The Buddhist Society and Visiting Teachers
The first Buddhist Study Group was established in Melbourne in 1938 by the architect Len Bullen. Bullen was born in England but grew up in Australia. He was a member of the Theosophical Society who became interested in the rational psychological aspects of Theravadin Buddhism. However the outbreak of war interrupted this study group’s activities (Croucher 1989: 27-28).
Les Oates studied Japanese at University High School in Melbourne and Zen Buddhism near Hiroshima for four years in the 1940s. At the same time, a fellow Victorian Len Henderson, was also living nearby on an island in Hiroshima Bay, working in a psychiatric hospital (Croucher 1989: 31). Bullen and haematologist Syd Hill resumed monthly Buddhist study group meetings in a coffee shop in Swanston St in April 1953, and Oates joined them in September. Larger meetings began occurring in October, which led to the formation of the Buddhist Society of Victoria (BSV). Bullen became president, and Henderson joined them in December that year. This coincided with a period of resurgence of Buddhism in Asia, and Australia’s well-established relationships with Burma and Sri Lanka, through the British Empire, led to the flow of Buddhism between Australia and these countries during this period (Croucher 1989: 43-44).
Several prominent Buddhist monks and teachers visited Australia in the 1950s, often lecturing in Victoria, notably U Thittila from Burma, Venerable Narada Thera from Sri Lanka, and Robert Stuart Clifton, from the Western Buddhist Order (Croucher 1989: 44-52).
Hill and prominent Sydney Buddhist David Maurice, attended the Sixth Great Buddhist Council in Burma in 1954. Hill went on to ordain in Phnom Penh in 1955, becoming the first Australian born Buddhist monk. Bob Shackleton and Fred Whittle, both BSV members, were ordained the following year in Sri Lanka and Burma (Croucher 1989: 52).
The BSV continued to meet monthly, now at the Henry George Club room in the city, with Bullen, poet Max Dunn, Oates, Henderson, Stewart and Whittle as members. Some of them also regularly contributed to the Australian Buddhist Metta magazine. Charles Knight, of the Buddhist Society of New South Wales (BCNSW), began instigating a national Buddhist body at this time and the first meeting of the Buddhist Federation of Australian (BFA) took place in 1959 in Sydney. Knight was made chairman, Oates secretary, Whittle treasurer and Natasha Jackson, from the BCNSW, editor of Metta (Croucher 1989: 61-64).
The poet Howard Stewart also held weekly comparative religion discussion groups at a city bookshop in the 1950s before he left for Japan in 1966. Stewart travelled and studied at the Higashi-Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto with his friend and architect Adrian Snodgrass, and with Melbourne musician Rodney Timmins, where after a relatively short period they ordained as priests. Snodgrass returned to Sydney, Timmins died in 1969 and Stewart remained in Japan (Croucher 1989: 73) until his death in 1995.
The founder of Soka Gakkai, Japanese Daisaku Ikeda and the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn both visited Australia in the 1960s. Elizabeth Bell also joined the BSV in the early 1960s and began holding meetings at her North Carlton home. Bell became the Chairman of the BFA in the early 1970s and Metta magazine moved to Melbourne, to be edited by Henderson and Larry Fayers-Jessop. Bell eventually became Metta editor in the mid-1970s and the BSV developed strong links with Sri Lankan and Thai traditions and communities at this time (Croucher 1989: 77, 81, 98), which remain to this day.