Buddhism in Croatia

budizam u Hrvatskoj

Buddhism in Croatia

Earlier this year I had a chance to speak briefly with Žarko Andričević, a Dharma Heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen, when he was at Shawangunk to lead an intensive retreat. I am curious about the ways our Dharma Drum Mountain lineage is evolving in Western culture; I asked Zarko to tell me in what ways his Dharmaloka organization in Croatia might differ from what we are doing in America? He mentioned that practitioners in Croatia have several different “gates” through which they might enter the practice. In addition to sitting meditation and the scholarly study of Buddhist texts, students in Croatia might also enter the practice through yoga, martial arts, or the tea ceremony. We had only a limited time to speak. Wanting to know more, I visited their website at www.dharmaloka.org. I can’t read Croatian myself, but through the magic of Google Translate I was able to get some sense of the material there. I was intrigued by one article in particular, and asked Žarko whether he could provide Chan Magazine with a proper English translation. The text which follows was originally written by Karmen Mihalinec; she is a Sanskrit scholar, a yoga teacher and one of the founding members of Dharmaloka. This was her introductory speech as moderator of a panel on Buddhism in Croatia, in which representatives of all Croatian Buddhist groups took part. For this Chan Magazine article the text has been expanded to include more detail about Dharmaloka. It has been translated into English by Jasna Blazicko Milcic.


As is well known, Buddhism is a philosophy that originated in northern India more than 2500 years ago. Usually it is referred to as “the teaching” because unlike other world religions which have revelation at the core, Buddhism is grounded in the deep experience of enlightenment reached by the individual spiritual effort of one man. That person was the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, who in his lessons explained the method of how to realize enlightenment, thereby opening the way to all who want to tread the path. 

Whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion has been a matter of continuous debate in the West. While on the one hand many religious elements can be discerned in Buddhism, on the other its main feature is a “spirit of free inquiry” rather than a reliance on dogmatic beliefs or experiences that are not one’s own, such a spirit being an attribute of philosophy. 

Taking a look at the very rich history of Buddhism in the East perhaps it is worth noting that very early on, two currents of the tradition could be distinguished: the so called Southern Schools, known collectively by their somewhat pejorative title—the Hinayana (the only one of these which now survives is the Theravada), and the Northern Schools or the Mahayana. A special subgroup of the Northern Schools includes Esoteric or Tantric schools which differ by methods of practice while having the philosophical background in common with other schools of Northern Buddhism. All Buddhist communities and groups in Croatia belong to the Mahayana.

Although encounters between Buddhism and the Western world may be clearly discerned in the tradition, art and religious literature of both sides starting from the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in what is now Afghanistan, it was not until the 19th century that a direct inflow of Buddhist ideas began to emerge in Western thought, mainly through translations of the Theravada canon literature. The interest in Buddhism among Westerners at that time surged on a wave of curiosity for all things Oriental. Buddhism, as it was reflected by the scope and depth of understanding of the writings published in that period, was mainly a subject of academic or missionary pursuits.

The first half of the 20th century marked serious scholarly endeavours to understand Buddhism without prejudices present in Western cultural circles. However, this was achieved to a significant degree only after the Second World War, with the arrival in the West of authentic and suitably qualified teachers from the East. These teachers embodied Buddhism in their lives and succeeded in translating and spreading the understanding of the teaching to their Western students. Probably the most well-known among these were the two Suzukis who popularized Zen. One was D.T. Suzuki, a scholar of profound learning and knowledge of Japanese spirituality and a prolific writer who embarked on a dialogue between Zen and Western psychology. The other was Shunryu Suzuki, a Roshi who introduced Zen practice in North America and had a marked influence on an entire generation of American writers and on Western pop-culture. Another pioneering teacher from the East was the great Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the first teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, who left a deep mark and rich legacy of teachings. Two other influential teachers who came from the East won a worldwide recognition: Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen-monk known for his peace activism and skilful adaptation of Eastern tradition to Western way of life, and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, probably the most renowned figure of contemporary Buddhism, an icon of non-violence who has consistently utilized the tragedy of his people to call for understanding and cooperation instead of violence and retaliation.

Buddhism has not lost its appeal for the Westerners; indeed, we are today witnessing an immensely interesting “transition” process in which the future face of Buddhism in the West remains to be seen. As yet some of the features that are shaping it may be clearly distinguished: the importance of the laity (the main pillars of Buddhism in the West being lay followers and lay teachers), a focus on meditation as the main practice, and an emphasis of the spirit of open-mindedness and humanism. At the same time there has been a considerable departure from religious and ritual practices that are ingrained in the Eastern tradition; only time will tell whether this departure will be a good way to go forward.

In Croatia the presence of Buddhism is even more marginal when compared to the countries of the former Eastern Bloc like Poland or Hungary. While for the sake of brevity this general outline does not cover all phenomena related to Buddhism in Croatia today, it is worth noting that two approaches to Buddhism have been present: an academic approach and a practical or personal approach. In the past and even today there exists a series of scholars who endeavoured to present the wealth of this ancient teaching in their translations and works. However, as their interest in Buddhism was fuelled by intellectual curiosity, it eventually waned. A remarkable figure among those authors was Vladimir Devidé, whose portrayals of Japan brought Zen to our attention, albeit indirectly.

An outstanding person, Čedomil Veljačić (Bikkhu Njanađivako) embodied both approaches: he was a serious scholar who translated from the Pali Cannon and wrote influential works that presented Buddhist and Asian thought to audiences in the region of former Yugoslavia, but he was also a person who explored the Buddhist path as his life choice. As far as we know, he is the only person from the region who received full ordination in the Southern, Theravada tradition. His efforts, however, never got on a course that would have resulted in the foundation of Buddhist groups in our country. 

A practical approach to Buddhism implies personal exploration of the Buddhist path of spiritual transformation through ways and methods that had been shaped by some of the Mahayana schools. A pioneering role in that sense in Croatia was played by an association called Mushindokai which practiced yoga and martial arts but also had meditation and study groups. Thus it introduced Buddhist practice in our country in mid-1970s, on a modest scale, but with long-lasting effects. No less than three of the Buddhist communities and groups that exist in Croatia today may be said to have their origin in that association. 

The beginnings of our Buddhist community Dharmaloka may be traced back to far-off 1977 when a small group of yoga and martial arts devotees—brought together by the Mushindokai association—decided to take the Three Refugees and to follow a Buddhist path as their life choice. At the beginning of the 1980s and in conditions that were adverse rather than favourable, one of those early enthusiasts, Žarko Andričević, founded the first group to investigate original Buddhist texts and explore meditation practice. In that period the foundations were laid for our Dharmaloka community as it is today. Some of the early practitioners still make up the core of our community. 

The group’s inspiration, earnestness and dedication resulted in the establishment of the first Buddhist center in Croatia in the beginning of 1990s. The Center in Markusevac was our home for more than five years. Although located on a suburban fringe and unsuitable for daily visits, the Center had a library and a meditation hall, which was sufficient for regular study courses and extended periods of meditation. Having reached a new organizational shape, we became a member of the European Buddhist Union in 1993. We brought and assisted in bringing a number of relevant Buddhist teachers to Croatia, such as Ayang Rinpoche, Chan Master Sheng-Yen (Shifu), and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Their visit came decades late if compared to the West, but at last people in our country had the opportunity to meet great teachers of Buddhism and listen to what they had to say on the nature of human life. 

That was an exceptionally important period for our community. After the encounter of our teacher Žarko Andričević with Sheng Yen Shifu, and Shifu’s visit to Zagreb, we decided to follow Chinese Chan/Zen in our practice. It should be mentioned that even though we had had some inclination towards Sino-Japanese Mahayana tradition, our involvement in Buddhism in the period previous to meeting Shifu was of a more general nature. Therefore, the encounter with a living tradition, indeed the one being embodied in one of the greatest masters of Buddhism at that time, Chan Master Sheng Yen, breathed a new life into our community. Following that, in 1998, we founded a Buddhist Center in downtown Zagreb and came within reach to all who wanted to explore the ancient Buddha’s teaching and start following the methods of Chan/Zen. 

The past fourteen years of the existence of Buddhist Center in Zagreb has been a mature and productive period in our history. Expressed in numbers, we organized over 70 Chan meditation practice courses (in Zagreb but also in the towns of Pula, Split, Šibenik, Celje, Belgrade, Berlin and Cape Cod), 30 cycles of lectures, 50 one-day meditation retreats, 30 three-day retreats, 3 five-day retreats and 25 seven day-retreats (or over 330 days of meditation retreat). We also held 14 seasonal seminars on the island of Krk and 15 seminars in Orebic (or almost 200 days of seminars). With four generations we launched and brought to completion the training for zenyoga teachers, an internationally certified program. Three books have been published and made available to wider audiences: a translation of John Blofeld’s Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening for the Croatian published by Profil and a translation of Chan Master Sheng Yen’s Subtle Wisdom published by Dharmaloka. The book Zenyoga: Developing Mindfulness Through Movement, authored by Karmen Mihalinec, was also published by Dharmaloka. Meditation groups were established in towns of Pula, Šibenik, Split and Celje in Slovenia. Members of our community attended retreats held by Chan Master Sheng Yen in Europe, USA and Taiwan. Twelve members of our community took the Bodhisattva vows, dedicating their noble aspirations to welfare of other beings. 

Our teacher, Žarko Andričević, received a rare recognition in 2001 by becoming one of Chan Master Sheng Yen’s Dharma Heirs. He has since become an established international Chan teacher, regularly leading retreats at Dharma Drum Meditation Center in the USA and on occasion visiting other groups outside Croatia as a meditation retreat master. He is a regular member of the Conference of Western Teachers of Buddhism and an associate of Global Peace Initiative of Women. 

An activity worth mentioning is our cooperation in drafting the law on the legal status of religious communities in Croatia. Having spent a couple of years on that task, in 2004 we received the certificate of entry in the register of religious communities. Unfortunately, in reality this did not entail entitlement to the rights that are granted to other religious communities in Croatia. We can only hope that the Government of Croatia will one day give Buddhism in Croatia a status in line with the reputation of Buddhism worldwide and that it will cease to treat Buddhism as a third-rank spiritual movement. 

In the near future we have some hard work ahead of us; in the first place we intend to work on developing facilities for practice as these are what we need the most. Over the past few years we have planned to build a meditation center, therefore, the forthcoming period will be dedicated to achieving that ambitious goal. 

Our Community, Dharmaloka, is the only registered Buddhist religious community in Croatia. In addition there are other groups in Croatia that bring together people who follow one of many spiritual paths that may be called Buddhist. Two of these groups, Shechen and Padmasana from Zagreb, are of Tibetan background. Shechen follows Nyingma School in the tradition of the renowned Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Padmasana promotes so called Rime Tibetan tradition. The Mandala group from Rijeka follows the Japanese Shingon tradition. In the city of Split there exists a branch of New Kadampa Tradition, which is seen as a controversial by many. Also, in Zagreb there exists an informal Zen group which follows the teaching of Deshimaru Roshi. 

It may be puzzling for some that all these paths are equally entitled to be called Buddhist ones. Buddhism is a teaching of great inner democratic quality and tolerance; it encompasses a wide variety of approaches to addressing fundamental human problems. From the colorfulness of Tibet to the simplicity of Zen, from loud chanting to silent sitting—all of this is Buddhism. For different people, with different dispositions and aspirations, but always with one essential message “Avoid evil, do only good, purify the mind, these are the teachings of all Buddhas.”