In the small town of Indianola, Iowa, population 15,833, a former Catholic Church, named for Saint Thomas Aquinas, will likely become a Buddhist temple in the next month thanks to the work of the town’s Karen Buddhist Association. Charile Dissell, Indianola’s community and economic development director, noted that there are no other Buddhist places of worship in the area.
The Karen Buddhist Association, made up of about 50 families, wrote in its application to repurpose the church: “Mostly, this would be a place of peaceful contemplation.” (KPVI)
The association said it also planned to use the site to house a resident Theravada monk.
Most of the Karen refugees that form the Karen Buddhist Association arrived in Iowa in 2006–07, around the start of what became known as the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar.
The church building is owned by Simpson College. John Woell, senior vice president and academic dean at Simpson College, spoke in favor of the Buddhist re-purposing of the building in September, noting that having the Buddhists purchase the site would be fortuitous as the college is planning to hire a Buddhist studies professor in 2022.
“We’re really excited about the opportunities to partner with the Karen Buddhist Association and have the monk on campus, have students be in a position to actually work with and talk to Buddhists as they go through their education here,” said Woell. “It’s a really exciting opportunity for us.” (Independent Advocate)
The new Buddhist temple is one of many that have sprung up over the years in this mostly rural midwestern state. In recent years, other Buddhist centers have opened in Cedar Rapids, Clive, and Decorah.
Two centers showing different traditions in Iowa are the Cedar Rapids Zen Center and the Pure Land Temple in Clive.
The Cedar Rapids Zen Center was started by Zuiko Redding, an ordained Soto Zen teacher. Redding has been the resident teacher for some 20 years, starting out in a small, two-bedroom apartment and slowly growing as attendance increased.
“We’re mostly a white temple. We do have a Burmese family who are members, we’ve had Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese, but we have about 70 members and they’re predominantly white American converts, and they’re raising their children as well. I think across the country we’re getting a second generation who are reared as Buddhists,” Zuiko said.
The Pure Land Temple in Clive began in an apartment like the Cedar Rapids Zen Center. Helen Liu and Evelina Chen, sisters and Pure Land practitioners, fostered the organization from its earliest stages. Practitioners for over 20 years, their main teacher is a Nyingma Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Khenpo Paljor Gyatso.
The Pure Land Temple also hosts teachers from a variety of other traditions, including Zen, Theravada, and Chan. “I think Buddhism is a kind of a teaching to teach us how to find how to avoid suffering and how to find what happens to the better life to benefit ourselves and other sentient beings. . . . For me it’s a kind of education,” Liu said. (KPVI)
Today, there are some 20 Buddhist places of worship in Iowa, which has some 3.15 million people, as well as one Buddhist monastery. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), fewer than half of young Iowa adults identify as white and Christian. More than four in 10 young adults in Iowa are religiously unaffiliated, while 13 per cent identify as non-white Christians. “Iowa seniors, by contrast, are overwhelmingly white and Christian. More than eight in 10 [85 per cent] Iowa seniors are white Christians, including roughly one-third (33 per cent) who identify as white evangelical Protestant,” said the PRRI. (Public Religion Research Institute)
The new temples in towns and cities in Iowa reflect changing demographics and a growing number of converts to Buddhism. The state has seen a growth of 49,073 people identified as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the past two decades, according to state data, an increase of 134 per cent.
Former St. Thomas Aquinas Church could become Buddhist temple after sale (Independent Advocate)
Buddhist communities increasing across Iowa (KPVI)
Karen Buddhist Association of Iowa (Facebook)
Cedar Rapids Zen Center
Pure Land of Iowa – Buddhist Organization
The Religion and Politics of Iowa: A State Portrait from PRRI’s American Values Atlas (Public Religion Research Institute)
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