CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Brittany : a Buddhist Land’s End ?

by Molly Gilbert-Chatalic
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino.© Molly Gilbrt-Chatalic, 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author

Migants often carry their religious practice with them as part of their identity and in most parts of the world, have been able to perpetuate their religious identity. In the context of recent globalization, religious pluralism has become a facet of most Western societies, and religions which are imported by immigrants and new to these societies often encounter a certain interest among local inhabitants , acquiring new members while establishing themselves in foreign social and political contexts. Buddhism is no exception and for over a hundred and fifty years now, it has been following migratory routes to the West where most of its traditions and schools are now represented. Westerners have also gone back to the source for training, travelling to and living for extended periods in Asia, before returning to Europe or North America with their hands-on experience.

Buddhism in the West has adapted by becoming more lay-oriented, with a focus on meditation, and on the inclusion of women on a more equal basis in the hierarchy. Another characteristic of Buddhism in the West is the parallel existence of Asian and non-Asian Buddhist communities which are rarely integrated, mainly due to differences in language and culture.

Buddhism in France is characterized by the above features, and does enjoy a certain popularity in the mainstream culture. State and religion have been officially separate in this secular Republic since December 9th 1905, and the French Interior Minister who is also in charge of religions, is responsible for ensuring freedom of religious practice. Religious issues, especially in relation to Islam, flare up from time to time, and parliamentary reports have classified some religious groups as sects (Vivien Report, 1985 ; Gest-Guyard Report 1995). On the whole however, religious pluralism and adaptation to modern society are realities in France.

There are currently about half a million people interested in Buddhism in France and it is classified as the fourth or fifth official religion on par with Judaism (1% of the population) (Renon, 1997). Most Buddhist groups exist as non-profit « law of 1901 associations » or « cultural associations ». The establishment of centers and temples has followed the traditional pattern of centralization in France where Paris is the focal point of most activity which then spreads out following the main routes of transportation. Some areas also seem exceptionally conducive to Buddhist and religious activity in general as Bernadette Rigal-Cellard pointed out in her recent article on the Côte du Jor district in the Dordogne area (Rigal-Cellard, 2009). On the other hand, areas off the main routes crossing France have maintained a more traditional and provincial profile in which religious pluralism is much less apparent. Brittany has a long history of claiming an independent identity (along lines which have been compared to those of the Basques or Corsicans) and does not seem at first sight to harbour much Buddhist activity. This paper will focus on the changing religious landscape of Brittany and on the representation of Buddhist groups in Brittany (their implantation, activity and social or ethnic backgrounds), as well as on how they are perceived by the Catholic majority. We will attempt to determine the long-term interest and commitment of Bretons to Buddhism, despite its discreet anchorings in a traditionally strong Catholic area of France.

Traditional religious background and new religious representations in Brittany

With its Druidic and Celtic roots and its Catholic heritage (as well as its specific saints, legends and language), the area of Brittany in Western France still appears to many as a land conducive to spirituality. The forementioned characteristics set it apart from other regions of France which have experienced more migratory flows and more secularization. In France, as in other countries, statistics on religious practice are always difficult to trust and on government census takings, religion cannot be taken into account. There have been polls taken however by the various media in recent years, especially in conjunction with debates on visible religious symbols or during the visits of prominent religious leaders.

National census sets the number of people living in France at around 65 million. Between 50% and 60% of French people consider themselves Catholic, half of whom are active participants. Protestants (both of the Reformed Church and Evangelicals) number about 750 000, 40 % being Evangelical, but again statistics are uncertain. The Jewish community comprises about 1% of the total population, and is represented by a ‘Consistory’. Muslims are numbered at around 3% to 5 % of the French population and mainly consist of the immigrant communities from North Africa and Africa, although there are also converts among French people from other religious backgrounds. The Muslim groups are officially represented by the CFCM (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman - The French Council for the Muslim Faith/Religion), a body which was first created in 1992 to represent all Muslim associations, and which split up in 1995. Major Muslim Federations then joined again and signed an agreement with the government in January 2000 (Nadeau and Barlow, 232). The CFCM came into official existence in 2003 under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. There have been many disagreements and adjustments in this organisation, due to questions of representation and democratic procedures.

As we mentioned in our introduction, Buddhists represent about 1% of the population but it is difficult to distinguish clearly between practioners and « sympathizers » (the word « sympathisants » is widely used to designate French people interested in Buddhism). As in the case of Muslims, a nationally representative body called the Buddhist Union of France (UBF) was created in 1986. Belonging to this body lends credibility to a Buddhist group and is a criterion for being officially sanctioned as ‘safe’. Some groups such as the Soka Gakkai and the New Kadampa Tradition have not succeeded in being accepted as members. After being classified as a sect in the Gest-Guyard parlementarian report of 1995, the Soka Gakkai recently reorganized itself and is now represented, like Jewish groups, by a ‘Consistory’.

In Brittany, Catholicism is still the predominant religous tradition, and the physical landscape is replete with a very visible and remarkable architectural heritage. There are also numerous standing stones and other remnants from Celtic times. As a cultural expression, Catholicism remains anchored to Breton identity for many people and ritual gatherings for mariages or funerals are still very much a part of the social life of families and village communities. Roughly 40 % of young Bretons attend private Catholic schools under state contract and most communities offer the choice between a public and a Catholic school. Only the Vendée area south of Brittany is considered to be more Catholic than Brittany by the Catholic Church.

Another important aspect of Breton identity is a distinct language and a Celtic heritage. A number of primary schools now offer bilingual education in a standardized form of Breton, and day and night festive gatherings with Breton music, singing and dancing are part of many people’s social life. On the other hand, Druidism seems to involve only a very small minority of Breton people.

With its revival in the 19th century and its links to rites in Wales, Breton druidism usually enjoys favorable press coverage and attracts French people from outside of the region to its main celebrations. The current great druid, Per Vari Kerloc’h, is the sixth in line and was elected two years ago. The focus on nature is one of the main aspects which attract people to Druidism as to other pagan traditions, and Brittany is renowned for the beauty of its natural landscapes.

While contemporary Catholic practice is on the decline, the representation of minority religious groups (such as Muslims, Jehovah Witnesses, Buddhists, Jews, and various esoteric groups) remains discreet and thinly spread. The other oldest religious minorities are the Protestant and Jewish communities. Protestants, both those belonging to the Reformed Church and to Evangelical groups, are quite few, although the second group has been succesful in gaining new members in this area of France. There are Protestant temples and centers in most major cities and towns of Brittany attended by small congregations. The Orthodox and Jewish population is even less numerous. The Catholic Church sometimes lends premises to the former group. There are synagogues in Rennes and Nantes (founded in 1871), the two major cities. Out of the 2000 Jews offiially living in Brittany in 1940, one fourth were deported.

Muslims in Brittany number between 200 000 and 250 000 and the first mosques were contructed in Rennes and Nantes at the beginning of the eighties. There are prayer rooms (salles de prière) in most of the major cities along the coastline where North African and Turkish communities have settled for economic reasons. As an interesting anecdote on the side, Christians and Muslims pray side by side in July at the chapel of the Seven Sleepers in Northern Brittany at a pilgrimage initiated by the scholar Louis Massignon in 1954.

The presence of Jehovah Witnesses in Brittany is visible mostly through their buildings or ‘Kingdom Halls’ which one finds even in smaller villages throughout the region. Their door-to-door prosyletizing is a familiar occurrence as elsewhere in France and is usually met with a certain sense of humour and less mistrust or opposition than in other regions. Mormons are much less visible but their website lists seven churches located in the main cities of Brittany.

As we will see in our second part, Buddhist centers are few and far between without any territorial network comparable to that of Protestants, Muslims or Jehovah Witnesses. This is also due in part to the great diversity of Buddhist groups which do not usually interact with each other. On the whole however in Brittany, religious groups other than the Catholic Church do appear as true minorities especially as far as numbers are concerned.

Geographical considerations and physical implantation of Buddhist centers

Brittany is not a no-man’s land or a desert as far as religious minorities are concerned, but it can be characterized as a land’s end in so far as it requires time and efforts and a specific purpose to reach the area. There is nothing beyond Brittany unless one’s aim is to cross the Channel at Roscoff or to sail off from one of the main harbours. Tourists make the trip for its specific culture, its religious sites or landscapes and sometimes to return to their roots. It is not a strategic location for a main religious center and most temples, mosques, centers or halls exist to serve the local population.

In 1998, Philippe Ronce’s Guide to Buddhist centers in France listed only three centers in Brittany, one of which no longer exists. Our estimates set the number between 20 and 25. Buddhist groups are found in the main cities along the coastline (following the main highways which have made transportation so much easier and faster throughout Brittany1. There are very few groups of the same tradition or school in these different locations, and thus there exists no real Buddhist network. The main traditions which are represented are two Zen schools (one of which has established a foothold in Brittany only very recently), the tradition of the well-known Vietnamese monk called Thih Nhat Hanh, the Soka Gakkai and a variety of Tibetan traditions. Most of these groups count about 15 to 40 due-paying members, but the number of people who gather for regular practice (monthly or weekly) usually amounts to about 10 members.

One exception is the Tibetan center situated in the countryside near Plouray in central Brittany, on the central main route from Rennes to Quimper. As in the case of another famous temple in Burgundy (The Temple of a Thousand Buddhas), it started with the donation of an old farmhouse and developed into a full-fledged Buddhist center. It is the French headquarters of the Drukpa Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism and its main teacher resides in Ladakh, northern India. During his visits or that of other Tibetan teachers, the center can accommodate tens of dozens of participants. In August 2008, the Dalai Lama’s visit attracted a huge crowd from all over Brittany. Many of the people were not official Buddhists but sympathizers. There are a few Western monks and nuns in residence and projects for extending the buildings continue to progress. For the local people who are not Buddhist, it is a place to visit on weekends, a ‘curiosity’.

There are no visible Asian temples except for a very recently opened Vietnamese pagoda in Nantes. The opening ceremony coincided with the visit of the Dalai Lama who gave teachings during the summer of 2008 in Nantes – this was a rare example of Buddhist ecumenism as invitations to attend the Vietnamese pagoda’s inauguration were extended to people attending Tibetan Buddhist. There are many Vietnamese located throughout Brittany but they are usually very discreet and demure when questioned about their religious practice. Others, most of whom immigrated at the beginning of the Vietnam War, are Catholic.

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Brittany during the summer of 2008 attracted the attention of the media and increased popular interest and sympathy for Buddhism in this area of France. There were some protests from followers of Shugden in Nantes who travelled over in buses from Great Britain, but the local NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) center (of the same school) took care not to be associated with this opposition.

As we have said, the Breton landcapes and seaside are conducive to meditation and contemplation and can be attractive locations for organizing retreats or day sessions. Buddhist groups (like other religious, spiritual or yoga groups) find already available facilities to remploy for their own uses. These are often Catholic communities which rent out their premises or offer accommodation and meals.

Distances can be an issue when it comes to deciding to attend a practice session or retreat if the group is not situated in own’s own town or city. Driving one or two hours both ways can be a deterrent to participation or membership. On the other hand, regular or seriously-committed practitioners do travel to other parts of France to attend seesions and retreats, mainly in the South-West and Paris for Tibetan Buddhists, followers of Thich Nhat Hanh and one of the Zen groups (AZI). This usually means a day’s drive and car-pooling is common. One of the Soka Gakkai’s main groups is situated in Nantes which is more convenient.

The Buddhist groups which have no visible temple or center in which to practice find other solutions. In some cases, a Catholic parish church may rent out a room on a weekly basis. One Tibetan Buddhist group in the North convenes every Sunday in a room lent by the townhall. As one member explained, the statutes of the group clearly avoid using the term Buddhist so as not to trespass the constitutional separation between State and Church2. In the choice of terms used, a distinction is made between prayer and meditation (or a philosophical path).

Another solution is to use classrooms in learning institutions as in the case of a Zen group which sets up a dojo for its weekly sessions in a Management School which originally specialized in receiving Asian students in Brittany. Creating a sacred space in a secular learning environment requires a certain ritual to mark the limits of the meditation environment and this is done each week and takes about five or ten minutes. Robes are worn by some participants, incense is burned and the chanting is accompanied by the beating of a mokugyo (wooden fish drum). The fact that the session takes place in the evening after classes and that the classroom is situated on the top floor of one of the subsidairy buildings allows for a certain discretion.

Most groups in which we have conducted participant observation are however located in individual homes or apartments. The meditation session can be held in a living-room or in a separate room which has been converted into a temple. These ‘living-room’ zendos (a term which has been used to characterize trends in American Buddhism) point to the fact that many Buddhist groups are created by the desire, need or will of individual practitioners who wish to establish a place of regular practice open to like-minded individuals after attending retreats or sessions in other main centers elsewhere in France. The durability of such centers depends on the stability of the inhabitant. If he/ she moves, the group may disappear.

Being Buddhist in Brittany

From what we have observed in the different Buddhist groups in Brittany, the sociological profile matches that of French Buddhist groups in general: a majority of women over 40, of single adults , of liberal professions (teachers, health field specialists, educated people from the middle or upper middle-classes), of townpeople (although one is never far from the countryside or seaside in Brittany). Most groups are located in major towns as it is easier to organize a weekly group activity there. Few children are involved

What is more specific to the profile however is the that practioner’s or sympathizer’s independence from the group remains important (one explanation is that the Catholic background and upbringing of many Bretons in their childhood has made them wary of joining a group).

In the case of newcomers to Buddhism in Brittany, traditional attitudes grounded in community life and educational institutions are slowly being altered by the modern spiritual quests of the younger generations and by population shifts.

The Catholic Church seems quite unaware of the presence of Buddhists in Brittany and does not appear to feel threatened or hostile to the establishment of Buddhist groups. Individual relations initiated between Catholic priests and Buddhist representatives appear to be congenial as in the case of the parish priest in Plouray and as demonstrated by the presence of Monsignor Centène, the bishop of Vannes, in Plouray during the Dalai Lama’s visit in 2008.

Most Buddhists in Brittany seem to be happy combining their Breton and Buddhist identities. Symbolically, a Breton hat was offered to the Dalai Lama and children in traditional costumes greeted him in Plouray. The picture of this évent which made the cover of the regional newspaper most likely went a long way in making Buddhism more acceptable to older more traditional generations. For Tibetan Buddhists, the issue of a free Tibet echoes that of a culturally distinct Brittany with its own language and identity. In most cases, Buddhist Bretons seem to conjugate their dual identities so that the one enriches the other.

Other aspects of the area make it harder to practice. The intensive industrial breeding of animals (pigs and chickens) and fishing are an integral part of the Breton economy. Compassion towards animals is not a cultural norm. Farmers still use a lot of pesticides and chemical fertilizers which have led to serious environmental pollution concerns. Respect for the environment has come to the fore recently as an important aspect of most Western Buddhists’ practice. To finish, apart from the ones in Plouray and Nantes, there are no main traditional temples at which to make offerings or to practice more devotional rituals of Buddhism.


Although Brittany is still characterized by a strong traditional Catholic and Celtic cultural background, this area of France appears to be fertile soil for alternative religious, and spiritual quests. Its geographical location outside of the main routes, its physical isolation (the department called Finistère translates as « land’s end » and like Cornwall is a north-westernmost granite point) may explain the small numbers of Buddhists. But even if travelling in Brittany to attend a Buddhist activity requires an effort, people do make that effort.

There are very few visible Buddhist centers, apart from the one in Plouray, and the recently inaugurated pagoda in Nantes. Nevertheless the main traditions are represented and much interest is expressed by Bretons sympathetic to Buddhism. The small groups are active but comprise mainly lay adults (with a majority of women) with no activities aimed at teenagers or children. They meet mainly in ‘living-room zendos or temples’. These features are all characteristic of modern Buddhism in the West.

Most Breton Buddhists are socially integrated, and discreet.

They may feel isolated but their independence and invisibility may also be assets. Shifting allegiances discretely (« changing gods »), they are exploring and engaging in practice while maintaining their ‘Breton’ identity.


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BOUZARD Philippe. Quimper. 1st May 2007. (Thich Nhat Hanh).

DENIC Maguy. Quimper. 4th April 2007. (Soto Zen).

LE STANG Gérard, Vicar. Quimper, 31st August 2010 (Catholicism).

MACLEOD Fiona, Beuzec (telephone). 1st September 2010 (Thich Nhat Hanh).

MADEC Christian, Lannion (telephone). 2nd September 2010 (Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingmapa).

ROHEL Anne-Marie, Dinard (telephone). 5th September 2010. (Tibetan Buddhism)

SALIETI Karola, Quimper, 16th August 2010 (Tibetan Buddhism, Drukpa Kagyu).

TANGUY Jacqueline. Quimper, 11th April 2007 (Soka Gakkai).


1. The specificity of these highways is that they are toll-free. Bretons are very attached to this principle. Legend has it that this dates back to the time of Queen Anne of Brittany who negotiated the clause of freedom of circulation for the Breton people when she married the King of France. It was in fact after her death that this specificity was upheld.

2. Church being interpreted as any religious institution here. Incidentally, a Buddhist cultural center just recently created in Rennes (the project started in 2004 with 5 different Buddhist groups, and will be completed in 2011) also adopted this position in order to be able to receive funds from the Town Council.