Buddhism in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Buddhism in Canada

The first Buddhists to set foot in Canada were likely Japanese and Chinese labourers who came to work on the railroads and in the mines in the 19th century. However, it was Japanese Canadians who first established institutional Buddhism in this country. In 2006, the Parliament of Canada voted unanimously to make His Holiness the Dalai Lama an honorary Canadian citizen. In the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), 366, 830 Canadians identified as Buddhist.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is a transformative teaching that encompasses various systems of philosophy (prajna), meditation (samadhi), and ethics (sila). Although Buddhism is often classified as a major world religion, this classification is disputed by some scholars. This is because a Buddha is not a god, nirvana (the Buddhist goal) is not a heaven, and a Buddha cannot save anyone through religion as there is no soul to save. The major goal is to be free from the cycle of suffering (samsara).


Buddhism began in India around 500 BC by a prince of the Sakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as "Gautama the Buddha" and "Sakyamuni." He is seen as a re-introducer and not a founder. Though some accounts of his life are more elaborate than others, the hagiographies preserved in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan and other Buddhist languages agree that Siddhartha was born in Lumbini Garden (present-day Nepal), attained awakening at Bodhgaya (India), began teaching just outside of Benares (Varanasi) and entered complete nirvana (passed away) at Kusinara (Kasia, India). Nirvana is often depicted as a state; however, it is a range from awakened to completely, perfectly awakened.

At the age of 29 Siddhartha turned his back on his life as a prince in order to seek awakening. After 6 years as an ascetic, he renounced this approach, and following the middle way, became Buddha the Awakened One (derived from Sanskrit bodhi, "awakened"). He recognized the principle of the interdependence of all phenomena, which implies that everything is impermanent (anitya); everything will eventually become dissatisfying (duhkha); nothing has a permanent nature of its own (anatman); and, when attachment to calculated and contrived thought projections is extinguished (nirvana), peace (santi) is gained. Thus, to become a Buddha does not mean that one becomes divine.

Buddhists believe there are many Buddhas, in the past, the future, and currently on earth: a Buddha is one who has awakened to a realistic view of the world and one's position in it. Buddhists also recognize that other planets and other planes of existence will have their own people and those people will have their own Buddhas because the truth of Buddhism is universal. A Buddha is one who realizes that nothing, including his soul, has an unchanging essence. Wishing to share the support system (dharma) derived from his insight, Gautama Buddha taught the Middle Path (moderation in all things) and the Four Noble Truths: suffering exists; suffering is caused by desires; since desires can be caused they can terminated; and there are 8 ways to end the desires (appropriate views, thoughts, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration). Two merchants Gautama met right after his awakening and the five monks who had accompanied him before his awakening became the first Buddhist followers (sangha). Sakyumuni Buddha's compassionate teaching lasted 45 years.

After his complete nirvana schisms arose, producing many different sects. Over the centuries two distinct traditions appeared: one determined to emulate the spiritual practices that led Gautama to awakening (ie, the Theravada system), and the other stressing the experience of awakening and compassion (ie, the Mahayana system).

The Theravada system bases its philosophy, meditation and ethics on the Pali texts compiled by Buddhists in India and Sri Lanka. It spread through Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Presently, there are complete canons in Pali (an ancient language of India), Chinese and Tibetan; during the last 150 years, translating many of the Tripitaka texts into European languages has required much effort.

The Mahayana tradition bases its philosophy, meditation and ethics on the Sanskrit texts from northern India. It spread to Korea, Vietnam, Japan and other East Asian countries by way of Central Asia and China. It also spread from China and India to Tibet and from Tibet to Mongolia. As each tradition spread, it changed to accommodate the language, culture, customs and attitudes of the new country without losing its central message. Some Buddhist teachings have influenced, or become integral to, various new religious movements.

Buddhism often takes on an organizational structure holding both spiritual and cultural significance, and designed to fulfill requirements for incorporation under the Societies Act. Membership is normally open, although most Buddhist societies expect commitment to the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha in a manner consistent with each society's understanding of these terms. Buddha is considered to be a manifestation of the awakened state by some, and/or an earthly exemplar by others.

History and Traditions

Dharma (literally, "support system") is the teaching and guiding principle. For some, sangha is a community of ordained monks, for others the community of monks and laity. Some societies require that the layman vow to refrain from the three physical acts of taking life, taking what has not been given and over-indulgence in sensuality; the four speech-related actions of lying, slandering, foolish talk and harsh talk; and the three mental actions of selfishness, malice and inappropriate views.

Buddhism is a decentralized system. Each society is centred on a leader known by different titles in different groups: bhikshu (monk), lama (teacher), sensei (teacher/spiritual director), roshi (spiritual adviser), oya( minister), geshe (master) and tulku (manifestation, body). In some groups the leader acts as social worker, foreign-language teacher and family counsellor while attempting to transmit something about the dharma to his or her assembly. Such groups are usually closely aligned with the parent culture and as such act as an institutional link with the old country and a bridge to the adopted country. In other groups, especially those whose members wish to devote their lives to meditation, the leader oversees and supervises the members' spiritual growth. Members of this type of group must be willing to closely follow the directions of the leader, which are based on his/her long years of practice.


Although Sunday has no ecclesiastical meaning for Buddhists, it is set aside for ritual observances because of Canadian culture and because it is difficult to attend activities on weekdays. Special observance days include New Year's Day (sometimes determined according to Chinese or Tibetan calendars), Nirvana and/or Parinirvana Day, Wesak (Full Moon, April-May) or Hanamatsuri Day (Flower Festival, 8 April), Founder's Day, Organization Day, Bodhi Day, Special Anniversary Day and New Year's Eve. Each group celebrates the observance days as determined by their country of origin's Buddhist tradition.

Some Buddhists also celebrate specific times in life - birth, naming, confirmation or ordination, marriage and death - in accordance with customs that arose in each parent culture. These are considered ritualistically significant because they are especially conducive to reflecting upon the principle of interdependence or dependent co-arising. Ceremonies associated with the techniques of meditation include those related to daily activities such as eating, shaving and bathing.

History of Buddhism in Canada

Japanese and Chinese workers who came to Canada to work on the railroads and in the mines were the first Buddhists to arrive in Canada (see Canadian Pacific Railway). However, these early Buddhists do not seem to have established any traceable activity.

Japanese Jodo Shinshu

Japanese Canadians first established Buddhism in Canada during the late 1800s, usually gathering at group members' homes. Adherents of the Jodo Shinshu tradition had likely resided in British Columbia as early as 1889, when the first Japanese consulate was established. However, the first recorded assembly of Japanese Buddhism in Canada took place in Vancouver in 1904, when 14 Buddhists met to request a minister from the Honpa Honganji Temple in Kyoto, Japan (mother temple of this Jodo Shinshu sect).

In October 1905 the first resident minister, Reverend Senju Sasaki, arrived and began teaching. In December of the same year, the first Buddhist temple in Canada was established in a rented room at the Ishikawa Ryokan (hotel) in Vancouver. In 1906, it was established at a house in Vancouver by the followers of the Japanese Jodo Shinshu school.

Did you know? The Japanese Jodo Shinshu school eventually established the largest Buddhist organization in Canada with multiple temples and dojos in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. The longest continually operating Buddhist temple was in southern Alberta. Some temples have closed, however, including the historically famous Alberta temple.

By 1926 the mother temple in Kyoto had sent seven ministers to the Vancouver area. By 1941, 11 ministers were serving 16 temples in BC. The first temple established in Alberta was in 1929, and southern Alberta would play an ever-increasing role in Canadian Buddhism beginning in the 1940s. Administration for the period 1904-32 was from San Francisco, and Alberta and BC were linked with Washington State, forming a Pacific Northwest district. However, in 1932 the Canadian body gained independence, and until the evacuation in 1942, a ministerial superintendent governed the temples.

Impact of the Second World War and the Internment of Japanese Canadians

During the Second World War (WWII), the internment of Japanese Canadians and their removal from British Columbia almost eradicated Japanese Buddhism and institutional Buddhism from Canada.

Many Japanese Canadians were removed to Alberta, making it the most important place for Buddhism in Canada. As noted in Bukkyo Tozen by Terry Watada, "The revival of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism from near eradication is attributable to the exile of Japanese Canadians from the West Coast to Southern Alberta." Because of this Alberta would also become the birthplace of the academic study of Buddhism in the whole of North America.

The lifting of the War Measures Act in 1949 restored Japanese freedom of movement throughout Canada; some Japanese Buddhists returned to BC, many stayed in Alberta and others settled elsewhere.


A national conference of Japanese Buddhists was held in 1955 in Toronto, and from that meeting arose the Buddhist Temples of Canada (formerly Buddhist Churches of Canada [BCC]). BCC temples follow the interpretation of the Buddha-Dharma according to Shinran (1173-1262), the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, who promoted the principle of dependent co-arising as the basis for individual liberation. Shinran attempted to understand the dharma in view of his own existence and thus derived the Nembutsu (recitation of "Namu Amida Butsu": Amitabha Buddha's name) teaching, which he emphasized as an expression of thanks and joy in realizing the interrelated nature of human existence.

In 1956, six ministers were serving 18 assemblies comprising 3500 members in Canada; in 1987 a bishop presided over 11 ministers administering 18 assemblies, most of them in Vancouver, Toronto and southern Alberta.

Established in 1992, Wat Yanviriya in Vancouver became the first Thai Buddhist temple in Canada. By 1995 there were 18 BCC temples and 2 affiliates, the smallest in Rosemary, Alberta, and the largest in Toronto. Bishop Susumu Kyojo Ikuta, the son of Reverend Shinjo Ikuta, an early pioneer minister, moved to Canada as a child but returned to Japan to earn a PhD in Buddhism. He moved back to Canada to live in Calgary and in 1998 was elected as head of the BCC, becoming the first Canadian-raised individual to head the Buddhist Temples of Canada. He served in this position until 2008.

In 1975 the BCC adopted English and parliamentary procedures for meetings so that younger delegates not proficient in Japanese could attend national meetings. Most temples use English as their primary language of communication, although the texts are still chanted in Japanese and some lectures are given in Japanese. Many temples now have a diverse population consisting of Japanese, Japanese-Canadians and non-Japanese members.


In China in the 6th century AD, Ch'an/Zen became a separate school of Buddhism when Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who travelled to China, stressed the direct viewing of the original nature of the mind. In the earlier part of the 20th century Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in North America was usually associated with Japanese culture. With the founding of more Chinese and Korean temples in the latter part of the century, this became no longer true. The Zen Lotus Society (now the Buddhist Society of Compassionate Wisdom), a "lay monastery," was incorporated in 1980 under Samu Sunim (Sunim is a title of respect), a Korean Zen monk who came to Montréal in 1968 and moved to Toronto in 1970. Kwangok Sunim, a Korean nun who immigrated to Canada in 1976, founded the Bulgwang-sa (Buddha Light Temple) in Toronto.

Soto Zen was transmitted to Japan from China in the 13th century by Dogen. When the Edmonton Buddhist Priory incorporated in 1979 it had close spiritual bonds with the Soto Zen School of Japan: it has maintained its ties with the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives and practises the Serene Reflection Meditation tradition, known as Ts'ao-Tung Ch'an in China and Sōtō Zen in Japan.

Ch'an/Zen centres are located throughout Canada. They include the Victoria Zen Centre, Zen Centre of Vancouver, Zen Buddhist Temple-Toronto, Ontario Zen Centre, Montreal Zen Centre and many others. Further, many Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese temples have Ch'an/Zen teachings as a major component of their traditions.

Several Japanese New Buddhist religions are also found in Canada. The highly organized and progressive Reiyukai (Spiritual Friendship Society) was founded in Japan by Kakutaro Kubo (1892-1944). Within 60 years this lay association had established offices throughout the world. The Reiyukai encourages individuals to seek and develop their inner character through senzo-kuyo (unselfishly caring for ancestors) and michibiki (sharing the personal experience with others unfamiliar with the Reiyukai teachings). The society's office in Canada is the Reiyukai Society of Canada in Vancouver.

Another such group is the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value-Creation Education Society), which became the Soka Gakkai in 1946, and was formed to promote peace among mankind by bringing happiness and harmony to individuals. Members of this lay organization propagate by means of shakubuku ("break and subdue"), the teaching that all individuals are already Buddhas. The method is derived from Nichiren (1222-82), founder of the Nichiren sect of Japanese Buddhism. Nichiren Shoshu of Canada was established in Toronto in 1961.

A traditional Chinese Buddhist temple, the Universal Buddhist Temple, established in 1986 in Vancouver, comprises a primarily Chinese membership. This temple practises Buddhism having Pure Land, Ch'an, T'ien Tai and Hwa Yen philosophies with strong Confucian and minor Chinese popular spirituality tendencies. Among other interests, this group studies meditation and parapsychology. The International Buddhist Society temple in Richmond is designed in traditional Chinese style and was completed in 1983. Jodo Shinshu is a Japanese school of Pure Land that emphasizes a doctrine of surrendering to the Buddha Amita rather than compassionate activity, meditation or chanting, like contemporary Chinese Pure Land; one can be reborn in Amita's Pure Land in the next life.

During the 1970s and 1980s, following the reduction of exclusionary immigration policies and an increase in immigration prospects for Asians, Chinese and Vietnamese arrived in Canada in increasing numbers and established temples in most provinces. The Cham Shan Temple (1979, Thornhill, Ont), International Buddhist Society Temple (1983, Richmond, BC) and Gold Buddha Monastery (1984, Vancouver) are all examples of Chinese Buddhist temples. The Venerable Tien Quan collected money for more than a decade to build the Prajna Temple in Calgary. Although groups such as the Koreans, Thai, Sri Lankan and Burmese arrived in smaller numbers, they also established temples. For example, the Zen Buddhist Temple of Toronto was founded by the followers of the Korean monk Samu Sunim, the Bulgwang-sa in Toronto was founded in 1976 by the Korean nun Kwangok Sunim, and in Montreal the Wat Thepbandol temple was established to serve the Laotian community. Many temples have dual functions as Buddhist institutions and as community centres.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism developed out of later Indian Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism has 2 kinds of practice, the way of the perfections and the Vajrayana ("thunderbolt vehicle"). Tibetan Buddhism follows the latter method of practice. Buddhism was brought to Tibet around 650 AD and flourished there. The Tibetans developed 4 major schools based on lineage, emphasis and textual preferences. In 1959 the 14th Dalai Lama, the temporal head of the country, fled from the invading Communist Chinese army to India. With him came about 100 000 monks, nuns, lamas and lay people. Canada was one of the first western countries to offer new homes to the people fleeing the oppression of their countries.

Before Tibet became an "autonomous region" of the People's Republic of China, there were 4 major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelugpa, Sakyapa, Nyingmapa and Kargyupa), of which the Kargyupa and Gelugpa are best represented in Canada. One of the largest, Shambhala International (Kargyupa), is headquartered in Halifax, and the Gelugpa founded the Gaden Choling in Toronto in 1980. Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, after founding many centres across Canada, established the first retreat centre on Salt Spring Island, BC.

One of the unique features of Tibetan Buddhism is the institution of the tulku. A tulku is a Buddha, Bodhisattva or great master of the past who intentionally takes on human life to teach and aid others. Many tulkus were involved in running the Tibetan government and as abbots of monasteries. They are usually distinguished by the title Rinpoche, which means "precious teacher."

The first lama to come to Canada was the Venerable Gyaltrul Rinpoche. He was a lama in the Palyul tradition of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and was assigned to accompany the first group of Tibetans to be resettled in Winnipeg. The Dalai Lama requested the Venerable Gyaltrul Rinpoche to aid the resettlement process in 1972. After working for many years in Canada, he was asked by H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma school, to be the abbot of several temples on the west coast of the US, where he relocated.

The Kargyu school is headed by His Holiness Karmapa. Karmapa means "the one who carries out Buddha activity" and the Karmapa line is the oldest tulkuline in Tibet. The 16th Karmapa passed away in Chicago in 1981 and was replaced by Orgyen Trinley Dorje.

One of the centres that studies, practises and promotes the teachings of the Kargyu order of Tibetan Buddhism is the Marpa Gompa Meditation Society, founded in 1979 in Calgary, and officially headed by Karma Thinley Rinpoche. Other Kargyu centres were located in St Catharines, Toronto, Montreal and Burnaby.

Many meditation centres were organized under the late Venerable Chogyam Trungpa (died 1987). His centres, located across the country, are easily identified by the name "Dharmadhatu" and members are predominantly Kargyupa ("followers of Kargyu") in meditative practices.

At the Gaden Choling Mahayana Buddhist Meditation Centre in Toronto, founded 1980, members practise the Tibetan Gelug school of Lama Tsongkapa (another of the 4 Tibetan Buddhist schools) meditation practices, and philosophy. Other centres affiliated with the Gaden Choling were established in Vancouver and Nelson, BC, and Thunder Bay, Ont. The Temple Bouddhiste Tibétain (Chang Chub Cho Ling) was established in 1980 in Longueuil, Qué, to preserve the Gelugpa tradition; the temple was later moved to Montreal.

The Victoria Buddhist Dharma Society, and the Sakya Thubten Kunga Choling, carry on the Sakya (another of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism) lineage. The Sakya lama, Tashi Namgyal, gives teachings through a translator and holds regular meditation classes and puja (offering) ceremonies. Two of the "new" Japanese Buddhist schools are found in Canada. The first, Reiyukai (Spiritual Friendship Society) with head offices in Vancouver, is based on Buddhism but considers itself a humanitarian organization. Soka Gakkai, which developed out of the Nichiren school, has centres in most major cities across Canada.

Other Buddhist groups include the International Buddhist Foundation, formed in 1982 to encourage scholarly research in studies related to Buddhism. The Toronto Buddhist federation, founded in 1982, resulted from an earlier gathering of Buddhists in Toronto who were preparing to attend a peace conference. Membership, limited to registered Buddhist charitable organizations, includes Buddhists from Burma, Cambodia, Canada, China, India, Japan, Korea, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, the US and Vietnam. Other major metropolitan areas already have or are creating umbrella organizations as in Toronto.

Anti-Establishment Orientation of North American Buddhism

One of the notable features of North American Buddhism is that there is a strong anti-establishment orientation. When this feature is joined with the decentralized temple organizational feature traditional in Buddhism, it creates an interesting situation for Canadian Buddhism. There are many uncounted groups, small in composition, who refuse to participate at any institutional level. They may meet in a fellow Buddhist's home and practice meditation or chant texts, and in this way achieve fellowship. There are also large numbers of unaffiliated individuals who intentionally refuse to join any particular temple or group, but visit various temples and join group activities for only a short time.

Further, most Asian peoples do not think you need to be a Buddhist to the exclusion of other belief systems. In China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc most people are at the same time Buddhist, Confucianist and Taoist. In Japan most people are Buddhist, Confucianist and Shintoist. Taoism and Shintoism come closer to the English understanding of "religion," and as such they do not share in the preoccupations of Buddhism. Taoism and Shintoism deal with humanity's relationship with the gods, heaven and religious rites. Confucianism deals with societal concerns. Buddhism being a transformative teaching, it deals with the cycle of suffering and cessation of this cycle. From a Buddhist perspective one could be a Christian and a Buddhist at the same time.

Buddhist Organizations in Canada

Buddhist organizations in Canada are usually the parent culture of the adherents. However, the temples are not exclusive. All temples welcome anyone with interest to become a member but each group has its own special characteristics.

For example:

The Toronto Mahavihara (Buddhist Centre), established in 1978, was the first Theravada temple in Canada. It continues the tradition established at the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government, through its High Commission in Ottawa, donates funds for the basic needs of the resident bhikkhus (Sanskrit, bhikshu). There are also the Toronto Maha Vihara Buddhist Meditation Centre and the Ottawa Buddhist Association that are of Sri Lankan origin.

In Vancouver a Theravada Buddhist Society, Dhamma (Sanskrit, Dharma), is devoted to self-development through moral living, Vipassana (Sanskrit, Vipashyana  "insight") meditation and methodical study of the Abhidhamma (Sanskrit, Abhidharma) philosophy of Buddhist texts as handed down in the Pali canon. Many groups that follow the Pali tradition as well promote Buddhist teaching and practice through meditation and retreats.

The Ambedkar Mission, founded 1979 in Scarborough, follows the spiritual and social philosophy of Dr. Ambedkar, who rose from among the untouchable caste to become one of India's most respected Buddhist leaders. The society promotes social justice, peace and understanding. Today, membership is open to all, although the group was originally established to assist Asians living in Canada.

Within the second tradition, the Mahayana, there developed the doctrine of Bodhisattva (those training to be Buddhas), which includes the idea that the historical Buddha was a manifestation of the awakened state. Mahayana Buddhist organizations were the first in Canada and can be categorized according to the parent group's country of origin.

Buddhist Scholarship at Canadian Universities

Did you know?
Because of the dynamic Buddhist environment in southern Alberta before and after WWII, this region became the birthplace of modern Buddhist studies in North America. This environment was due to the activities of the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the 13 temples that were founded during this period in southern Alberta.

The concentration of Japanese Buddhists in southern Alberta produced two individuals of major significance to Buddhist Studies. Richard Robinson (1926-1970) from Calgary completed a BA at the University of Alberta and went on to achieve a PhD in Buddhist Studies at the University of London. While in London he studied with many of the leading Buddhist scholars of his day, including Edward Conze and David Snellgrove. Robinson was employed in 1961 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a personal mission to found the first Buddhist Studies program in North America. Robinson was an internationally recognized scholar and Buddhist in his lifetime, receiving many awards during his career.

In 1929 Reverend Shinjo Nagatomi came to Canada to take up a post as a minister at the Raymond Buddhist Temple in Alberta. His young son Masatoshi attended primary school there. In the mid-1930s the family returned to Japan, where Masatoshi completed his education. After receiving his PhD, M. Nagatomi was employed at Harvard University in the 1960s. He went on to found the second great program in Buddhist Studies at that famous institution. In time it rivalled the program at Wisconsin-Madison and in recent years has surpassed it. Nagatomi also made outstanding contributions to the field of Buddhist Studies before his retirement in the mid-1990s.

Leslie Kawamura is the son of Reverend Kawamura and grew up in southern Alberta. As a child he was used to people like Richard Robinson coming to visit his father. After completing his secondary education in Alberta, he received a BA from San Francisco State College, an MA from Ryukoku University and a second MA from Kyoto University, both in Kyoto. He completed his PhD at the University of Saskatchewan, where the famous Buddhologist H.V. Guenther was teaching. In 1976 he was employed at the University of Calgary to teach Buddhism and continued to work, and build the program.

Canadian universities have offered professorships to several international scholars including Leon Hurvitz at the University of British Columbia, Herbert V. Guenther and Julian Pas at the University of Saskatchewan, A.K. Warder at the University of Toronto and Jan Yün-Hua at McMaster University among others in the latter half of the 20th century.

Further Reading

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