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 temples. 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 Buddha 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 Sangha, a distinctive temple in the heart of Richmond that houses several different Buddhist groups. My study seeks to determine how Buddhism 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 temples in other parts of the United States and Canada. He was on a mission to spread Jodo Shinshu, a form of Pure Land 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 Grove Avenue. This became Ekoji Buddhist Sangha, the city’s first Buddhist temple.

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 Vipassana 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 Unitarian 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 abbot 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 meditation session on Tuesday mornings, a prison ministry, and a regular Dharma 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 ordained monastics also call upon one another, regardless of sectarian lineage, to assist in major ceremonies that require larger numbers of clergy. And these large public ceremonies usually draw some members of other temples. For instance, at this year’s Ullambana 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 America, based in San Francisco. The Ekoji Zen Group has affiliated itself with Chapel 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 nun, who heads the International Buddhist Progress Society temple in Raleigh, North Carolina. These traveling Buddhist teachers have become a new kind of itinerant minister, journeying along circuits once blazed by Methodist preachers. The Ekoji Tibetan Group is a branch of the head monastery 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 monks 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.