Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South
by Jeff Wilson
296 pp., 18 illus., 6 tables
ISBN 978-0-8078-3545-6 $36.95 cloth
From the publisher:
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, 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.
Introducing a host of overlooked characters, including Buddhist circuit riders, modernist Pure Land priests, and pluralistic Buddhists, Wilson shows how regional specificity manifests itself through such practices as meditation vigils to heal the wounds of the slave trade. He argues that southern Buddhists at once use bodily practices, iconography, and meditation tools to enact distinct sectarian identities even as they enjoy a creative hybridity.
About the author:
Jeff Wilson is associate professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario.
The Sumeru review:
Jeff Wilson’s new book is an outstanding contribution to the study of Buddhism in the West, for a variety of reasons. Of particular interest are how his long-standing Canadian residency may have influenced his approach and how his observations about a southern American Buddhist centre may be applied to the Canadian context.
Many sociological and ethnographic studies of Canada’s history have referred to our multi-cultural identity. Indeed, one of the most famous books on the subject referred to us as a vertical mosaic, as opposed to the proverbial melting pot of the United States. Together we create a large tapestry while retaining our individual characteristics. We are no strangers to hybridity, pluralism and regionalism – three of the key concepts Wilson puts forward in his book. He begins by deconstructing the mythic narrative of American Buddhism as a monolithic entity. This is not to belittle the contributions of those scholarly pioneers to whom he acknowledges a great debt, but to further refine the contemporary picture. He is also right upfront about identifying himself as a scholar-practitioner (itself a modern development).
As I read through Wilson’s explanations for the seven factors that create hybridity — the lack of resident teachers, the presence of pluralistic attitudes, limited resources, low membership, sustained contact with other Buddhist lineages, the new Buddhists’ need to familiarize themselves with an unfamiliar religious practice, and the devaluation of creedal formulas for religious identity — I was struck repeatedly by parallels between the experiences of practitioners in the focus of Wilson’s ethnographic study, Ekoji Temple in Richmond, Virginia, and those of Canadian Buddhist sanghas.
While Wilson’s ethnographic approach is widely used, I will go out on a limb to say that his conclusions are clearly in line with many Canadian concepts about the nature of civil society. I don’t think an American could have written this book, or at least one who had not spent a long time in Canada as Wilson has!
Looking at the history of Buddhism in Canada, there are many examples of teachers who have taken a circuit rider approach, establishing multiple centres (including transnational ones) which they visit in rotation, leaving local sanghas with substantial autonomy over their own affairs. Samu Sunim and Zasep Tulku are two examples who spring to mind. There are also many centres (especially in smaller, far-flung communities) with limited resources and low membership. For those sanghas, the fact that Buddhists of other lineages are close, and the fact that they may be the ONLY other Buddhists nearby, clearly fosters pluralistic attitudes. Mutual reliance across cultural lines is a well-established tradition in Canada, where thin population and harsh conditions have been a fact of life for hundreds of years. Toronto’s joint Wesak celebrations over the years are a good example, as is the Lower Mainland Buddhist network in British Columbia (albeit both examples from metropolitan areas). The groups may not share the same edifice, but they do share the same goals and work together on projects of mutual benefit. Only in the Shambhala organization in the Maritimes do we see so many centres from one lineage clustered in a tight network which affords like-minded support to small outport communities.
One aspect of Buddhism in the Southern USA that Wilson notes is how practitioners may establish their Buddhist identity as “in opposition to” local evangelical Christianity. For convert Buddhists in Canada, who like Wilson’s subjects are likely to have come to Buddhism as adults and who are building their own conversion narratives ‘on the fly’, this identity is often in opposition to mainstream culture. Canada is arguably more porous than the American South in allowing a wide range of subcultures to co-exist peacefully, but large urban centres where there are significant immigrant populations and universities show the greatest Buddhist activity here. Outside of those centres, Christianity is still the dominant Canadian religious experience. Indeed, many Canadians define the quintessence of being Canadian as NOT American! So we are familiar with identity as opposition, while at the same time being open to the possibility of what I like to call dual citizenship. Then, of course, we also have the three nations of Canada – Aboriginal, French and English.
Another of Wilson’s points concerns regionalism — how Buddhism is practiced in different ways in different places, both influencing and influenced by local culture. Again, Canadian examples abound. Consider the influence of Tibetan-Canadian communities in the 1970s and how they nurtured the development of Vajrayana Buddhist centres in Quebec and Ontario. In the maritimes, Gampo Abbey’s annual lobster-release ceremony has become an accepted part of local reality for lobster fishers. A variety of centres in Quebec and Ontario offer programs in French and English. Tanis Wetaskiwin in Edmonton runs a thriving YouTube channel on aboriginal and Tibetan performance culture. The vast majority of Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist organizations in Canada are focused almost entirely on their own constituent congregations and offer very little directly to the larger community. Their use of the internet (let alone social media) is minimal, unlike that of convert Buddhists or the mainstream population, making them hyper-local.
By the same token, the path of Shin Buddhism in Canada has always skewed toward British Columbia because of its large and long-established Japanese-Canadian population. There is an interesting connection with Wilson’s book there — insofar as the founder of the Ekoji Temple in Richmond, Virginia, was BC-born Kenryu Takashi Tsuji, who was an important figure in the Japanese-Canadian communities of BC during WWII, who later established the Toronto Buddhist Church as well as temples in Montreal and Hamilton, and who was a foundation stone in the evolution of Buddhism in Canada. Could this have had something to do with his pluralistic and modernist approach to sangha-building? I think so! His fascinating story is part of Wilson’s book.
I have very few quibbles with the book. In his conclusion, Wilson notes that regionalism can also be seen chronologically, inasmuch as the same geographic area can exhibit different characteristics and allegiances in different time periods. It’s an interesting point, but perhaps historical analysis need not be tied so tightly to regionalism’s structural assumptions. The book also contains a number of statistical references. I would argue that a sample size of 56 respondents is too small to give percentages much meaning.
All things considered, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, well worth consideration.
Jeff Wilson’s response:
Many thanks to John for his comments, and the invitation to provide a bit of reflection in response. Indeed, I find that he’s offered us less of a review and more of a perceptive commentary that takes some of my original points into new territory, for which I’m grateful.
The first question to tackle is whether Canadian Buddhism is regional in some sense. Given that Canadians often identify more strongly with their region (BC, Alberta, the Plains, Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, the North, etc) than they do with the nation as a whole, it would be surprising if regionalism was absent. If anything, Canada has a greater likelihood of developing regional aspects, since we have a smaller population spread over a larger landmass. Not only are we less knit together on a national scale, but also in this situation relatively lower numbers of Buddhists can have a larger impact on local Buddhist culture. The best example is surely the Shambhala community: the immigration of 500 Shambhala members into Halifax 25 years ago has resulted in more Shambhala groups located in Nova Scotia, PEI, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick than the entire rest of the country combined. Most Canadian Buddhists are not practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism—but in the maritimes, the face of Buddhism is Shambhala.
I’m intrigued by the similarity that John discerns between the experience and struggles of the southern temple I studied and Canadian sanghas in general. While we can find Canadian exceptions to the patterns I discussed (especially in a few large urban locations), this suggests that my look at regional phenomena may actually help us to recognize common patterns that have been overlooked in the historiography. These patterns may be particularly amplified in certain regions (Canadian or U.S.), but also apply generally to the majority of North American Buddhists groups.
Also intriguing is John’s observation that Canadian oppositional identity-making may fruitfully come into the discussion. I can’t help thinking that Anglophone Canadian Buddhists may be actively not-American and not-Christian, while Francophone Canadian Buddhists may be not-Anglophone and not-Catholic. But we can’t necessarily make that assumption. Perhaps being Buddhist affords enough of an oppositional identity that Anglophone and Francophone Canadian Buddhists relatively dismiss the language differences in preference for religious solidarity: after all, John gives us examples of centres teaching in both languages. On the other hand, perhaps Buddhist identity allows an even greater degree of non-Americanness, since it could reinforce an oppositional identity that sees Buddhism as more in line with Canadian values while Christianity comes to be associated with American rightwing political/religion/social developments. We simply don’t have the research yet to know how these possible attitudes may be playing out, if at all.
One last note: I too have pondered whether there might be a subtle but specifically Canadian aspect to Rev. Tsuji’s Buddhism, and if so, whether that element might have been passed along into the DNA of American Jodo Shinshu through his long years of service with the Buddhist Churches of America. It’s a hypothesis that is difficult if not impossible to conclusively prove, yet I find the possibility quite tantalizing. There is a long history of Canadian religious figures moving south and influencing American religion, such as evangelical preacher Aimee Semple MacPherson. Undoubtedly this has happened within North American Buddhism too, and the influence of various American figures and groups on Canadian Buddhist phenomena is clear—but there are still such enormous gaps in our understanding of Canadian Buddhism’s history that we don’t have enough knowledge yet to assess whether there has been a definite impact in the other direction. It’s an exciting time for a scholar to work on Canadian Buddhism, as there is so much left to do, and so many fascinating stories yet to be told.
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