Reviewed by Tuan Hoang, Pepperdine University
Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese Buddhists who resettled in the Gulf South have gathered for worship in rented apartments, mobile homes, converted garages, vacant offices, fishing camps, even vacant lots. They have also raised funds to build a number of temples, especially during the 2000s, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In the process, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have built an indelible Buddhist presence in a region that previously knew little about this religion. How this presence came to be and what it meant in practice for the Vietnamese form the backbone of this important monograph by the anthropologist Allison Truitt.
Analyzing the spread of Vietnamese temples in the region, Truitt compares it to the spread of rhizomes from a lotus tree. While the trees are rooted to the ground, a rhizome “sends shoots from nodes that run laterally, not upward,” and consequently “defies efforts to locate a single point of origin” (p. 21). To this reviewer, the image illustrates a very different historical trajectory from Vietnamese Catholic refugees in 1975, who quickly constructed their faith communities thanks to a sizable number of refugee priests and nuns as well as the assistance of the US Catholic Church. On the other hand, there were few monks among the Buddhist refugees and the work of community building fell largely to the laity. As a result, the early temples were typically built by lay associations while later ones were founded by monks who had left an established temple, usually due to internal disputes. One fascinating finding from Truitt’s research is that the growth of Buddhism in the Gulf South came out of conflict as much as cooperation among the Vietnamese. Like the lateral shoots that depend on air and wind to land where they do, the experiences of Vietnamese American Buddhists were not determined at all but were often contingent upon their evolving circumstances.
Moreover, the orientation of these temples has been somewhat different from, say, Zen Buddhism that stresses personal mindfulness and enlightenment. Vietnamese American temples are rooted in the Pure Land variety of Buddhism, which seeks to serve the collective well-being of the refugees and immigrants. While mindfulness is among the common practices at these temples, Truitt shows that they are more significant as sites of multiple cultural functions and meanings that reflect the histories, memories, and adaptations among the Vietnamese. For example, the presence of the former South Vietnamese flag, now known as the Freedom and Heritage Flag, signals a form of allegiance but not to the Vietnamese government. The hosting of non-religious events, especially the Lunar New Year and commemoration of the fall of Saigon, bespeaks the close association between members of these temples and broader historical experience among the ethnic community. Most importantly, perhaps, Truitt devotes a full chapter to the Vu Lan festival that is held in late summer to honor mothers. Reflecting adaptation to life in American culture, Vietnamese Buddhists have promoted this Buddhist festival as a Vietnamese Mother’s Day while modifying some of the traditional practices, including the use of white and red flowers common at this festival.
Although there are sections on monks and nuns, the bulk of the book focuses, again, on the Buddhist laity who have exerted crucial influence over the reconfiguration of the sangha, the community of people following the teachings of the Buddha. In addition to fundraising and volunteering their time, lay Buddhists, for instances, make decisions on architectural layout of worship halls and evaluate the monetary practices of monks. While the Pure Land has remained dominant, some lay Buddhists have engaged in the religious marketplace and advocated for other forms of Buddhism, including Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. In all likelihood, the agency of the laity will continue to affect the making and remaking of Buddhist practice in the Gulf South.
The introduction of the book foregrounds Vietnamese Buddhists in the long shadow of racial relations in the region. I wish that it would also explain the racial constraints and challenges faced by Vietnamese Buddhists in practicing their faith. While it occasionally makes references to Buddhists in Vietnam, there could be more analysis of transnational relations to account for the complicated interactions of Vietnamese Buddhists on both sides of the Pacific. These critiques aside, the book provides a comprehensive account of this hitherto untold story of Vietnamese Buddhism in the U.S. Importantly, Truitt complicates the scholarship about Vietnamese religious lives in the Gulf South, which has prioritized Catholic communities in New Orleans, especially the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. This book shows convincingly that Buddhist refugees were there from the beginning just like the Catholics—and they have left impressive marks on the religious landscape of this region.