Xenophobia is defined as the unreasonable fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange. It can cause peaceful people to find themselves the subject of unprovoked aggression at any time. Religion can often be found at the center of this.
The state of Tennessee falls in the Bible Belt. According to Pew Research, 81 percent of adults in Tennessee refer to themselves as Christians. Only three percent label themselves as non Christian faiths with 14 percent labeling themselves as non religious. In some instances, members of different religions are discriminated against
Buddhism doesn’t believe in a god but instead believes in a spiritual and mental path, this philosophical difference is a reason why Buddhism is such a strange culture here in the south.
Mark Muesse , religion professor at Rhodes college is a practicing Buddhist. During his studies, he has travelled across Asia in search of what he defines as a spiritual opening.
“Buddhism is the first religion I found that matches my heart,” Muesse said. “Followers do not feel the need to share their religion with everyone else. It is more personal, and I believe that is why members of the Buddhist community are viewed as outsiders by some Christian denominations.”
Anthony Anderson is a “fortune baby.” In the SGI, or Soka Gakkai International, sect of Buddhism a fortune baby is one that is defined as fortunate enough to have been born into the religion.
Throughout his childhood, he recalls experiencing three kinds of Christians: those who instantly judged and disliked him, those who tried to convert him to Christianity and those who dismissed his religion entirely as if he never mentioned it.
“There were times when I was growing up that parents wouldn’t let their kids be friends with me, and some of my girlfriend’s parents would instantly judge and disapprove of me as soon as they heard I was Buddhist,” Anderson said.
Andersons experiences are not true of all Christian sects. Muesse points out that certain sets of Christianity are not immediately dismissive of Buddhism. Since moving to Rhodes he has been asked to come and speak at Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist congregations about the importance of meditation. A current member of the SGI sect describes his conversion from Episcopal Christianity.
Greg Coy is a Fox 13 broadcast veteran, who was born into an Episcopalian household.
Coy converted to Buddhism on January 3, 2010. He’s referred to as a new traveler in SGI vernacular, which is the name given to a member when they convert to reflect a person’s rebirth or new slate for their path to spiritual enlightenment.
“My older brother, who I thought would be the most open and supportive about it, ended up seeming the most disappointed,” Coy said. “For a while he ignored the fact that I had converted. Now after a few years we are finally able to have calm religious discussions about our faith.”
Coy is not alone in terms of caution from friends and family. Muesse was born in Waco, Texas into a conservative Southern Baptist community. After he had a crisis of faith and went on his spiritual journey that led him to Buddhism, he recalls a few times that old friends would balk at his transformation.
“A few times when I have gone back home to visit family, I will run into old friends from High School,” Muesse said. “On some occasions those friends have been upset and almost disgusted hearing me talk about my spiritual journey”
Muesse said that since Buddhism is often practiced within it’s own community not many people would be able to tell if someone was a Buddhist outside of the temple. He added that this could point to a sense of isolation.
While there are different temples and Buddhist community centers around Memphis, not many of the temples have active youth programs. The University of Memphis added a local branch of the Vietnamese Student Association, which is celebrating it’s first semester at the university.
Trinh Lee is the president and founder of the Memphis branch. He spent the summer before his senior year filling out paper work so that students could have a community to share with.
“I just wanted to leave Memphis knowing I have the opportunity to share my culture with the Masses,” Lee said.