Explainer: Buddhism in New Zealand

On May 19, Buddhists in New Zealand will join millions around the world in celebrating Vesak, the most important day on the Buddhist calendar. Find out more about New Zealand's third-largest religion below. 

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is a spiritual tradition practiced by an estimated 500 million people, or around 7 per cent of the world’s population. It is based on the teachings of the Buddha, or the “Enlightened One”.

You might be surprised to learn that “Buddhism” is a term coined by westerners. It’s not a term that most “Buddhists” would use to refer to themselves.

“Buddhism isn’t really an ‘ism’ at all,” explains Amala Wrightson, chair of the New Zealand Buddhist Council.

“Buddhists would be more likely to call themselves followers of ‘Dharma’, or ‘The Way’. This basically means the laws of the universe.”


Where does it come from?

According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama, who would become the Buddha, was born in Lumbini (in modern-day Nepal) in the 6th century B.C. After attaining enlightenment, he spent 45 years travelling through northeastern India, sharing his teachings and ordaining monks and nuns.

Emperor Ashoka, who ruled the Indian Mauryan Empire from 268 B.C. to 232 B.C., is credited with the early spread of Buddhism. Troubled by bloodshed, he converted to Buddhism and renounced war for non-violence. He despatched Buddhist monks to surrounding territories and the teachings spread far and wide throughout Asia.

How did Buddhism come to New Zealand?

Buddhism in New Zealand has been traced back to the 1860s, when Chinese goldminers came to Otago. Their numbers were small — when Buddhism first appeared as category in the 1926 census, only 169 identified as Buddhist. 

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Buddhism started to gain momentum, as more Kiwis travelled to Asia. That decade also saw visits by several prominent Buddhist teachers. Then in the 1980s, increasing numbers of Asian migrants brought various Buddhist traditions with them.

Buddhism is now New Zealand’s third-largest religion after Christianity and Hinduism, with more than 58,400 followers (according to the 2013 Census).

“Buddhism is different from other ‘migrant faiths’, or faiths which have increased in numbers with migrants,” says Paul Morris, a professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University.

“Unlike Islam and Hinduism, the other two major migrant faiths in New Zealand, Buddhists are about 25 per cent Pākehā.”

Buddhism in New Zealand

Amala Wrightson celebrates Vesak with members of the Buddhist community.

What do Buddhists believe?

There are three important concepts in Buddhism. These are:

  • Suffering, or dukkha: The central Buddhist teaching is that life is characterized by suffering. One of the main causes of this suffering is our belief that things can last.
  • Impermanence, or anicca: The idea that all existence is temporary. Once you let go of attachments to your physical form, and your opinions, you will find enlightenment.
  • No-self, or anatta: There is no permanent self or soul. When you die, it is your energy and its momentum that lead to rebirth.

Are there different types of Buddhism?

Buddhism can be divided into three main branches:

  • Theravada: The oldest and most conservative branch of Buddhism, the “Way of the Elders” is based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha. This school is most common in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
  • Mahayana: The most widespread branch of Buddhism, Mahayana means “Great Vehicle". The bodhisattva ideal is central — waking up but remaining in this world of suffering to help others wake up as well. Mahayana is made up of many schools, including Chan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Pure Land Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is practiced in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Tibet.
  • Vajrayana: An offshoot of Mahayana, Vajrayana Buddhism is also known as the “Diamond Way”, and is said to offer an accelerated path to enlightenment. One of the ways it does this is through a collection of sacred texts called tantras. While Vajrayana originated in India, it is mostly associated with Tibet, and is sometimes referred to as “Tibetan Buddhism”.  
Buddhism in New Zealand

Orange robes are worn by Theravada Buddhist monks.

How do people practice Buddhism?

Buddhism uses a variety of rituals and practices which are intended to help with the journey to enlightenment.

“The essential idea is that we can train our body and our mind to be able to not suffer as much and to help others,” says Wrightson.

“For some Buddhists, it can be practicing generosity. For others, it will be chanting or praying, making offerings, meditation, loving kindness — all kinds of disciplines.”

Contrary to popular belief, not all Buddhists meditate. In fact, it’s only since the 20th century that meditation has been practiced widely.

What is Vesak?

Vesak is a holiday observed by Buddhists all over the world. The date of the holiday depends on the full moon, so it is fluid, but in 2019, the official date for celebrations is May 19.

Depending on which community you belong to, Vesak is celebrated differently.

“In the Theravada community, it’s a very special day because it marks the three most important moments in the Buddha’s life - his birth, his great enlightenment, and his entry into nirvana,” says Wrightson.

“But in my community, the Zen community, the focus is on the Buddha’s birth. We have other days where we celebrate the great enlightenment, and his entry into nirvana.”

Buddhism in New Zealand

The washing of the baby Buddha is an important Vesak ritual.

How is Vesak celebrated?

On Vesak Day, it’s customary for Buddhists to visit temples, eat vegetarian food, listen to teachings, take vows and make offerings. Buddhist temples and centres are decorated with flowers to symbolise new life.

In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, an important ritual during Vesak is the bathing of the baby Buddha, where people pour water over the shoulders of a small statue.

Wrightson explains: “When the Buddha was born, he was said to have immediately taken seven steps, pointed up to the sky and down to the earth and said, ‘above the heavens, below the heavens, I am the honoured one’. Then serpent deities bathed the baby Buddha in fresh dew. This bathing of the baby Buddha is symbolic of bringing him into this world and of purification.”

Article by Siobhan Downes. Special thanks to Amala Wrightson, chair of the New Zealand Buddhist Council, for her contribution to this story.

- Asia Media Centre