Well ol’ Buddha was a man
And I’m sure that he meant well,
But I pray for his disciples
Lest they wind up in Hell.
The Imperials’ “Oh Buddha” was a smash hit on the Southern Gospel charts in the late ’70s, and driving past the prominent white-steepled Baptist church of Lexington, Virginia, one might expect to hear it still playing on the radio. This small Appalachian town is the burial place of Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, as well as Confederate general Stonewall Jackson (though his left arm is buried elsewhere). But the ghosts of these men who saw so much violence aren’t fully laid to rest. The Civil War can still stir passions and provoke heated arguments among the folks here, and among the potters, weavers, and woodcarvers, and the church stalls selling fried chicken and barbeque, the Sons of Confederate Veterans in their gray uniforms are still one of the most popular booths at the spring fair.
For a great many Southerners, Jesus may be Lord (and Elvis still King), but a closer look at Lexington reveals a new element Stonewall Jackson never encountered. “What does ‘Bodhi’ mean?” asks a local veterinarian. “I’ve treated four different dogs with that name this year.” Sifting through the stacks of Kenny Rogers and Oakridge Boys CDs in a downtown thrift store, you’ll also discover titles like “Mantra Mix” and “Gyuto Monks Chant.” But the real surprise is waiting just out of town in Rockbridge County. Turn right onto Broad Creek Church Road across from the faux ’50s restaurant, and you’ll be on the trail of something quite unexpected. Back in the woods a couple of miles, past foraging woodchucks and whitetail deer, you’ll come up over a hill and suddenly lay eyes on a gleaming white-and-gold Tibetan stupa. Quietly tucked away in the Shenandoah Valley lies Bodhipath Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation Center, a thriving temple that is home to Shamar Rinpoche, one of the highest lamas in Tibetan Buddhism’s Kagyu tradition.
In the last thirty years, the South has experienced an explosion in the number of Buddhists and Buddhist centers. From the Bluegrass to the Lone Star, every state in the South now boasts an array of Buddhist groups. The curious can investigate everything from Rinzai Zen to Chinese Pure Land to Theravada; virtually every form of Buddhism that has a presence in the traditional American Buddhist hotspots of Hawai’i, California, and the Northeast can be found somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Though the visibility of Buddhism is much greater today, the seeds of the South’s growing Buddhist communities were planted decades ago. And true to the South’s heritage of social turmoil and soulful endurance, Buddhism’s roots in the region lie in soil both tragic and hopeful. During World War II, Arkansas had the largest number of Japanese-American concentration camps, where the mostly Buddhist prisoners clung to religion to ease their suffering. Jack Kerouac spent time in the mid-1950s meditating, reading about Buddhism, and dreaming of a “rucksack revolution” in the piney woods of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. In the late ’50s and ’60s, Thomas Merton was reading and writing about Zen in his Kentucky Trappist monastery, while Thich Nhat Hanh convinced Martin Luther King, Jr., to oppose the Vietnam War, and was later nominated by King for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1966 Washington, D.C. became the home of the first Theravada temple in North America.
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