Mapping Richmond’s Buddhist Community (2003)

Richmond Virginia, once the capitol of the Confederate States of America, isn’t the first place you’d think to look for Buddhist templesBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra.... But though many Richmondites still enjoy the annual Civil War reenactments, and take pride in the old time religion, the even older religion of the BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther... has succeeded in quietly making a place for itself, here in the South. There are now Buddhist groups practicing in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and American lineages, in Richmond. The central subject of my study is Ekoji Buddhist SanghaThe Sangha is the community of monks or, more broadly, the community of Buddhists. To formally become a Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and Sangha. In its widest sense, “sangha” refers ..., a distinctive templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... in the heart of Richmond that houses several different Buddhist groups. My study seeks to determine how BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... has been introduced to Richmond, and what factors are shaping its development. Is there an emerging Buddhist community in Richmond, or simply a balkanized set of competing groups? How are Richmond’s Buddhists knit into a wider tapestry of Buddhism in the South, and on a national level? Ultimately the goal of this ongoing study will be to increase our understanding of how Buddhists in America interact on a local, regional, and national scale.

Buddhism’s presence in Richmond began in 1985, when the Rev. Kenryu Tsuji came to Washington D.C. after a career of serving Buddhist templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... in other parts of the United States and Canada. He was on a mission to spread Jodo ShinshuThe Jodo Shinshu or True Pure Land school of Buddhism was founded by the Japanese monk Shinran Shonin in the 12th century. This tradition regards chanting the name of Amida Buddha as the most appropriate form of practice in the current degenerate age. Tod..., a form of Pure LandPure Land is a term used in the Mahayana Buddhist traditions to denote the realm under the auspices of a particular Buddha, most often referring to Sukhavati, the Land of Ultimate Bliss presided over by Amitabha Buddha. A Pure Land is an ideal place of cu... Buddhism, in the South, where no temples in his lineage existed. After an invitation to found a temple in Richmond by some locals interested in Buddhism, he bought a house on GroveSacred groves have historically been among the most important sites for Pagan worship. In Druidism, trees are thought to have specific attributes that contribute meaning to the site where they grow. Contemporary Druid groups are often called “groves.”... Avenue. This became Ekoji Buddhist Sangha, the city’s first Buddhist templeBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra....

Over the next eighteen years, Ekoji expanded to accommodate many types of Buddhism. The Jodo Shinshu service morphed into a nonsectarian Pure Land service, a Tibetan group was formed, and small Zen and VipassanaVipassana is a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation, also called “insight mediation.” This method directs the attention toward the moment-to-moment workings of the mind and body, thereby developing “mindfulness” of the contents of consciousness a... groups in the area migrated to Ekoji, where they soon swelled in numbers. In addition, a Vietnamese Buddhist group was formed at Ekoji, eventually leaving to become the Richmond Buddhist Association, when it grew large enough to buy its own land and start an independent temple. And a Unitarian-Universalist Buddhist Group was started at Ekoji by a member, before moving to the First Unitariana belief in one God that rejects the three persons of the Trinity that has much in common with the belief in the early Christian church about the superiority of God over Jesus and the Anti-Trinitarian writing that emerged during the Protestant Reformation... ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... of Richmond. Today there are four separate groups at Ekoji: Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, and Vipassana, as well as nonsectarian temple activities.

Mapping Richmond’s Buddhist Community

During this time, other Buddhist groups moved into Richmond as well. The first was the Cambodian Buddhist Association of Richmond, which established a temple in the suburb of Mechanicsville. Next to arrive was the Still Water Zen Center, which practices in a Korean Zen lineage. And this year three more groups appeared in Richmond. The first was Vien Giac Temple, which resulted from a schism with the Vietnamese temple. The second was the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Society of Richmond, a local branch of a major Taiwan-based social service organization. And finally, the Richmond Virginia Buddhist Peace Fellowship Chapter was established.

In addition to the diversity of Buddhist groups in Richmond, one striking phenomenon is the set of lineages that connect most of these groups to one another. Half of these groups were founded or sheltered at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha, while another came from schism from a group that once met at Ekoji, and yet another, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, is nearly entirely composed of people from Ekoji temple. Those groups that have separate origins still have ties to Ekoji: Still Water Zen Center participates in Richmond Buddhist Peace Fellowship activities dominated by Ekoji members, and Venerable Kim Cang, the abbotAn abbot or abbess is the title of the superior of a monastery or convent. Some scholars and practitioners have used these titles to apply to the ranking monk or nun of a Buddhist monastic community as well. of the Cambodian temple, has come to Ekoji for special services. Some members of the Richmond Tzu Chi also attend the Ekoji Pure Land Group.

Most of the interaction among Richmond’s Buddhist groups takes place through personal networks, rather than institutional channels. At Ekoji, each group has members that sometimes attend one or more of the other Ekoji groups. Furthermore, Ekoji has many nonsectarian programs, such as a general meditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo... session on Tuesday mornings, a prison ministryMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam)., and a regular DharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ... Movie Night, all of which draw from the temple as a whole. Some members of the Cambodian temple, the Richmond Buddhist Association, Still Water Zen Center, Tzu Chi, the Peace Fellowship, and the Unitarian Buddhist Group all attend at least occasional services at Ekoji. The area’s ordainedOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... monastics also call upon one another, regardless of sectarian lineage, to assist in major ceremonies that require larger numbers of clergyClergy are the body of ordained men (and in some cases women) who are authorized to perform the priestly, pastoral, or rabbinical duties of the community—as distinct from the laity whom they serve.. And these large public ceremonies usually draw some members of other temples. For instance, at this year’s UllambanaThe annual honoring of ancestors is celebrated by the various Buddhist ethnic communities at different times of the year, and is known by different names including Ullambana, Yu-lan-p’en, Obon, Vu-lan, the Obon Festival, Vietnamese Mothers’ Day and An... festival at the Richmond Buddhist Association, members of several Ekoji groups and Vien Giac Temple could be seen in the audience. Sometimes groups even hold joint ceremonies—for two years now the First Unitarian Church and Ekoji have jointly sponsored a Buddha’s Birthday celebration, coordinated by the head of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist group. In June 2004, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship hopes to sponsor a free day of public meditation and teaching, led by leaders of various local Buddhist groups.

In addition to local ties, the temples in Richmond have connections with other groups on a regional and national level. Ekoji is affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of AmericaThe Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) is the institutional name of Jodo Shinshu or “True Pure Land” Buddhism in the U.S. This Buddhism of Japanese immigrants regards the chanting of the name of Amida as the most appropriate form of practice in the cu..., based in San Francisco. The Ekoji Zen Group has affiliated itself with ChapelA chapel is a place of worship, smaller than the sanctuary of a church or synagogue, or in an institutional setting such as a college or hospital. Hill Zen Center, and now calls itself Richmond Zen Group, placing itself within the San Francisco Zen Center lineage that informs the Chapel Hill temple. The head of Chapel Hill Zen Center, Taitaku Pat Phelan, visits Richmond roughly once a month. The Ekoji Pure Land Group hosts bimonthly visits from a Chinese Buddhist nunA nun is a woman who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully or..., who heads the International Buddhist Progress Society temple in Raleigh, North Carolina. These traveling Buddhist teachers have become a new kind of itinerant ministerMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam)., journeying along circuits once blazed by MethodistThe Methodist church is a Protestant communion of churches which began in England with John Wesley (1703-91) and has become a worldwide movement. In the U.S., the United Methodist Church—one of the largest Protestant denominations—is known for its str... preachers. The Ekoji Tibetan Group is a branch of the head monasteryA monastery is the residence of monks, or monastics; the term is commonly used in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Monasticism refers to the life of work, study, and discipline led by monks and nuns. in Wappingers Falls, NY, and the monastery’s abbot teaches at Ekoji once or twice a year. Many members of these groups also attend retreats and other major events at these and other temples outside Virginia. Tzu Chi, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Still Water Zen Center, and the Unitarian Buddhist group all have national, and in some cases international, organizations that the Richmond branches maintain ties to. And the monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... at the Vietnamese and Cambodian temples travel great distances all over the country, to attend temple openings and other major events. Along the invisible webs that connect each of these groups to one another, is a constant flow of members, teachers, texts, ideas, practices, and objects that circulate into and out of Richmond.

At the same time, there are also noticeable separations among the various Richmond groups. The most prominent one is ethnicity. The large majority of members at Ekoji’s Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan groups are Euro-American, as are the members at the Still Water Zen Center, Unitarian Buddhist group, and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapter. On the other hand, the Richmond Buddhist Association and Vien Giac Temple, Cambodian Buddhist Association of Richmond, and Richmond Tzu Chi chapter are strongly dominated by Vietnamese-Americans, Cambodian-Americans, and Chinese-Americans, respectively. People who circulate among groups tend to do so on their own side of the European/Asian divide. Only the Ekoji Pure Land group can make a claim to being ethnically diverse: its membership is made up of both Chinese-Americans and Euro-Americans. However, even this group can’t claim to be representative of the local demographics. While Ekoji is located in the predominately white district known as The Fan, Richmond as a whole is 57% African-American (Leslie 2003). Yet black participation in Richmond’s Buddhist community is close to nil.

Practice also distinguishes the groups in Richmond. Broadly speaking, groups can be differentiated according to their primary focus: either meditation, chanted devotions, or applying Buddhist principles to society. The first category, meditation, includes the Richmond Zen Group, Ekoji Vipassana Group, Still Water Zen Center, and the Unitarian Buddhist Group. The second category, chanting, encompasses the Ekoji Pure Land Group, Ekoji Tibetan Group, the Cambodian temple, and both Vietnamese temples. The third category, engaged Buddhism, is made up of the local Tzu Chi and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Followers in the first two categories who sometimes visit other temples, tend to stay mainly within their own categories. Thus members of the Richmond Zen Group sometimes meditate with the Ekoji Vipassana Group, but they rarely if ever attend the Ekoji Pure Land services. Members of the Richmond Buddhist Association may visit the Cambodian temple, but they aren’t likely to be encountered at the Still Water Zen Center. The two organizations oriented toward so-called “engaged Buddhism” do not interact. In fact, they serve completely different clienteles. The Peace Fellowship is composed only of Euro-Americans, while the Tzu Chi has no non-Chinese members. Tellingly, the Peace Fellowship’s primary activity is a monthly hour of meditation for peace in a nearby park, while the Tzu Chi performs a wide range of charitable activities, such as counseling and serving meals at local shelters, and its monthly services privilege devotional chanting and study over silent meditation. The local Tzu Chi and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, two groups with similar goals, display completely different demographics based on ethnicity, and their evaluation of the importance of lay meditation practice.

The New South, no longer only Christian, now has new neighbors to contend with. In less than twenty years, Richmond has gone from no organized Buddhist presence, to a dozen separate groups claiming different lineages. There are organized Buddhist activities now being held in Richmond on every day of the week, and interested seekers can choose between Buddhist approaches that stress meditation, chanting, or social service. Hue Quang temple, the first structure in Richmond created specifically to serve as a Buddhist space, was opened by the Richmond Buddhist Association this past April. Significantly, Hue Quang is the Vietnamese pronunciation of the characters for Ekoji. As Buddhism develops in Richmond, many groups continue to maintain important cross-sectarian ties, that enrich each temple’s understanding of the dharma, and provide support in the face of the dominant Christian majority. As one of my consultants from Ekoji’s Pure Land group told me: “Buddhism is Buddhism. There’s no such thing as not my Buddhism.” At the same time, some lines of division can be discerned. The years ahead will determine whether Richmond’s Buddhist community will forge stronger inter-group ties, or remain divided over issues of ethnicity and practice.

—Jeff Wilson, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate


Bibliography

Leslie, Marc. “Structural Causes of Homelessness among African-Americans in American and Greater Richmond, Virginia.” Richmond, VA: Homeward, 2003.

A note on sources: Most of the information contained in this presentation comes from multiple site visits to temples and numerous interviews conducted with Buddhists in Virginia and North Carolina, primarily between January and November 2003.