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Buddhadharma : Win 2012
WINTER 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 75 asks what happens when diverse Bud- dhist traditions encounter the American ideals of shared practice (what Wilson terms “pluralistic” practice), democracy, feminism, and integration. But Wilson isn’t especially interested in the sweep- ing question, “What happens when East meets West?” Instead, he asks us to con- sider what happens when East meets South, and he challenges us to focus a more “fine-grained attention to place... in the study of American Buddhism.” Following in the footsteps of Thomas Tweed, his former professor at the Uni- versity of North Carolina, Wilson has long been interested in the geography of religion and the importance of place in the formation of religious identity. I first came across Wilson’s writings ten years ago, when Tricycle ran a piece by him titled “Down Home Dharma.” An Afri- can-American Southerner myself, I was eager to see my homeplace highlighted. Now, Wilson’s sustained interest in Bud- dhism and in the South has brought us this provocative work. Wilson’s close observations of the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha—both its literal spaces and its practicing members—shed light on how this one Southern sangha in fact consists of five different Buddhist groups: Pure Land, Soto Zen, Kagyu, Vipassana, and the Meditative Inquiry Group. These five are able to share the same physical space, the same objects, and even some practices because, as Wilson explains, they hold the view that “multiplicity may be more desirable than singularity, even when it involves certain compromises in the way that a group is able to perform its practices.” For them, “the shared label of ‘Bud- dhist’ is fundamentally more impor- tant than their individual differences.” (One of Wilson’s informants described this arrangement by saying that Ekoji was like “the Buddhist Confederacy of Richmond.”) How did the members of Ekoji arrive at this pluralistic attitude? One might answer: They’re good Buddhists! However, according to my reading of Wilson’s argument, the choice was at least partially forced upon them. The main reasons they are organized as they are has to do with where they are—that is, with the fact that they are a small center and community in a cultural and religious environment that is largely unsupportive of their Buddhist practice. Wilson suggests some other factors as well, citing a “lack of residential leaders, limited resources, low membership, and contact with other Buddhist lineages.” For Wilson, Ekoji is thus a “plural- istic temple” where five different Bud- dhist groups accommodate, share with, and learn from each other. His case study is evidence of the new forms and shared practices that are indeed emerg- ing in the South. Chanting is intermixed with silent practice; Theravadin prayers are recited alongside Mahayana texts. The same zafus serve for various sitting groups, though their arrangement in the space might differ. Still, as he also notes, while “Buddhism is not the tar- get of sustained, serious persecution by non-Buddhists...it is nonetheless very much an outsider religion in the South.” Thus, at least some of the new forms of Buddhism at Ekoji have arisen out of necessity—a fairly common theme throughout Buddhist history. In a chapter titled “Buddhism with a Southern Accent,” Wilson sets Ekoji squarely within Richmond’s—and the larger South’s—religious environment. While the members of Ekoji are mainly white, well off, and well educated, they make every attempt to “fly under the radar.” One member explained that this is because “most of the attendees at Ekoji feel that they are a small reli- gious minority in a sea of conservative, potentially hostile evangelical Christian- ity.” This is the sad heart of the matter. Wilson’s lengthy interviews with indi- vidual Ekoji members attest to the pres- sures felt by members of non-Christian practice traditions in this region. When Wilson asked the former president of REVIEWS