Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South


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.


The world is places.

—Gary Snyder, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons,”
The Gary Snyder Reader, 1999

“Heart Sutraaaaaa.” The sound of our chanting dies away as we finish reciting a famous Buddhist text, our fading voices an expression of the emptiness that the sutra celebrates. Martin, a white-haired gentleman with an equally white mustache and a look of calm concentration, strikes the dark bowl-bell, which rings once and then slips back into stillness. For a moment, the small room here at the temple is quiet with anticipation, the silence broken only by the muffled rush of cars in the wet street outside and the rain tapping out its own syncopation on the windowpane. Huddled on our black cushions, we wait for the next signal. Then the wooden fish drum lets out a hollow yelp as it is hit by Li, a Chinese American man dressed in jeans and a loose white shirt, and we all launch into nianfo, the continuous recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name.

“Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo, Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo, Na-mo-O-mi-to-fo”—the sacred words of the Buddha’s name fill the temple. Li’s fish drum cries at each syllable, insisting that we stay on beat. Amitabha stands before us on the altar, his skin blackened by fire, his robes and nimbus blazing gold in the half-lit room. The cloud of incense that surrounds him tickles my nostrils and tastes like sawdust in the roof on my mouth, the sensation constantly renewing itself as air moves in and out with each new devotion.

As the Buddha’s name spills out of me, my chest and back begin to tingle . . .

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