The recent, three-day meeting honoring the Karmapa is a special event. But year-round, hundreds of French and foreign visitors enroll for professional retreats and individual study and meditation sessions offered at the sprawling Buddhist center in the Dordogne.
Here, in the deepest heart of France, the students of Karma Kagyu are colorful new visitors to a region famed for foie gras and hearty red wine, thick-stoned villages and winding country roads. More broadly, however, the surging attendance at the Dordogne center and other Buddhist establishments testifies to the religion's stunning growth in France, and elsewhere in Europe.
As in the United States, Buddhism is ranked among the fastest growing religions in many Western European countries. In France, Buddhism is considered the fourth largest faith -- after Christianity, Islam and Judaism -- with an estimated 600,000 practitioners. Many French Buddhists are Asian immigrants, who retain the religion of their ancestors.
By chance or intention, France has also developed into a center of sorts for Tibetan Buddhism, which draws many newer advocates, according to practitioners and scholars. The biggest Buddhist meditation center in the West is based in the region of Touraine. Two Tibetan monasteries in France's Auvergne region have trained the largest number of Buddhist monks outside Asia. The monasteries are headed by the same Karma Kagyu administrators directing the Dordogne center.
"A lot of Buddhist masters consider France to be somewhat the center of Europe, both geographically and perhaps symbolically," said Louis Hourmant, a specialist on Buddhism for the Paris-based Group on Religion and Secularity. Hourmant attributes the phenomenon partly to France's colonial past in Southeast Asia, partly to the popularity of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
A weekly French TV program, "Buddhist Voices," draws about 250,000 viewers, according to the Buddhist Union of France, an umbrella group representing the different Buddhist currents. Hundreds of Buddhist centers have also opened across the country over the last few decades.
And while the French government has placed a more activist Japanese strain of Soka Gakkai Buddhism in its list of questionable "sects," others are officially tolerated. Several monasteries, including the Karma Kagyu's in Auvergne, are accorded the same tax-free exemptions as the Roman Catholic Church.
"Why this Buddhist wave? And why particularly in France, a very Catholic country in the past?" wrote philosopher Luc Ferry, appointed this year as France's minister of Youth and Education, in an earlier article in Le Point magazine. " ... In this time of de-Christianization, Buddhism has furnished to the West a rich and interesting alternative."
But Hourmant, for one, suggests Buddhism's popularity in France and elsewhere marks a passing phase, rather than a more profound change in Europe's spiritual map. "French have a very positive image of Buddhism, as a religion that's more tolerant, more open to interreligious dialogue," Hourmant said. "There's a huge interest in Buddhism, especially among the young. But I think it's a very superficial adhesion that's not going to translate into intensive practice."
A case in point, Hourmant said: French answering religious surveys often identify Buddhism as the religion they feel closest to. "But the responses aren't at all about affiliation," he added, "but simply declarations of sympathy." The Dalai Lama, too, has expressed concern that Buddhism may be assumed too lightly. "I believe that the French, who are Christian by culture and ancestry, should remain Christian," he told a Swiss weekly, during a visit to Switzerland two years ago. Without "mature" reflection on whether Buddhism is the proper religious path, the Dalai Lama added, "it is better to stick to your own traditional values."
But the recent Dordogne gathering suggests few are following his advice. The sea of hot faces receiving the Karmapa's lessons were almost all Western. So are most of the monks at the center's Kundreul Ling monasteries in Auvergne. Olivier Coudroy, 18, who attended the three-day retreat with his parents and a high-school friend, said he became a Buddhist a year ago, after being introduced to the religion by his geography teacher. "My friends thought I had joined a sect," said Coudroy, who lives near the French city of Bordeaux. "But I talked to them. They aren't convinced, but at least now they don't judge."