Review: Dixie Dharma
Jeff Wilson. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 281 pp. ISBN 9780807835456.
In his numerical assessment of the religiosity of the South historian Ted Ownby writes, “What makes the South religiously distinctive is the large portion of evangelical Protestants.”1 Jeff Wilson’s new book about Buddhism in the South takes this regional truism and examines how a minority religion in the South negotiates its surroundings. More generally, he asserts that regionalism plays a significant role in shaping American Buddhism, noting that “people in different parts of America experience Buddhism through lenses and circumstances supplied by the surrounding culture, and Buddhism impacts how these people navigate their regional culture” (218). The southern brand of this faith, however, has the unique challenge of adapting to a region where Buddhism is very much a minority. In documenting these adaptations, Wilson broadens both studies of American Buddhism as well as religious regionalism.
Wilson begins with surveys of studies related to his topic. He notes that Buddhism receives little attention in southern religious historiography.And in studies of American Buddhism, the regional focus tens to be on the West Coast or in New England. With these two observations in mind, he writes, “this book is an exploration of two themes—pluralism and regionalism” (4). Wilson pursues these themes through a case study of a multi-tradition Buddhist temple called the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond, Virginia. Because Buddhism is such a small part of Richmond’s religious landscape, Wilson demonstrates the ways various Buddhist traditions share space and practices while also creating a place for newcomers, many of whom come from a Protestant background. For instance, he notes how there is little advertising and many of the new members refrain from sharing their newfound religious leanings with their family and friends. Similarly, the temple had to fight for years to obtain tax exempt status because the practices did not match the congregational model that the city government expected. This was such a contentious issue that the temple building itself was almost auctioned off to pay for the back taxes that the city claimed the temple owned.
Among the more compelling illustrations of the book comes when Wilson recounts a slave trade meditation vigil held in 2008 to “bear witness” to the legacy of slavery in Richmond. Taking place near a statue at Richmond’s Slave Trade Reconciliation Triangle, a group of about twenty Buddhists from Ekoji and other temples, gathered on a Saturday morning to silently walk the trail slaves trod to the auction house, and then sit meditating in the noonday sun, contemplating the suffering of so many sold into slavery.
In addition to examining isolated instances such as these, Wilson also addresses broader themes at work in American and southern Buddhism. For example, he spends a great deal of time looking at the practice of Pure Land Buddhism by both Euro-Americans and Asians. Pure Land rarely gets attention in studies of American Buddhism, and when it does, it is usually regulated to Asian immigrants. Wilson demonstrates how Pure Land co-manifests with Zen, Vipassana, Tibetan, and other traditions by a predominantly Euro-American population that generally converts to Buddhism as adults. Wilson claims that this environment generates much more liberal and hybrid Buddhists. He calls these individuals “pluralistic Buddhists.” “They may strongly identify with a particular lineage,” Wilson explains, “but have one or two practices picked up from other sources, or they may actively seek to incorporate multiple forms of Buddhism into their religious life” (148). Two primary factors for this kind of pluralism, significant to southern Buddhism, are the small size of the groups and the lack of full-time, resident teachers.
Despite being an excellent examination of one Buddhist temple in the South, one could hardly summarize the state of southern Buddhism based on one temple. Wilson would be the first one to acknowledge this. Atlanta, Houston, and Charlotte are a few of the booming metropolitan environments where Buddhism has grown and adapted to its surroundings. Indeed, urbanization, immigration, and economics all contribute to determine where Buddhists congregate. As such, Wilson suggests that America can be divided into eight different regions, each of which Buddhism “seems to differ in discernible ways from that in the other regions” (36).
Overall Wilson’s contribution to American religious history and American Buddhist studies is admirable. He successfully demonstrate that regionalism is important and a useful lens when studying religious tradition. Additionally, Wilson asks those on the West Coast or New England to pause and consider regionalism as they generalize about the state of Buddhism in America. And to scholars of southern religion, he challenges them to examine religion outside the evangelical Protestant stronghold. No doubt, Wilson is only beginning a conversation that he hopes others will join.
Ted Ownby, “Evangelical but Differentiated: Religion by the Numbers,” in Religion and Public Life in the South: In the Evangelical Mode, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and Mark Silk (Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2005), 33.↩