Buddha Bodh Gaya [Image: Ilya Mauter / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)]

Seeking Buddha in the Bible Belt

ASEAN The Mekong

It is hard not to imagine Mississippi as a monolithically Christian state, considering 77% of adults declare themselves “highly religious” and 84% of adults identify as Christians, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet, in the middle of this state, Pisit Opnititanit, a Thai monk, has been hard at work creating the state’s first and only Theravada Buddhist temple.

Named Wat Buddhametta Mahabaramee, the temple opened its doors in 2016 and has become an oddity with its Thai architecture, as if perfectly transplanted nine thousand miles from Thailand into the midst of rural Mississippi. However, what makes the temple truly memorable to its neighbors, even non-Buddhists, is the sense of community, serenity, and a dose of Thai cuisine. In truth, the temple proves to be more than just a place of worship, it has become a place where the Asian community in the Gulf South, which accounts for only 1.1% of Mississippi’s population, comes to pray, celebrate holidays, and cook.

When looking at the wooden Wat Buddhametta Mahabaramee from Martin Bluff Road, one may see a lack of opulence that many Thai temples are associated with, such as gilded towers, brick or marble walls, and brightly decorated entrances, all within a spacious courtyard. Yet, Wat Buddhametta Mahabaramee’s simplistic exterior cloaks its tremendous symbolic importance. Indeed, amid America’s Bible Belt, a Therevada Buddhist temple stands proudly as a testament to the vitality of the Asian American community. The temple shows that Asian Americans bring with them not just culture, languages, and foods, but also their beliefs.

However, Wat Buddhametta Mahabaramee, is only one example of several other Buddhist temples which have sprung up in a sea of Christianity. The Magnolia Grove Monastery, a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monastery also located in Mississippi, provides another example of Asian faith deep within the Bible Belt.

What is even more astounding, beyond their resilience, is that these two Buddhist institutions open their doors not only for Buddhists but also Christians, Muslims, and others, regardless of their backgrounds, in the hope of fostering a sense of positivity and harmony in times of increasing xenophobia and distrust.

Tri Vo is a participant of the Young Professional Program of the East-West Center. He recently graduated from the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.