Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Jeff Wilson's "Dixie Dharma"

Jeff Wilson is assistant professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Dixie Dharma is not the most representative, or compelling, excerpt from the book. The book is about applying a regional lens to the examination of Buddhism in the United States. Essentially, it grows out of my observation that it is often very different to practice Buddhism in the South compared to on the West Coast. This should be obvious, but it’s a topic that’s never been systematically explored before. And as we become ever more globalized, some people think that regions are being eroded to the point where they no longer matter at all. Maybe that’s true for some people in some situations, but it certainly wasn’t the case for the religious minorities in the South whom I worked with. The dominant religious and political conservatism of the region was a reality they struggled with in ways that California Buddhists (or those in the Northeast, another hotbed of American Buddhism) just didn’t have to worry about.

I did fieldwork in many parts of the South (and beyond), but most of my attention is focused on a temple in Richmond, Virginia that houses five different types of Buddhist groups. On page 99 I’m explaining the practice of the Tibetan group at the temple. That’s important to do, since comparing the various groups and analyzing how their proximity results in hybrid Buddhist practices is one major topic for the book. But it’s a bit dry, and doesn’t speak to the regional concerns of the project. Other parts of the book are much juicier, with Buddhists clashing with their Southern Baptist relatives, the city trying to secretly auction the temple off for unpaid property taxes, a public meditation vigil designed to help heal the region’s legacy of slavery, and Buddhist priests who traverse massive areas like the itinerant Methodist circuit riders of yore. When my informants start talking about how they’ve come out of the closet to their Christian family as gay but will never admit to being Buddhist, you start to get a sense for the sort of evasions and false fronts that some Southern Buddhists have to engage in. But there isn’t a hint of that sort of conflict on page 99.
Learn more about Dixie Dharma at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue