The visit of the Dalai Lama to France was welcomed by a growing number of French Buddhist followers. According to the Buddhist Union of France, some 770,000 people, three-quarters of whom are of Asian origin, claim to be Buddhists in France.
According to Jean-Paul Ribes, Vice-President of the European Buddhist University in Paris, “there are nearly 250 groups in 90 departments that meet more or less regularly under various banners.” There are also different circles of people practicing meditation or participating in retreats and other teachings.
According to a TNS-Sofres survey published in March 2007, 1% of the French population aged 15 years and over claimed Buddhism, or some 600 000 people, but only 14% officially “worship” their religion.
Jean-Paul Ribes stresses the difficulty of identifying this “practice”, since Buddhism does not require any “institutional” appointments: no Sunday mass, no prayers five times a day, nor fasting on fixed dates. The “taking of refuge”, he explains to designate the act by which one becomes a Buddhist, “implies no other daily obligation but simple spiritual adherence”.
Few practitioners, but more admirers
Although the number of French Buddhists remains limited, the circle of sympathizers touches several million people, the sociologist Frédéric Lenoir going as far as advancing the figure of 5 million.
Protéiforme, the Buddhist community is initially composed of a large majority of people from Asia: Indo-Chinese, Thai and Sri Lankan.
For Raphaël Liogier, a professor at the IEP in Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) where he runs the Observatory of the Religious, this category, “Buddhist by tradition and cultural fidelity” blurring in the new Buddhist landscape. The pagodas are beginning to be deserted and priests are increasingly adjusting to a “westernized” demand.
The ethnic French began to come to Buddhism in the 1960s in the wake of Asian masters such as Dagpo Rimpoché, who initiated the teaching of Oriental languages and the promotion of Tibetan Buddhism.
The radiation of the Dalai Lama
In the 80s, there are 50 to 100,000 Buddhists of all categories to follow teachings or to “take refuge”. It is at this period, stresses Raphaël Liogier, that there is a real “turning point” and that “Westernized Buddhists have taken precedence over traditional Buddhists”.
But the expansion of Buddhism, both religion, philosophy and art of living, owes much to the Dalai Lama’s influence, Raphael Liogier explains, who sees in him an authentic “spiritual hero of the post-industrial era”.
“Thanks to the Tibetan cause which has become a mythical cause,” he said, but also to his exceptional personality, the Dalai Lama “is now mastering symbolic globalization”. And it is from this mastery, he adds, that “he negotiates with the Chinese government”.
For several scholars, Buddhism, considered compatible with other revealed religions, is today at the center of the constitution of a new religiosity.