Buddhism gains adherents in Denmark

In just 25 years, the number of Buddhists in Denmark has risen from 2,000 to 17,000-18,000. Despite its increasingly popularity, Buddhists are virtually invisible to many Danes

After winning over more than 400 million adherents around the world, Buddhism is now gaining a foothold in Danish society.

Just 25 years ago, the Asian religion had some 2,000 practitioners in Denmark. But a new Århus University study has put the number of Danish Buddhists today at 17-18,000 - outnumbering Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hindus.

"Buddhism has, in a sense, had its big breakthrough in Denmark. The primary reason is that many Vietnamese immigrants and imported Thai wives have settled here over the past 20 years, started families and founded temples in several Danish cities. A number of Danes have been inspired by Buddhism or formally converted," Århus University Professor Jørn Borup told daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

According to Borup, Denmark is home to 16 Buddhist temples and centers spread across the country. Asian Buddhists use these temples on the same limited scale that Danes use the National Lutheran Church - attending holidays commemorating the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha or taking part in masses. But most observant Buddhists today practice their religion moderately by privately observing the Buddha's moral rules for life.

Borup explained that just 7,000 Buddhists in Denmark are registered members of a temple or center. Danish-born Buddhists often use the temples for meditation, and are attracted by Tibetan Buddhism, the variant practiced by charismatic figures such as the Danish lama Ole Nydahl or Tibet's Dalai Lama.

"Many Danes are fascinated by meditation and the idea of reincarnation. And many elements are Buddhism are increasingly being used by Danish therapists and neoreligious movements, while advertisers market products by tapping into Eastern mysticism and Buddhist concepts like harmony and inner peace," said Borup.

Although Buddhism has by all accounts taken hold in Denmark, Buddhist émigrés from Vietnam and Thailand are virtually invisible to many Danes.

"They tend not to espouse their culture or religion, and they rarely take part in the larger social debate. In addition, Vietnamese immigrants, in particular, have low unemployment and crime rates and are widely regarded as role models for other immigrant groups, which doesn't make them very interesting subjects for the media," said Borup.

Søren Lassen, a religious historian at Copenhagen University's Religious History Department, agrees.

"Buddhist émigrés may seem invisible in Denmark - in part because Buddhism is generally not a missionary religion, and in part because Buddhism - unlike Islam - has no ambition to establish a religious state or social model. Most Buddhists keep to themselves and concentrate on performing good works to achieve a better station in the next life," said Lassen.