By Michael J. Altman
What is American Buddhism?
Is it this Zen writer?
Maybe even this actor.
Or, better yet, where is American Buddhism?
Often we think it's out West, the land where alternative religions flourish. A couple of weeks ago we were reminded that it can be in New York too. But what about the South? Well, there's this congressman from Atlanta. And this guy is from Georgia too. Maybe there is Buddhism in the South, but is there Southern Buddhism?
Jeff Wilson's short answer would be"yes." In Dixie Dharma, Wilson takes the first whacks at chiseling out a more nuanced view of Buddhism in America. Through his in-depth ethnographic field work at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond, Virginia Wilson presents an impressive view of a plural Buddhism finding a place in the midst of the evangelical South.
Wilson begins his book by highlighting the blind spots in American Buddhist studies. For the most part, studies of American Buddhism have focused on immigrant groups or the Tibetan and Zen Buddhism popular among white converts. Furthermore, these studies have been located either on the West Coast or in the Northeast. These biases in region and tradition have skewed how scholars imagine "American Buddhism." After a deep consideration of the ways region effects religion in America, Wilson proposes eight geographical regions for American Buddhism. By paying close attention to region and seeking out an example outside the regions usually studied, Wilson presents a pluralist Buddhism taking shape in the American South.
The Ekoji Buddhist Sangha is the home to five different Buddhists groups (Zen, Vipassana, Pure Land, Tibetan, and Meditative Inquiry), each with their own aesthetics, practices, and doctrinal emphases. Wilson spends a couple of chapters explicating the history of the temple and the five different groups now housed there. The heart of the book is chapters four and five where Wilson analyzes the hybrid and plural nature of Buddhist practice at Ekoji and then argues that this pluralism occurs because of its regional location. Southern Buddhists lack the large scale institutions available elsewhere, there are less teachers and Buddhist resources, and they are surrounded by a culture at best indifferent and at worst hostile to their existence. In such a regional context, Buddhists draw on whatever resources are available regardless of what Buddhist tradition they stem from, band together across lines of lineage, and often practice their Buddhism "in the closet," hiding it from family and friends. In the final chapter of the book Wilson analyzes a fascinating ritual, a slave trade meditation vigil," wherein Ekoji members meditated in downtown Richmond at the site of a slave trade reconciliation memorial. Wilson's recent interview with the Journal of Southern Religion provides a more detailed summary of these chapters, for those that are interested.
The greatest virtue of this book is that Wilson thought to look in Richmond and pay attention to the Buddhism going on there. The basic argument of the book, that Buddhism in the South would be different than Buddhism in L.A. or Boston, sounds obvoius--and yet no one had made it before. Part of this is due to a hole in academic training and interest. Those interested in Southern religion were not trained or interested in Buddhism and those interested in Buddhism were not trained as Americanists. It took someone with the mixture of interest and training like Wilson, who knew American religious culture and Buddhist studies, to shed light on Southern Buddhism and hopefully to open up a path for more research in this direction. (Side note--if you are a graduate student reading this and looking for a dissertation topic, go read Wilson's conclusion. He has around a dozen future projects you can choose from. Just pick one and send him a thank you note when you do.)
The pluarlist Buddhism Wilson finds, a Buddhism that welcomes and even seeks out diverse traditions and practices, strikes me as quite familiar. It reminded me of my visit to the Hindu Society of North Carolina in Morrisville, North Carolina. That Hindu temple housed an array of deities that would not often be combined in India, including a Jain tirthankar. Temples out West or in regions with larger Hindu populations tend to be more traditional and even reflect regional deities from India. Now, there are clear differences between the Hindu and Buddhist examples. The Buddhists in Richmond were mostly white and very few were immigrants. Meanwhile, the HSNC temple is all Indian American. Yet, a similar lack of religious resources and skeptical host culture surround Morrisville and Richmond. Wilson's study highlights the need to look for more of these lay led, small, pluralist religious communities that are working to forge religious cultures within the creases of the South's evangelical fabric.
As Wilson describes the relationship between the Ekoji members and their conservative evangelical surroundings, it is interesting to see what evangelical reactions to Ekoji tell us about Southern evangelicalism. For example, in the stories he recounts of Buddhists "coming out" to family and friends, again and again the family's first response is fear that their Buddhist loved one is going to hell. Now, the fear of hell is nothing new in the South, but these stories of Buddhist conversion present interesting views into the role of hellfire in intimate family encounters. Furthermore, Wilson notes that the language of "coming out" is often used describe Ekoji members confessing their Buddhism to their family. He even includes a touching story of a gay man who "comes out" as a Buddhist before he comes out as gay. That Southern Buddhists and Southern evangelicals see some sort of similarity between being gay or being Buddhist is fascinating and I wish Wilson had been able to do more with that connection between sexual and religious identity in the South. That quibble aside, Wilson's book is an important opening move in the study of Buddhism and other religious minorities in the South. It is now up to other scholars to continue pushing the horizon of what counts as Buddhism and religion in the South.
So, if American Buddhist studies to this point has has been R.E.M and the Beastie Boys, what should it sound like in the wake of Dixie Dharma? Well, these guys are from New Jeresy but I think they get pretty close.