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
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.
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
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
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.