Americanists have long employed a trope of regionalism to better understand American religions, beliefs, and practices. As many of us know, either by academic study or, more often, personal experience, the United States feels different in New England as compared to the Midwest, the West Coast, or the Deep South. Regional variations on culture play an important role in shaping our identities and informing our religious practices.
Scholars of American Buddhism, however, have been slow to recognize the importance of this trope in how they study Buddhism in the United States. In his new book, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Jeff Wilson approaches his subject with just this sort of regional gaze. How is Buddhism fundamentally different in the American South as opposed to the West Coast where the majority of ethnographic surveys to date have been done? How do Buddhist negotiate their minority religious status in an overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian culture? How does the physical environment affect their practices? How do they engage with the South’s specific racial history? The focus of his work is one particular community, the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha in Richmond, Virginia. Housed under one roof are five different Buddhist communities who must, first out of necessity and later out of friendship, share space and practice together.
Apart from his use of regionalism as a methodological tool, it is this ethnographic survey that makes Wilson’s book truly engaging. Dixie Dharma is the first book to focus on Buddhism as practiced in the American South, making it an important contribution to an emerging field of study.