2015 Louisiana Studies Conference Presentation Abstract

“Buddhist Louisiana”

Presented by Richard Collins, California State University

In March 2014, a Buddhist student from Sabine Parish won a settlement in federal court after a teacher called the student’s beliefs “stupid.” When the parents complained, they were told “this is the Bible Belt” and to find a school where there were more “Asians.”

Louisiana is not the first state one thinks of in relation to Buddhism in America,1 but maybe it shouldn’t be the last. This paper discusses some of the history of interest in Buddhism in Louisiana and the diversity of teachings and practices within the Buddhist community of Louisiana, small as it may be.

This history might begin with Lafcadio Hearn, New Orleans resident for a decade in the late 1800s, who was intrigued by Buddhist literature even before he left for Martinique on the way to settling in Japan. This history can be brought up to date with the Dalai Lama’s 2012 visit in recognition of Tulane School of Social Work’s humanitarian work with Tibetan refugees in Dharmasala, India. Between Hearn and the His Holiness, though, we should recognize Professor “Zen” Ben Wren who taught Zen and Asian history for 35 years at Loyola with a Jesuit twist, as seen in Zen Among the Magnolias (1999). Robert Livingston Roshi founded the New Orleans Zen Temple in 1984 after studying Zen for a decade with Master Taisen Deshimaru in Paris. One of Livingston’s primary students, Richard Collins, has published Zen poetry, essays, and books reflecting the Deshimaru lineage, including Mushotoku Mind (2012) and No Fear Zen (2015). LSU creative writing graduate Dinty W. Moore published The Accidental Buddhist (1997) and The Mindful Writer (2012). One of Moore’s teachers, Rodger Kamenetz, explored the “JuBu” phenomenon in The Jew in the Lotus (1994). The newest addition to the New Orleans Buddhist scene is Mid-City Zen, an outpost of Shunryu Suzuki’s San Francisco Zen Center, and Buddhist centers continue to appear throughout the state.

Whether these Buddhist authors and practitioners will have much of an effect on teachers like the one who criticized Buddhist beliefs as “stupid” is debatable, but this paper explores what these explorers have found to be instructive for modern life in Louisiana.

[1] Religious affiliation in Louisiana is about 90% Christian, with 60% in the Protestant camp and 28% Catholic. “Other” religions make up only 2%, with 1% each for Muslims and Buddhists, and less than 0.5% Jews. The remaining 8% identify as “nonreligious,” although this might include “nightstand” Buddhists (those who like what they have read about Buddhism).