Dr. Steven Emmanuel

When a group of Pure Land Buddhist monks faced opposition to opening a temple and education center in a small rural town in Virginia, Dr. Steven Emmanuel collaborated with Ven. Chuc Thanh to offer a public course on Buddhism in Virginia Beach during the summer of 2009. Dr. Emmanuel is a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan University. The course, “Wisdom for Modern Living: Buddhist Teachings and Practice,” was the first of a proposed series of courses aimed at educating the local community about Buddhism. The first course ran for three months, with two-hour meetings once a week. A total of thirty-eight people attended the classes. In April 2010, the second course, “Buddhism in Daily Life: Relationships,” began and ran for three months. Like the first, this course featured a weekend retreat at the midpoint. The third annual public course, “Buddhism: A Reading of the Dhammapada,” was held in April 2011.

A second component of this project was the creation of a 3-part documentary film entitled “Living in the Pure Land.” Using the monks’ story as a case study, the purpose of the film is to educate the public about the challenges of religious diversity in contemporary American society. The first part, entitled “Living in the Pure Land,” is available online via Vimeo.

Dr. Emmanuel is a professor of philosophy at Virginia Wesleyan College.

A Brief History of the Vietnamese Buddhist Monks in Pungo, Virginia

In 2006 a group of Pure Land Buddhist monks from Vietnam purchased a 4-acre property in the rural Virginia Beach community known as Pungo. Their plan was to establish a root for their temple and education center. Not long after moving to the new location, however, the monks found themselves at the center of controversy. Because of complaints lodged by local residents, the city council of Virginia Beach ruled in August 2008 that the monks could no longer hold religious services or related activities on their Pungo property. With the help of a local attorney, the monks appealed that decision at the federal court level, arguing that the city was in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In response to the lawsuit, the city council granted the monks limited permission to operate as a temple and education center. The monks were allowed to hold meditation services on Sundays, but for no more than 20 people. Larger celebrations of important holidays would have to be held elsewhere. The ruling also prohibited any further development of the property, and placed strict limits on the number and size of statues that could be displayed there. These restrictions made it extremely difficult for the monks to serve the religious needs of their Buddhist followers.

Local residents who objected to the presence of the Buddhist temple argued that this was strictly an issue about land use. Pungo is a traditional Virginia farming community that dates back to the 17th century. Many of its current residents belong to families that have owned land in Pungo since colonial times. These descendants say they are concerned to preserve a way of life that is rapidly disappearing. However, others suspect that the controversy is about more than land use. They worry that the monks have become a target of religious and cultural intolerance.

In the fall of 2009, the Pungo property went into foreclosure. Unable to reach an agreement with the City of Virginia Beach on a new location for their temple, the monks moved back to the Kempsville area shortly after the New Year. In fact, they moved back to the Kempsville house, which they had originally abandoned, believing that the city was about to condemn the property. However, city plans to develop the area did not actually include the 2-acre parcel where the house stood. The owner therefore agreed to let the monks rent the house again until they are able find a suitable permanent location.

 As of May 2011, the monks finally found a home. After years of negotiations with the city of Virginia Beach, the monks finally purchased a new property where they will be allowed to conduct their religious services and educational programs.

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