It is not known precisely when Buddhism first came to Australia. It has argued that there may have been contact between the Aboriginal people of northern Australia and the early Hindu-Buddhist civilisations of Indonesia. It is also possible that the great fleets of the Chinese Ming emperors, which explored the south between 1405 and 1433, may have reached the mainland of Australia.
The first certain contact with Buddhism can be dated to 1848, when Chinese labourers arrived to work on the goldfields of eastern Australia. The beliefs of these men were predominantly Taoist/Confucian, but the makeshift temples they built have been found to contain remnants of Mahayana Buddhist statues. Most of these men returned to China when the gold rush ended, but some stayed in Australia, often after sending for a wife from China. While the older Chinese continued to practice their ancestral beliefs, their children and grandchildren often adopted the Christian faith.
In the 1870s, groups of Sinhalese from Sri Lanka began to arrive in Australia to work on the sugar plantations of northern Queensland, or in the pearling industry centred on Thursday Island. By the 1890s, the Buddhist population of Thursday Island included about 500 Sinhalese people. Two Bodhi trees planted by this community are still growing on Thursday Island to this day. A temple was built on Thursday Island, festivals such as Vesak were regularly celebrated, and a Buddhist monk is said to have visited to officiate at the temple around the turn of the century.
Soon after Federation in 1901, Australia adopted increasingly restrictive immigration policies that effectively halted further Asian immigration until the 1960s.
By the late 1800s, increasing numbers of Westerners were becoming interested in Asian culture and religion. In 1891, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott spent several months lecturing throughout Australia on `Theosophy and...