In Gary Snyder’s essay “Re-inhabitation” he asks, “How does knowledge of the place help us know the Self?” First posed in a 1976 talk, the question feels even more pertinent today. With the ordinariness of air travel and online technology, it can be all too easy to forget the significance of specific physical places. In the following interview about his recent book, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, religious studies scholar Jeff Wilson does his part to remind us. (“You don’t breathe online,” he told me.) By looking at a multidenominational Buddhist temple in Richmond, Virginia, Wilson shows us why understanding region is crucial to understanding American Buddhism.
It’s no mistake that Wilson begins Dixie Dharma by quoting Gary Snyder: “The world is places.” As a champion of bioregionalism, Snyder helped establish a place-based ethic. “If all things in this world are interconnected,” Wilson says, “we’re most intimately interwoven with those that are closest at hand.”
We tend to talk about American Buddhism as if it’s a single thing, but you argue that region is crucial to understanding American Buddhism. Why does place matter? Place has always been a concern for Buddhists, and its relevance has always been understood in a multiplicity of ways. For example, the Larger Pure Land Sutra tells us that every buddha is awakened at the exact same spot in northeastern India, after going through the same set of experiences. This site in Bodh Gaya is revered and visited by Buddhists throughout the world, who consider it the bodhimanda—Sanskrit for “place of awakening.” And at the same time, traditional commentaries teach us that anywhere someone wakes up to reality is the bodhimanda, and necessarily, of course, this is based on their own individual experiences. This is why Zen Buddhists bow to their cushions, for instance, because that pillow right there is their bodhimanda. So Buddhism has acknowledged a universal aspect to the site of awakening and a very specific, local aspect as well.
There are also many Buddhist techniques that are place-specific. One of the oldest of these techniques, which dates back to the Buddha’s own time, is corpse meditation. You have to have access to a charnel ground where bodies are laid out, so you can meditatively watch them rot and disintegrate through various stages of decay. Another example is mountain asceticism, a powerful type of tantric practice that requires access to cold waterfalls, high mountain peaks, and long trails. And there are whole lineages built around forest retreat, where the jungle is valorized as the best possible place in which to rapidly and profoundly advance to nirvana. These practices continue in modern-day Asia, but they vary considerably in terms of whether any particular person can carry them out—the variance being due specifically to place.
When it comes to understanding the Buddhist phenomena of America, attention to region helps clarify some of the variety of experiences that American Buddhists have. So long as we talk about American Buddhism in the singular, we tend to iron out significant differences and fail to see how Buddhism is changing in separate parts of the United States. But there are dramatic differences in different places between what traditions are available, what local cultural and other influences are at work, what sort of practices can be carried out, and so on. If many people today understand Buddhism to be about paying attention to one’s immediate surroundings and this very moment, surely place matters in terms of whether this very moment is on a street in East St. Louis with the highest crime rate in America, or this very moment is sitting in the hot springs at Tassajara Zen Center, or this very moment is in an expensive apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan.
Why do specific embodied and emplaced experiences matter in our modern globalized world? Beyond the mere fact of our inescapable embodiment and emplacement, there is the reality that our experiences are impacted by, and often even determined by, the specificities of where we are. If you grew up in a place where English was the dominant language, the site of your childhood strongly impacts the languages in which you’re able to most fully and naturally access the dharma and which teachers you’re able to learn from, even if you go on to study other languages and live in other places. If, like me, you live and work in a place that endures long, cold, snowy winters, then that limits your ability to practice outside in the natural world and to travel even relatively short distances to gather with like-minded companions. If you live in a place such as I do, you have access to free health care, the assurance of a social safety net that will provide for you should circumstances become difficult, and you have little need to worry about gun violence, all of which frees you to put your mental and other resources toward different concerns. Each of these concerns factors into the circumstances in which you pursue the dharma and thus influences the unfolding of your practice, as well as how or even whether you’re able to make progress on the paths that you can access.
“Beyond the mere fact of our inescapable embodiment and emplacement, there is the reality that our experiences are impacted by, and often even determined by, the specificities of where we are.”
Buddhism is very unevenly distributed in America. On the national level, there appear to be all sorts of resources available, but the picture is very different when you zoom in to focus on specific regions. Are you interested in Shin Buddhism? There are ten temples in Los Angeles alone but only one temple in the entire American South. Is it important to you to be part of a multigenerational temple community made up primarily of people with a strong family connection to Buddhism? You’re out of luck if you live in most parts of northern New England, but you can find that in Fargo. On the other hand, I hope you’re not a Fargo resident who wants to study Won Buddhism, because you’re 600 miles from the nearest temple. Feel an affinity for the Suzuki lineage of Soto Zen associated with the San Francisco Zen Center? Better not live in one of the 37 states that lack a group affiliated with this lineage. Do you want to be able to attend meditation sessions before you go to work each day? You’re much better off if you live in a city than in a rural area. Are you unsure what sort of Buddhism works best for you? You’ve hit the jackpot if you live in New York City, where dozens of different options are available for you to sample and decide from. Buddhism is the second largest religion in Hawaii, where Buddhism occupies a prominently visible place on the landscape and Buddhist politicians are elected to Congress—it thus has a different social status and power than it does in Alabama.
What are some of the challenges for people practicing Buddhism in the American South? The South is a diverse place, but there are some widely shared experiences. Southern religion is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, which actively thrusts itself into the public sphere in an attempt to be the moral arbiter for all citizens. I have never spoken to a Southern Buddhist who has not experienced proselytizing; often, it is the first thing that someone raises when I ask them about their experience as a Buddhist. Numerically speaking, Buddhism is very weak throughout the South, and there is a particular lack of trained, experienced meditation teachers and strong institutions. This means that Southern Buddhists frequently do not have ready access to reliable guidance. Thus many sanghas are never able to go very far with their practice, while individual practitioners are more likely than Buddhists in other places to expend considerable time and money traveling to other parts of the country in search of help. Buddhism is widely viewed with suspicion, or at least with the perception that it is somehow less American than other religions, which means that Buddhists are more hesitant about speaking out, practicing, or seeking new members in public.
The most poignant stories I heard while doing research for the book were about difficulties with Buddhists’ own families, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. You can potentially find these anywhere, but I found them to be far more frequent in the South. Most Southern Buddhists are former conservative Christians, have close family members who are conservative Christians, and live and work alongside significant numbers of conservative Christians. Christianity isn’t an abstract concept out there somewhere that can be willfully ignored. I heard many stories about people being ostracized by their parents, lying to their bosses about their religion, or evading questions from their neighbors. Many people spoke in terms of when or whether they had “come out of the closet” as Buddhists—some even asserted that they’d told their conservative parents they were gay but would never reveal their Buddhist inclinations.
I think it’s important to also remember that fear and discrimination are not the only Southern Buddhist experiences. I know many Buddhists in the South who experience little in the way of difficulty or dissatisfaction, especially if they have no close family in the South or work in industries dominated by social liberals, such as universities. And I’ve heard really moving stories about transformation, as initially hostile or skeptical family members have come to open their hearts and minds when they observe the positive effects that Buddhist practice has on their loved ones. So while we can speak in general terms about Southern Buddhist experiences, we should try not to fall prey to blanket stereotypes or the assumption that regionalism automatically defines any particular individual Buddhist’s life.
“The fact that very different kinds of Buddhism can operate together says something profound about how the dharma breaks down social barriers rather than dividing people by religion.”
You also point out that, despite these challenges, and really because of them, there can be serious benefits to practicing Buddhism in a place like Richmond, Virginia. Ekoji—the case study in Dixie Dharma—is a temple that houses Pure Land, Soto Zen, Kagyu, and Vipassana lineages, as well as the Meditative Inquiry Group, a practice group that is informed by Buddhist ideas. This arrangement would be highly unusual in Asia and uncommon in other parts of North America. What does this mean for those who practice at Ekoji? At Ekoji specifically, the low number of Buddhists in the region means that a bunch of different dharma lineages have banded together to jointly run a shared temple. Their reality is influenced by their material and social circumstances, which are largely related to their location. But the meaning they derive from this bare fact is quite interesting. Practicing in close proximity to one another, most of the Buddhists at Ekoji have come to really value their cooperation with each other. To them, the fact that very different kinds of Buddhism can operate together says something profound about how the dharma breaks down social barriers rather than dividing people by religion. It speaks to how all Buddhists are ultimately companions who just happen to sometimes be on slightly different paths. They also treasure the opportunity to attend two or more Buddhist groups and thus benefit from a wider range of perspectives and practices. Even those who prefer to stick to a single group at Ekoji nonetheless often report that they appreciate the visitors from other groups who provide added richness to their practice.
How do the groups differentiate themselves if they’re all using the same space?Most of the groups use the exact same space, altar, and cushions. Therefore the distinctions come out in subtle ways of usage, such as choosing to face the altar, face away from it, or ignore it altogether. Differences are apparent in the liturgies each group uses, or if they choose to forego ceremony completely, and in the choices of texts for discussion. In each case, differentiation has to be a conscious choice: identity as a Zen, Pure Land, or Vipassana group and practitioner is not simply a default but has to be asserted through bodily practices and specific approaches to the dharma. Because most people at Ekoji have some experience with Buddhist groups other than the one they most typically attend, this means they have to go through a selection process to find the forms that work best, as well as conform in some way to the expectations of the group they attend, however loose those expectations may be. For some people, the shared nature of the temple is not as conducive to their needs: the Tibetan group practices in a separate upstairs room so that they can be surrounded by very specific aesthetics and images connected to their lineage and where the altar arrangement meets their more stringent requirements for correct practice.
You have said that the groups also display a noticeable hybridity. Can you say more about that? There is a degree of overlap among all of the groups—none are untouched by the fact that they practice among other Buddhists of differing lineages. The Vipassana practitioners sit facing an image of Amida Buddha, the original icon placed on the altar when the Pure Land group founded the temple. Members of the Zen group regularly bring up books they read while attending the Vipassana group. The Pure Land group includes a lot of silent meditation. The leaders of the Meditative Inquiry Group are also longtime members of the Zen group. The Tibetan group may be upstairs now, but the sutra benches and cushions they’re using came from the Pure Land group, and their members attend and are influenced by Ekoji’s non-Tibetan groups.
What it comes down to is that while each group is a container in which certain lineage-specific practices and ideas are more concentrated, there are no barriers between them, so ideas, people, objects, and practices flow through and beyond each of them. There is a circulation of the dharma’s diversity that occurs under the roof of Ekoji and also shows up clearly in the home practice styles and altars of temple members. Some members are aware of it, while others don’t notice it, but in any case it’s hard not to be affected when you practice Buddhism in such a mixed environment.
With many Buddhist groups aspiring to maintain the integrity of their traditions, is hybridity a good thing? That’s something that I as a scholar can’t judge, since these sorts of assertions aren’t the point of my training. But I can make some observations, which Buddhists at Ekoji or elsewhere are welcome to reflect on and decide for themselves. As a basically noncentralized religion composed of myriad competing and intersecting lineages, even the most esoteric or restrictive forms of Buddhism have usually afforded practitioners the ability to move with relative ease between traditions and combine them to a certain degree. There are no forms of Buddhism that haven’t been profoundly impacted by other Buddhist groups, so in a certain sense there are nothing but hybrid Buddhisms, from Theravada to Nichiren. Many who have experienced a diversity of Buddhist approaches are grateful for that opportunity and feel it has improved their pursuit of the dharma.
On the other hand, there are Buddhists who caution against diluting one’s approach to the extent that it becomes impractical or meaningless. Many prefer to choose a single, verified path and follow it faithfully, viewing a wider approach as necessarily more shallow and less conducive to attainment. Hybridity can be the result of flightiness, confusion, or indecision, and these can hold one back from ever moving into the deeper waters of dharma practice. While I’m not especially qualified to rank anyone’s enlightenment, I can say that I have observed a great variety of Buddhist styles and experiences. I have seen practitioners produce beautiful mixtures of Buddhism that resonated with each other, leading them into a deep understanding of the dharma. I have known dharma shoppers who switched paths over and over, moving on as soon as their practice began to evolve into anything more than a feel-good hobby. I have spent time in monasteries with monks devoted to mastering a single practice, and observed the amazing transformations that can occur. And I have encountered Buddhists so passionately attached to a particular practice or lineage that their egos became ever larger and stronger. So it seems to me there’s no single answer to the question of possible hybridity versus alleged purity. Every path has potential pitfalls and rewards, and each of us has to navigate our own way.
What, if anything, does regional awareness offer to Buddhist practitioners? A regional awareness is probably very healthy for Buddhist practitioners and groups. There are a lot of people out there making pronouncements about what American Buddhism is or should be, but those prescriptions may be totally off base for your particular situation. Buddhists who are aware of the specificities of their local legal, cultural, economic, and other conditions will be much better equipped to respond to them skillfully. If they know their specific local Buddhist landscape, they can consider partnerships like those at Ekoji, or may discover other ways for different Buddhists to support one another and the dharma.
To study the region is to study the self, and such study means encountering all the unacknowledged things that give rise to oneself and that assist in each moment of practice. Every bodhimanda is located within a specific, special, fragile, and enduring ecosystem of natural and social forces that provides the means for awakening. If you are in North Carolina, your bodhi tree is likely to be a loblolly pine; if you are in California it may be a redwood. This present moment is probably a good one in which to start getting to know your own place of awakening.
The West Coast
This area is the classic homeland for American Buddhism. Los Angeles alone is said to house virtually every type of Buddhism present on the planet. Chinese immigration began here in the late 1840s, and even through wars and periods of racist exclusion, the West Coast has been the major entry point for Asian Buddhists of many cultures.
Drier and higher than most of the West Coast, with a lower population density and significantly fewer Asian Americans, the Mountains largely remain a new mission field for Buddhism, where it must try to compete in a heavily Mormon and Protestant regional religious culture.
The Southwest has an eclectic spiritual atmosphere that has attracted some Buddhists, particularly adult practitioners from non-Buddhist backgrounds. The Southwest is dotted with Buddhist groups committed to living close to the land, including many retreat centers that take advantage of the region’s low population density for purposes of seclusion, and temporary or permanent renunciation of mainstream American life.
The Plains is the least Buddhist of all our regions. Buddhism is almost entirely an urban phenomenon on the Plains, and in nearly every case Buddhist groups are small affiliates of larger networks that are based, and much more active, in other parts of the country.
This area has a long history of Buddhist activity and boasts many groups and types of Buddhists. Many forms of Buddhism with little representation elsewhere in America, such as Jodo Shu, Shinnyo-en, and Sarvodaya, have some presence in this region alongside nearly all the more common forms. Chicago looms large in the historiography of American Buddhism, due to the Buddhist presence at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions.
Both a solidly comfortable area for Buddhism and a far frontier, a good number of American Buddhist lineages have their home bases in the Northeast. However, from the perspective of the American Buddhist majority in Hawaii and the West Coast, the Northeast seems to be at the end of many national networks. This is a liberal area overall, where religion plays a relatively less public role than in some places, making it easier for Buddhists to nestle into the landscape and go about their business without disturbing their neighbors.
While Buddhism is more common in the South than it used to be, it has been very slow to grow in this area, which is characterized by a strong evangelical Protestant culture, a particularly thorny racial history, and a long initial period as a primarily rural region. There are two sub-regions: the Coastal South has more Asian Americans and Buddhists than the Inner South.
Geographically isolated from the rest of the United States, the Hawaiian Islands are a very distinct Asian melting pot, with a heavy Buddhist presence. In fact, with its relative proximity to Asia, Hawaii is the only state in America where Buddhists are the second-largest religious group, behind Christians.
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