Varnsdorf, a north Bohemian town in the path of Buddha

A town surrounded by deep pine forests, dotted with old timbered German-style villas and occasional Communist-era prefab houses, a town boasting many parks, a river, two churches – and the country’s first Buddhist temple. This is Varnsdorf, a town of 16,000 in the northernmost part of the Czech Republic.

Only a few hundred metres from a border crossing to Germany, a 1912 two-storey villa that once belonged to a local entrepreneur, is the religious centre of the Czech Republic’s large Vietnamese community. Since January 2008, it has been the home of the Thien An Temple, the first Buddhist shrine in central and eastern Europe. I asked Vu Ling Ngoc, from the local Vietnamese community, what made them establish a Buddhist shrine in their town.

The Thien An Temple in Varnsdorf,  photo: Jan Richter
“We have been here for nearly 20 years, and we have a large community here. In Vietnam, Buddhism is a religion as well as a part of our culture. So we want our future generations, which will stay here in the Czech Republic, to know about our own traditions, our customs. That’s why our community here in Northern Bohemia, and the whole country, put money together to establish this temple.”

Vu Ling Ngoc says that each service is attended by 50 to 70 people, who bring fresh flowers, fruit and sweets to honour Lord Buddha. The Thien An Temple in Varnsdorf has even its own Buddhist monk who leads the religious services. At the moment, he is in Thailand studying but I was in luck – another monk from Prague paid a visit and held a small service while I was there.

Vu Linh Ngoc  (left) in the temple,  photo: Jan Richter
“The service takes place twice a month, on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month. People come here from Prague, Brno, Ostrava, from Poland and Germany. So far, we’ve had a quite a lot of people coming here.”

Today, the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic officially numbers 45,000. Young Vietnamese started coming to Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s to study and to learn trades. After the fall of communism, many of them stayed in the country and took to retail business, especially in the areas bordering on Austria and Germany, and Varnsdorf is one of the community’s largest centres in Northern Bohemia. But it seems that on rocky ground with little soil, the universal Buddhist message of love and peace will have to struggle. I went to the local catholic gymnázium, or grammar school, and asked students how they felt about living together with the Vietnamese community.

Students from the Varnsdorf Gymnazium,  photo: Jan Richter
“In our school, we have some Vietnamese, but I don’t like them. I think they are horrible because they own lost of pubs and small shops, food and clothes shops in our town. I think it’s horrible because they are everywhere.”

“I think that they should stay at home. They come here because they think that they will have an easier life here but this is not true. The good thing about is that our people are also poor but and they buy cheap clothes from them. This is maybe why they are here. But I don’t like them even so because all those guys bring lost of illnesses in here.”

“Today’s world is quite cosmopolitan and it’s not a problem. For example, next year I want to study in Germany, and I can because the Czech Republic is in the EU. The key is to meet the right people, try to be tolerant and change your mind.”

Varnsdorf, once the biggest village in the Austrian Empire before it acquired a town status in 1868, was almost entirely German until after the Second World War. In 1946 and ‘47, ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia and the area known as Sudetenland was resettled with Czechs and Slovaks. Soon enough, the town also became a home for a large Roma community who moved here as cheap labourers from Slovakia. But Varnsdorf has a history of religious strife – in late 19th century, the town became a centre of the Old Catholic Church in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Josef Zbihlej is a historian at the local museum.

The Old Catholic Church in Varnsdorf
“The Old Catholic Church in Varnsdorf was founded in 1871. At that time, the local Catholic priests revolted against the Catholic Church and its dogma on Papal infallibility. They were excommunicated but they were lucky to secure the support of local factory owners and managed to raise enough funds to build their own church. The Old Catholic Church used to be quite popular in the area but after the expulsion their numbers dropped to almost zero.”

Old Catholic priest Roland Solloch in his church,  photo: Jan Richter
The Old Catholic Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Varnsdorf was the biggest of its kind in Austria-Hungary, and it is still active today. Roland Solloch is the Old Catholic priest in Varnsdorf.

“The north of Bohemia is difficult turf for a priest, and in fact for any church. I have been the priest here for five years and I have managed to baptize some people. But I see that the way to the church and to Jesus is hard and difficult here.”

And how does Roland Solloch feel about a Buddhist temple functioning in the town?

“For me personally as well as for the church it’s something I can put up with, I don’t mind at all. Our church is open, not only towards other Christians but to other religions. I’m happy there is a place where people can contemplate and search for the spiritual. I wouldn’t even mind if their spiritual leader came to me and we would pray together.”

Service in the Varnsdorf temple,  photo: Jan Richter
Vu Ling Ngoc, one of the founders of the Thien An Temple in Varnsdorf, says local people are interested in what’s going on in their shrine, and they haven’t had any problems so far.

“It’s been six months and we’ve only had good experiences. People come here out of curiosity and we show them around so that they understand what we do. We’ve had school classes here, even groups of adults who come because they want to see what we do, why we do it and what Buddhism is.”

The fall of communism has brought many things to Varnsdorf that locals might not be ready for and it might take some time to understand. But Buddhists can be patient in their prayers for awakening from the sleep of ignorance. So if you are in the area and feel like an international moment of Zen, Varnsdorf is the place to go.