Although there was regular contact between practising Buddhists and Europeans in antiquity the former had little direct impact. In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism came to the attention of Western intellectuals and during the course of the following century the number of adherents has grown. There are now between 1 and 4 million Buddhists in Europe, the majority in Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
European contact with Buddhism first began after Alexander the Great's conquest of northwestern India in the 3rd century BC. Greek colonists in the region adopted Indian Buddhism and syncretized it with aspects of their own culture to make a sect called Greco-Buddhism which dominated the area of ancient India comprising modern day Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan for several centuries. Emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to the Hellenistic world, where they established centers in places such as Alexandria on the Caucasus, creating a noted presence in the region.
An interest in Buddhism had been circling among academic circles in modern Europe since the 1870s, with philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche and esoteric-minded scholars such as Helena Blavatsky. Europe has in recent times been increasingly receptive to Modern Buddhism as an alternative to traditional Buddhist precepts.
Russia, Austria and Italy are the only three European states today that recognize Buddhism as an "official", though not necessarily "state religion" in their respective countries. On top of that, Russia also recognizes it, along with Islam, Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity, as native to Russian soil in the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation – all other religious groups are unrecognized, and must officially register and be subject to rejection by the state. Apart from Siberian Buddhist nations, the Kalmyk people's 17th century migration into Europe has made them today's only traditionally Buddhist nation west of the Ural. They now live in the Republic of Kalmykia, a Russian Republic.
Das Buddhistische Haus (engl.: the Berlin Buddhist Vihara, literally the Buddhist house) is a Theravada Buddhist temple complex (Vihara) in Frohnau, Berlin, Germany. It is considered to be the oldest and largest Theravada Buddhist center in Europe and has been declared a National Heritage site. The main building of Das Buddhistische Haus was designed by the architect Max Meyer for Dr. Paul Dahlke, a German physician who had undertaken a number of trips to Ceylon prior to World War I and became a Buddhist. It incorporates elements of Buddhist culture from several Buddhist traditions and was completed in 1924. Under Dr. Dahlke's direction it became a center of Buddhism in Germany. After his death in 1928, the house was inherited by his relatives and Buddhists met in a house nearby. By 1941 Buddhist meetings and publications were prohibited by the Nazi government. After the war refugees lived in the quarters. The place deteriorated and was even considered for demolition, when Asoka Weeraratna, founder of the German Dharmaduta Society, established in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1952, for the spread of the message of the Buddha in Germany and other western countries, became aware of its existence. In December 1957 he bought the building from Dahlke’s nephew on behalf of the Trustees of the German Dharmaduta Society (GDS). It was renovated at that time as a Buddhist temple complex and with resident Buddhist monks it was converted into a Buddhist Vihara. Missionary Buddhist (Dharmaduta) monks, primarily from Sri Lanka, have come to stay at the Haus since 1957. It has now become an important center for spreading the teachings of the Buddha in Western Europe. The temple is open to the public.
In 1982 Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his colleague Sister Chân Không founded Plum Village Buddhist Center (Làng Mai), a monastery and Practice Center in the Dordogne in the south of France. Since the mid 60s he has headed a monastic and lay group, the Order of Inter-Being, teaching the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and "Engaged Buddhism." The Unified Buddhist Church is the legally recognized governing body for Plum Village (Làng Mai) in France.
The Four Dhagpo in France: Since its simple beginnings at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling in 1976, the mandala of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Europe has expanded in accordance with specific instructions left behind by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa. Placing Gendun Rinpoche in charge and appointing Jigme Rinpoche as his European representative, His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa said it was necessary to build a center open to the public, a library, a university, a monastic hermitage and a retreat centre, if an authentic transmission and long term preservation of the Dharma were to take place. Since then Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, Dhagpo Kundreul Ling, Dhagpo Dargye Ling, Dhagpo Dedreul Ling have the role of preserving and transmitting the Buddha's teachings. Together they form a unified whole in which each centre complements the activity of the three others.
Lerab Ling is a Tibetan Buddhist centre founded in 1992 by Sogyal Rinpoche near Lodève in Languedoc-Roussillon, France. It contains perhaps the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in Europe, which was officially inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2008 at a ceremony attended by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
The largest temple in eastern Europe is the Golden Temple in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, which was opened in December 2005.
Samyé Ling monastery in Scotland, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2007, includes the largest Buddhist temple in western Europe. There is an associated community on Holy Isle which is owned by Samyé Ling who belong to the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The settlements on the island include the Centre for World Peace and Health and a retreat centre for nuns. Samyé Ling has also established centres in more than 20 countries, including Belgium, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland.
The first stupa of Northern Europe was built by Vello Vaartnou and Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood (also Estonian Nyingma) in 1983 in Estonia. In 1984-85 three more stupas were built, and in 2009, the 5th stupa in Estonia (10 m high)was built by Vaartnou and Estonian Nyingma Buddhists.
The Benalmádena Stupa is the largest stupa in Europe, measuring 108 feet or 33 metres high. It was inaugurated on 5 October 2003, and was the final project of Buddhist Master Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche. It is situated in Benalmádena, Málaga in the Andalusian region of southern Spain, overlooking the Costa del Sol.
The International Center for Buddhist Studies near Pedreguer in the Alicante region of Spain, built in 2006, is a Sakya Buddhist monastery in Europe. It is managed by the Sakya Foundation and led by His Holiness The Sakya Trizin. The resident teacher at the monastery is Ngawang Lekshe Rinchen Gyaltsen.