Buddhism in the United States is often viewed in connection with practitioners in the Northeast and on the West Coast, but in fact, it has been spreading and evolving throughout the United States since the mid-nineteenth century. In Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, Jeff Wilson argues that region is crucial to understanding American Buddhism. Through the lens of a multidenominational Buddhist temple in Richmond, Virginia, Wilson explores how Buddhists are adapting to life in the conservative evangelical Christian culture of the South, and how traditional Southerners are adjusting to these newer members on the religious landscape.
You can listen to Wilson’s interview with The Journal of Southern Religion or download the podcast at their website.
In the following excerpt from Dixie Dharma, Wilson vividly sets the scene of the temple in Richmond, Virginia, that hosts several different groups of practitioners. (pp. 1-4)
“Heart Sutraaaaaa.” The sound of our chanting dies away as we finish reciting a famous Buddhist text, our fading voices an expression of the emptiness that the sutra celebrates. Martin, a white-haired gentleman with an equally white mustache and a look of calm concentration, strikes the dark bowl-bell, which rings once and then slips back into stillness. For a moment, the small room here at the temple is quiet with anticipation, the silence broken only by the muffled rush of cars in the wet street outside and the rain tapping out its own syncopation on the windowpane. Huddled on our black cushions, we wait for the next signal. Then the wooden fish drum lets out a hollow yelp as it is hit by Li, a Chinese American man dressed in jeans and a loose white shirt, and we all launch in to nianfo, the continuous recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name.
“Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo, Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo, Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo”—the sacred words of the Buddha’s name fill the temple. Li’s fish drum cries at each syllable, insisting that we stay on beat. Amitabha stands before us on the altar, his skin blackened by fire, his robes and nimbus blazing gold in the half-lit room. The cloud of incense that surrounds him tickles my nostrils and tastes like sawdust in the roof on my mouth, the sensation constantly renewing itself as air moves in and out with each new devotion.
As the Buddha’s name spills out of me, my chest and back begin to tingle, as if energy is gathering and circulating. The drum seems to fade into the distance, like a tree branch tapping far away. The other ten people in the room begin to lose their individuality as we function like a single organism—our minds, voices, and bodies suffused with the Buddha. The walls disappear as my peripheral vision dissolves—there is only us and the Buddha, only the name and the breath between the name, only this moment now without past or future. “Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo, Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo, Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo, Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo . . .” Minutes pass unheeded—we have forgotten the world and it has forgotten us, as for a few moments we chant the Pure Land into being here in the sanctuary of the temple. Now it no longer even seems as if it is we who are doing the chanting. Volition and thought drop away. There is only the name speaking itself, announcing its presence from its hiding place behind every thought and deed in the waking world of form.
Sitting here in this same place the next morning is an entirely different experience. Another group has gathered to meditate, not chant, and unlike yesterday afternoon’s mixed-race gathering, nearly everyone here today is white. Now instead of facing the Buddha, I am staring at the pale greenish wall of the temple, just eighteen inches from the end of my nose. My eyes are half-closed, and my attention is directed inward, counting my breaths one after another. When I reach ten (or, as often happens, twelve or thirteen), I return to number one and begin the process again. Silence and noise have achieved an uneasy truce here in the midmorning light—no one speaks, but the quiet itself makes me preternaturally aware of everything around me: the fridge humming to itself in the kitchen, the mourning doves sobbing outside, the gurgling stomachs of my fellow wall-gazers. My aching left leg implores me to shift my position, but the discipline of the others sitting straight and solid like mountains keeps me from fidgeting. Not allowing ourselves to be moved by passing thoughts or temptations, we are emulating the Buddha’s famous triumph over the evil god of desire Mara on the day the Buddha achieved his awakening.
A bell sings a lone, low note, and we bow slightly on our cushions. With gratitude for the chance to move, I kneel and ritually fluff the round zafu that has been my support, trying to do so mindfully, respectful of its role in my practice. Next I ritually brush away imaginary dirt from the black zabuton mat beneath it, and fold the mat back out of the way. Soon I am standing with the other fifteen participants in a line that snakes around the room to meet itself again behind me. The bell sings again, and with stately drama we put one foot forward. And wait. A breath passes. Slowly, we take another step. And breathe. With the dignity of utter attention to our actions, we gradually circumambulate the room, hands help clasped at the chest, eyes cast down, breath sweeping mind. Elsewhere in Richmond at this hour others are receiving the Spirit with joyous enthusiasm, reciting their adherence to the Nicene Creed, or testifying to the power of Jesus’ blood to wash away sins. But here in this temple a few blocks up the street from the Confederate Memorial chapel, our gentle pace is taking us steadily down the Eightfold Path of the Buddha.
These disparate experiences took place at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond, the “Temple of the Gift of Light” (as the Japanese name Ekoji translates in English), located in Richmond’s Museum District. This attractive, human-scaled neighborhood is an important part of the Virginia capital’s proud southern identity. Dogwoods and magnolia trees line nearby Monument Avenue, watched over by statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other heroes of the Confederacy. At the end of the street are the venerable buildings that housed the Congress of the Confederate States of America and the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. While the Confederate past has ceased to be as important as it once was, other long-standing patterns persist—Richmond (and the South as a whole) remains a region of strong evangelical dominance in religion and concerted effort by traditional constituencies to hold on to their social and political prerogatives. Therefore, for many Richmond would seem like a surprising place to find a Buddhist temple. But this mixing of Asian East and American South has been occurring for close to thirty years, as Buddhism and other non-Western religions proliferate in the old strongholds of the Methodists and Southern Baptists.
Ekoji is notable not only because it is located in the South, where Buddhism has rarely been remarked on by historians and ethnographers, but also because it houses five distinct groups practicing in separate lineages, as my differing experiences with chanting and meditation partially illustrate. Under one roof groups representing the Pure Land, Soto Zen, Kagyu, and Vipassana lineages of Buddhism have sought refuge together as a single community, as well as a Meditative Inquiry group largely informed by Buddhist thought and practice. Several different groups sharing a temple would be a highly unusual situation in modern Asia, so this novel arrangement has implications for the development of Buddhism in Richmond and beyond. It is from this meeting of traditions that one of the observations of this book emerges: the close proximity of Ekoji’s groups requires them to differentiate themselves through various means but most obviously in bodily and spatial practices and the medium of material culture. Intersectarian contact among Buddhist groups in North America is not just about cooperation and exchange—diversity is always an opportunity for conflict and identity making as well. At the same time, however, groups and individuals at the temple are certainly influenced by their contact with each other and with forces beyond the temple, such that Ekoji’s groups demonstrate noticeable hybridity, even in the face of their attempts to create themselves among specific sectarian lines. The result is a highly pluralistic Buddhism, which prizes commonality and contact among multiple Buddhist lineages, though not without instances of ambivalence.
Pluralistic attitudes toward Buddhism can be found in many parts of the United States, but it is no accident that this unusually institutionalized example of Buddhist pluralism emerged in the South, where practitioners are relatively isolated from the American Buddhist strongholds in the North and West and must work together in order to maintain a presence on the landscape. The exceptional degree of pluralism at Ekoji was the first unexpected sign to me as a researcher that I needed to pay attention to how regional specificity affects Buddhism in America—and once I started down that road, many additional insights arose from following it.
From Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, by Jeff Wilson. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo.
- The Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of wisdom”) texts—of which the Heart Sutra (Mahaprajnaparamita-hridaya-sutra) is the shortest—are a large body of important Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. The Heart Sutra is included as an important liturgical component in many Mahayana lineages. Sutras (literally “threads”) are canonical scriptures considered by Buddhists to record the utterances of enlightened beings. I have chosen to omit diacritical marks in this study: they are never employed by my consultants, few of whom pronounce non-English Buddhist terms in ways that faithfully mimic their Asian pronunciations. Diacritics would therefore misrepresent the actual oral and written practices of Ekoji.↩
- Amitabha Buddha (“Infinite Light Buddha”) is the central savior figure of Pure Land Buddhism. See chapters 2 and 3 for discussions of this branch of Buddhism. Niano (“Buddha-remembrance”) is the practice of chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha, specifically in Chinese as “Namo Omitofo.” In Japanese it is known as nembutsu, and Amitabha is called Amida.↩
- Mara (literally “Murder”) is the Buddhist archetype of evil and deluded attachment. According to legend, he attacked and tempted the future Buddha in an attempt to thwart his enlightenment.↩
- A zafu (Japanese for “sitting cushion”) is a round pillow stuffed with kapok, designed for seated meditation. In American Buddhist settings zafus are most often employed in Zen temples and meditation centers.↩
- A zabuton (Japanese for “sitting mat”) is a rectangular mat on which a zafu is typically placed.↩
- Originally a term for the monastic community, in the American context sangha can also denote a Buddhist congregation.↩