Om Sweet Om

How one Richmond temple is reshaping American Buddhism.

Slow down.

Take a deep breath.

Relax your gaze.

At 3411 Grove Ave., notice the little pebbled pathway cutting across the sidewalk. You’ll see purple pebbles, blue pebbles and mother-of-pearl pebbles. The colors have an uncanny way of hanging together, like the diverse Buddhist sects gathered inside the house. Welcome to the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha.

On a foggy February morning, our entry to the sangha is halted at the front steps. There’s yellow warning tape and a sign. Dick Mercer, jean-jacketed, sticks his head from behind the door. He politely asks, “Can you come around through the back?”


Like some kind of Zen riddle, Mercer’s question says a lot about the state of Ekoji. More newcomers are arriving these days, invigorating an old structure with fresh life. But the transformation isn’t without delays and yellow tape.

Ekoji’s board of directors is busy figuring out how to make the center more accessible to outsiders. This includes changes to the website, which can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. But the board also cares for the literal face of Ekoji.

When you own an old building, maintenance can be a top priority. As a result, some longtime board members withheld comment, saying that a broken porch might make them look like neglectful stewards. Meanwhile, the newly elected worked to assuage concerns and maintain agreement among the 10 board members.

At Ekoji, consensus is highly valued, but it’s not exactly easy to create a unified face, literally or metaphorically. Deep in its core, this multidenominational temple is doing something unique. It’s conducting a much-needed strength test of Buddhism in America, a still very recent religious phenomenon that holds importance for today’s divisive politics.

Mercer’s hand pushes open the back door. “This way,” he says.

To reach him, we must pass through a rock garden with several paths. Which path leads to togetherness?

Inside Ekoji, a subtle but unmistakable smell of burning incense hangs in the air. It takes a second for your eyes to adjust to the faintly lighted worship hall, where cushions are spread on the ground.

Mercer sits in the middle, facing an altar with a Buddhist statue. Next to him is a copy of “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” by Garry Wills, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. It’s an appropriate pair of possessions. Ekoji Buddhist Sangha was founded by a minister from San Francisco named Kennryu Tsuji (pronounced sue-jee), who saw hope for Buddhism in the American South.

“Reverend Tsuji was well-connected,” Mercer says, smoothing his white moustache.

Funding for the center came from a wealthy Japanese businessman named Yehan Numata, who also wanted to spread Buddha’s teachings. Together, Tsuji and Numata created the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Springfield, Virginia.

Five years later, in 1986, they bought a house on Grove Avenue, for the benefit of Pure Land Buddhists. Pure Land is a devotional practice, structured almost like a country church service, with recitations, moments of silence and a closing benediction.

But Tsuji soon welcomed other groups. In 1991, the house began offering Zen classes, known for austere, minimalist surroundings. In 1993, Ekoji added a Tibetan group, known for vibrant decor. In 2006, a Meditative Inquiry group started giving people a nonsectarian introduction to Buddhism. Today, seven groups share the space.

“Each lineage has its distinctive forms and character,” says Ekoji’s Facebook page. “Yet all have the ‘same taste of truth.'”

All the groups believe that life is suffering, and that suffering should be lessened. Of course, even those brief statements can be applied in different ways.

“You might be surprised by how many Western Buddhists are put off by the idea of heaven and rebirth,” Mercer says.

Mercer’s experience is backed up by a 2014 Pew Research study. It finds the percentage of Buddhists who say they’re “absolutely certain” they believe in God to be on par with those who don’t believe at all.

At Ekoji you might very well find an atheist. And it’s not uncommon to see a local priest show up, still wearing a clerical collar.

The Pew study presents some other interesting findings. There’s a near-exact 50-50 representation of the sexes among American Buddhists. An overwhelming majority meditate at least once a week. The generational stats are perhaps more revealing. Baby boomers and younger millennials both are well-represented, so worship sessions can have a strong old-new vibe. That dynamic is certainly present at Ekoji, too.

There’s another, more curious stat to gnaw on. Many states share a similar percentage of Buddhists, despite having contrasting cultures. The percentage of adults who reported themselves as Buddhists is 1 percent in Virginia, New York and Colorado, for example. Such a measurement doesn’t convey a region’s qualitative influence on Buddhism, and there’s reason to believe the South is making great strides in this area.

In 2012, scholar Jeff Wilson completed a nine-year study of Ekoji Buddhist Sangha, titled “Dixie Dharma.” He discusses how the “collective karma” of slavery and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written in Richmond, each are deeply embedded in the region’s history.

Because of this back story, Wilson observes that Southern fried Buddhism offers a special kind of spiritual and political redemption.

“[G]esturing to the role Jefferson played in setting in motion the events that would help make it possible to practice Buddhism in Virginia, Richmond Buddhists not only staked a claim to the legitimacy of their religion in the region,” Wilson writes. “But also … suggested that the Budddhists were the rightful heirs of the best aspects of the country’s foundation.”

In other words, Wilson finds that this region’s historical tensions have given birth to a democratic Buddhism, which shelters diverse groups. Given today’s divided condition of the country, with echoes of the Civil War, it seems that Wilson uncovered an idea worth exploring. In speaking with members today, Ekoji comes off as a refuge where multiple influences play out safely, if somewhat unpredictably.

“This place is a mishmash,” Mercer begins to say, but is interrupted by the rush of cold air from the open back door.

A tall, longhaired, bearded man stands in the door frame, draped in a purple trench coat. He acts shy, and identifies himself as “Craig, just Craig.” He’s setting up for Meditative Inquiry, the less traditional group that seems to resonate most immediately with Westerners and newcomers. John, a gray-haired man in exercise clothes, comes in shortly thereafter. “Did you find us online?” Craig asks him. No, John says, he heard through a friend.

It’s a good question, considering that email conversations with Ekoji’s members can stop without warning and disappear into the void. “We have an unfortunate tendency to move slowly sometimes,” acknowledges Mark Bryant, one leader for the Meditative Inquiry group.

On the other hand, here comes David Johnson, bespectacled and neatly dressed as he arrives from his information-technology job. He initiated this regular Wednesday session because he was coming to the temple during his lunch breaks. Needing relief from his busy day, he saw how midday meditation “brought in a feeling of grace, allowing you to see the perspective of the people you work with.” He describes Meditative Inquiry as a practice founded by Toni Packer, a refugee from Nazi Germany who stripped away the formal aspects of Zen. It consists of a half-hour of silent meditation, followed by a loose group dialogue.

“I’ve seen people from all religions come to Meditative Inquiry, whether it’s Jewish, Muslim, Christian,” Johnson says. “I had to wonder, ‘Why is what we’re doing not in opposition to other religions?’ I think Buddhism is not so much about belief, but what is useful.”

Johnson says about 15 people showed up for a recent Meditative Inquiry session, which filled up this main room but didn’t overstuff it. The two upstairs spaces, for Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, are about one third the size of the downstairs room. Regarding their efforts to attract members, sources don’t seem worried about Ekoji’s capacity. Multiple sessions are available throughout the week, and so an average session’s size tends to ebb and flow, they say.  

“This kind of community seems forgotten in our culture,” Johnson says. “Talking about meaningful things together in an authentic way.”

He nods, smiling, and takes his place on one of the cushions. Mercer leads the way out while others roll in, sit down and close their eyes. A man wearing a beanie and a Patagonia jacket hurries past as we cross paths in the rock garden. Down at the pebbled sidewalk, a car door slams. A young woman in blue jeans dashes out of her SUV and toward the backyard. By the time Mercer looks over his shoulder, she’s almost gone, her hair trailing in the wind. Rooted in place, Mercer stares wide-eyed at her car. He seems to be thinking, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

The car is parked at a 30-degree angle to the sidewalk, its tail jutting out into traffic. When you’re young and in a rush, sometimes enlightenment can’t wait.

On another day, newly elected board president Paul Willson is found shuffling around Ekoji in socks. His weekly group has just let out. A few people linger, chatting. Willson, who exudes an earthy groundedness, adjusts his scarf and calmly asks, “Would you like some tea?”

“I only just very recently became president because I felt like it would be for the best,” says Willson, who’s been attending Ekoji for eight years. “It feels like the true fulfillment of some of these dharmic practices, [which involve] meeting what is … instead of ignoring it.”

“We’ve been given this gift, and it’s important for us to keep it going,” says David Johnson, another new board member who says he’s excited about Willson’s fresh energy. “Imagine the generosity of someone buying a house in a city where they don’t live, and offering it to diverse groups.”

Even though Willson’s job might sound simple, it isn’t always easy meeting “what is.” Willson confesses to being in an interesting spot.

Because Ekoji is one of the few Buddhist communities in Richmond, he says the temple is “spiritually obligated not to hide,” especially if it “may get anyone interested in the teachings of the Buddha.”

At the same time, he feels a “predicament,” because his job is “first and foremost to convey the wishes of the board.” After some board members continued to press for meetings about the porch before agreeing to speak, the issue set off a ripple effect. Now some board members wanted to coordinate a majority-approved image of Ekoji.

“Despite the eagerness I have to make the [porch] repairs, I don’t think any of us should feel ashamed,” Willson wrote in a group email, aiming to find common ground. “It has not been an easy process after all and no one person has been responsible.”

These deliberations reflect Ekoji’s fierce devotion to authenticity, which is deadly good at taming the two addictions of American life: constrictive puritanism and disposable pop culture.

But that also means Ekoji sometimes must figure out where power lies and the appropriate course of action. Ekoji’s board largely was set up to be a gatekeeper that troubleshoots workaday issues, organizes the occasional holiday event and vets the addition of new groups. Chao-Kun Cheng is one of the several Ekoji members who explains this.

Cheng was described by others as such a faithful longtime member that his arrival was much anticipated during this Saturday tea session with Willson. You almost expected Cheng to enter wearing a blaze orange robe and sandals, looking somber and pensive. His ingress couldn’t be further from that image.

First, the orange robe and sandal uniform is largely seen on Therevada Buddhist monks, and Cheng is a follower of Pure Land Buddhism. Second, Cheng is hardly somber. He comes through the back door wearing a one-hundred-foot smile and a ’90s sweatshirt with a logo that says in all caps, “Moose Lodge.”

“Oh yes, passing the buck from the old folks to the young folks,” Cheng says of Ekoji’s board, which is elected every year. The imprint of his vigorous handshake remains long after letting go.

Jake Slawson and Harrison Wesson, both 20 and scruffy headed, arrive from Charlottesville. Cheng, impressed with their commitment, exclaims, “More merit!” Cheng is referring to a Buddhist concept in which constructive behavior has a cumulative effect. But he clarifies that Buddhism isn’t about chasing good deeds for rewards, or avoiding bad actions for fear of punishment.

“It’s not like, ‘Last life I killed a cockroach, so that’s why I hit my head today,'” Cheng says. “Buddhism just wants you to focus on now. How many details of your past life could you really find out, anyways? So why not just do things that will lessen your suffering now? Some people say, ‘I won’t rob a bank because I’ll go to jail.’ Well, maybe. Buddha would say, ‘I won’t rob because it doesn’t lessen the suffering of myself or others.'”

Gretchen Guinn begins laying out cushions for a session of Pure Land Buddhism, the formal and original foundation of Ekoji. Raymond Hsieh joins, as does John Ruhlman, a 76-year-old recovering alcoholic with a gnarly Long Island accent.

Ruhlman approaches the altar with a bow, lights a candle, bows again and returns to his seat. Everyone is sitting with eyes closed and legs crossed. Ruhlman’s voice breaks the silence. The group recites Buddhist texts in call and response form. Sometimes Ruhlman reads alone. Next, everyone begins repeating the mantra, “Amito Fo Namo” — the Buddha’s name in Chinese. It’s a hypnotic, strenuous marathon race that features Cheng banging a small drum with each syllable.

Then Ruhlman rings his gong and the voices stop. Rain patters on the window. Everyone sinks into silent meditation. How long has it been? Ten minutes? Twenty? An exquisite calm descends, free of mental chatter. Ruhlman recites a closing passage, tea is prepared and cushions are organized in a circle for discussion.

“I like to think that Pure Land Buddhism found me, rather than me finding Pure Land,” says Slawson, the young aspirant from Charlottesville. “And I really like the multidenominational atmosphere of this place.”

A friend had given Slawson a book on Pure Land Buddhism, and Ekoji showed up on his subsequent Google search. Lacking a spiritual community in his hometown, he says it’s worth the weekly drive.

“Good to have you here,” Cheng says, letting a big grin spread across his face. “It brings down the average age of the group!”

“I find this practice is quite gentle,” Guinn says, adjusting her glasses. “No one is getting scolded here. It’s more about reflection.”

Ruhlman is nodding quietly, listening to everyone’s responses. He wants to comment on how cooperation is reached in Ekoji’s diverse Buddhist community. He starts telling a story of how he left his drinking habit behind and began studying at a temple in Connecticut.

“My teacher there would always tell me, ‘Go straight, don’t know,'” Ruhlman says. “For a while, I thought, ‘What the f— could that mean?’ But I get it now.”

“It means you don’t dwell on the destination,” he says. “If you want to reach enlightenment, you have to work from the source of your suffering. It’s a big step for us Americans to go beyond pragmatism.”

With the board undergoing elections every year in January, some regular review of Ekoji’s vision is to be expected. But this time is different. The board boasts many younger faces, and some of them wish to nourish Ekoji’s community side.

Amid these challenges, the board met on Feb. 24. A contractor was hired to fix the porch, and Willson says many walked away feeling less concerned about Ekoji’s image. “I think most folks realized we don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” he says.

This fresh energy dramatizes a dialectic that’s as old as the temple itself. One on hand, Ekoji is a confederation of groups that are tolerant of each other, but who wish to be left to their own devices. A former board member called this “Ekoji’s centrifugal force.” But now there’s a growing desire to cultivate Ekoji’s centripetal force. You’ll find members talking more about bringing everyone back to a center where groups work in concert to develop a community, however that may be defined. It’s an idea that doesn’t have much precedence in American Buddhist practice. 

When Buddhism’s stock rose in America after the countercultural era, people were eager to hear its tenets distilled into Western sound bites.

In July 1978, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave a talk in Boulder, Colorado, which attempted to satisfy that need. A Tibetan refugee, he called it “Basic Goodness and Harmony.” While he spoke, Trungpa pointed to an arrangement of wildflowers and tree branches, which he brought down from the mountains that day.

“Basic goodness … is like this arrangement, which has its own contrast and its own togetherness,” Trungpa announced to a packed audience, which included poet Allen Ginsberg. “It hangs together, no premeditative state involved. … And we begin to feel that way ourselves, that basic goodness exists in ourselves.”

Trungpa got some flak for his talk. First, some Westerners seemed surprised that basic goodness didn’t necessarily make you a righteous person. Others complained that hacking down a tree didn’t seem very Buddhist. But followers argued that Trungpa was trying to live out his lecture by being iconoclastic. Harmony emerging from contrast is a Buddhist message that resonates to this day, especially at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha.

As the Pure Land Buddhism session wraps up, everyone looks like they’ve just been refreshed by a gentle shower. Smiles abound. Ruhlman is one of the last to exit from the temple. He looks across the rock garden at his bike.

“Thank goodness it stopped raining,” he says. He cuts through the circular garden and walks straight to his ride. S


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