu Samye Ling Belgium in Beaumont and the Nyingma centres Dzogchen Gelek Palbar Ling in Florennes and Rigpa Belgium in Brussels.
The centre for Jodo Shin Buddhism was founded in Antwerp in 1974 by the late Shituko Adriaan Peel. Other traditions followed, such as the Vietnamese Linh-Son pagodas since 1976 in Brussels and Liège and the Taiwanese Fokuangshan pagoda in Antwerp in middle of the nineties. Also the Soka Gakkai International is since 1966 very active with small groups meeting regularly all over Belgium, officially constituted in 1991, with its main seat situated in Brussels. The Japanese Vajrayana school Shingon is also present with two different lineages, Shinnyo-en in Brussels and Yô-e-an in Hasselt.
Theravada Buddhism is also very present in Belgium since the eighties. The Wat Thai Dhammaram centre in Waterloo, inaugurated in 1999, hosts several Bhikkhus and is frequented by Thai families resident in Belgium but also by Belgians and Europeans for whom the monks organize Dharma teachings and Vipassana meditation.
Dhamma Group was founded in 1986, following the yearly visits since the late seventies for teachings in Kagyu Samye Dzong by Dr. Rewatta Dhamma, an eminent Burmese monk resident in Birmingham. They have an active centre in Rivière (province of Namur) with visits of monks of the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition of Myanmar. There is a branch in Brussels and another in Liège.
The Dhammakaya International Society has a quite large centre in Lede (East Flanders) and is linked to the Wat Phra Dhammakaya monastery in Thailand. The Belgian branch was founded in Ypres in 1997 by Nicolas Woods, a British monk. Wat Dhammapateep in the city of Mechelen (province of Antwerp) is a temple started in 2005 by Thai nationals living in Belgium. The centre is linked to the Wat Chakkawatrajawas temple in Thailand. There is a resident monk and regular visiting monks. They have over 2.000 members, mainly from the Thai community. A first Laotian pagoda has been created in the beginning of the eighties in Brussels and another one in Liège in 1987, with a monk in residence. In 1997 a second pagoda succeeded the first one in Brussels, with two monks in residence.
The Cambodian Vatt Khemararam temple was founded in 1982 by the monk Dhamma Rangsi. After he left in 1991 to go back to Cambodia, the French monk Dhamma-Vichayo was resident for two years. Both he and his predecessor organized teachings in French to reach the larger Belgian public.
The first visible sign of Buddhism in Belgium was the installation in 1911 in the parc of his domain in Mariemont of a four-meter-high bronze statue of Buddha Amida Butsu, which the rich Belgian businessman and politician Raoul Warocque ordered from a local craftsman during his travel through Japan in 1910. His domain later became the Royal Museum of Mariemont and the Statue is one of the exceptional monumental works of art to be visited in the parc. In 1978 a first “Day of Buddhism” was inaugurated in front of the statue with the presence of Akong Rinpoche, Shitoku Peel, several Thai monks and Zen monks. This yearly tradition was interrupted a few years later when urgent repairs had to be made to save the statue from damage by bad weather. After almost thirty years it was completely repaired and reinstalled under a shelter in the Mariemont museum parc in 2010.
These first “Days of Buddhism” gave the idea to get Buddhism officially recognized, in the same way as the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican Churches, Islam, Judaism and the Freethinkers. Therefore, in 1986, a first "Federation of Buddhist Communities" was created under the presidency of Adriaan Shitoku Peel, and in 1997 the Buddhist Union of Belgium was founded under the presidency of Frans Goetghebeur. In 2006 the official request for recognition was introduced and in July 2008 the Minister of Justice made a law giving a yearly grant to the BUB in order “to structure Buddhism in Belgium in view of its recognition. A General Secretary has since then been paid by the government in this perspective and negotiations went on with the Ministry to prepare the recognition. Today, the BUB counts 35 member organizations representing all the above-mentioned traditions. A survey made in 2009 by a professional polling firm indicates that presently 150.000 Belgians can be considered as Buddhists, while 600.000 are positively interested, having read some books or attended a conference.
In the Government Declaration of 30 September 2020, which is the political program of the new coalition of seven political parties, it is stated that “This government will recognize Buddhism as a non-confessional philosophy in conformity with article 181 § 2 of the Constitution”. Today, in June 2022, the law of recognition has been terminated and will be on the agenda of the Government. It will be voted by the Parliament after the summer to become effective on January 1st 2023. For the development of Buddhism in Belgium, this will be an historical and crucial moment, because finally Buddhism will be put on the same footing as the above-mentioned religions and philosophical systems.
In Belgium, based on the Concordat of 1801 signed between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII, which has been preserved in the Belgian Constitution of 1830, the recognized religions benefit from government grants, the priests, rabbis, and other representatives of religions are on the payroll of the Ministry, as well as chaplains in prisons and the army. If the churches or other religious buildings need repairs, the provinces must pay the deficit if not enough funds are available. In the official education systems, these recognized convictions are part of the teaching (one or two hours a week) in the primary and secondary school. So once Buddhism is recognized, if parents tell the school that their children wish to get Buddhist teaching, the school will have to find teachers and it will be up to the Belgian Buddhist Union to appoint and form them.
Carlo Luyckx, June 11, 2022