By Prof. Steven Emmanuel
In 2006, a group of Pure Land Buddhist monks from Vietnam purchased a 4-acre property in the rural Virginia Beach community known as Pungo. The monks had previously been at another location in the Kempsville area of Virginia Beach, but were forced to move when that property was reclaimed by the city as part of a project to widen the road. By moving to Pungo the monks hoped to establish a permanent root for their temple.
Not long after moving to the new location, however, the monks found themselves at the center of controversy. Because of complaints lodged by local residents, the city council of Virginia Beach ruled in August 2008 that the monks of Dong Hung Temple, formally known as the Buddhist Education Center of America, Inc., could no longer hold religious services or related activities on their property. With the help of a local attorney, the monks appealed that decision at the federal court level, arguing that the city was in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The court ruled in their favor.
In April 2009, the city council granted the monks limited permission to operate as a temple and education center. They could hold meditation services on Sundays, but for no more than 20 people. Larger celebrations of important holidays would have to be held elsewhere. The ruling also prohibited any further development of the property, and it placed strict limits on the number and size of statues that could be displayed there. These restrictions made it extremely difficult for the monks to serve the religious needs of their Buddhist followers.
Local residents who continue to object to the presence of the Buddhist temple argue that this is strictly an issue about land use. Pungo is a traditional Virginia farming community that dates back to the 17th century. Many of its current residents belong to families that have lived there for generations. They are concerned to preserve a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.
However, others suspect that the controversy is not just about land use. They worry that the monks have become a target of religious and cultural intolerance.
As a constructive response to the situation, Ven. Chuc Thanh and Prof. Emmanuel collaborated to offer a public course on Buddhism in Virginia Beach during the summer of 2009. The course, “Wisdom for Modern Living: Buddhist Teachings and Practice,” was the first of a proposed series of courses aimed at educating the local public about Buddhism. The first course ran for three months, with two-hour classes once a week. A total of thirty-eight people attended the classes, which were offered on a donation basis. A second course will begin early in 2010.
In addition to the public course, this project involves the creation of a documentary film. Focusing on the story of the monks in Pungo, the film thoughtfully explores some of the challenges of religious diversity in rural America.
- Prof. Steven Emmanuel’s faculty web page: http://facultystaff.vwc.edu/~semmanuel/Main_Site/home.html
- Film project web page: http://www.iridescentfilms.com/home.html
- Dong Hung Temple web page: http://www.buddhistedu.org/en/
- Prof. Steven Emmanuel’s academic résumé
- Course Syllabus for “Wisdom for Modern Living: Buddhist Teachings and Practice”
- In the Press: