By Payton Kaloper, Caroline Roach, Liv Cardwell, and Tim Cleveland
The Alabama Buddhist Vihara is located off the beaten path, but it is open to everyone who seeks spiritual guidance and mindfulness. This center at 1217 Xavier Street in Birmingham’s McDonald Chapel neighborhood invites everyone to explore Theravada Buddhist meditation, offerings, practices, and rituals in order to find peace. People are encouraged to find peace through mindfulness, meditation, and enlightenment. Theravada Buddhism it is deeply rooted in the religious and meditative teachings of the southern parts of Asia. This school of Buddhism reminds followers of the original teachings of the Buddha. Theravadans are called to “abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good, and to purify their mind” (BBC). Visiting the Vihara, for the annual Katina ceremony on November 3, 2019, we were welcomed with open arms.
The vihara’s website states “The Alabama Buddhist Vihara is dedicated to the promotion of the Theravada Buddhist teachings through the practice of meditation, study of Buddhist scriptures.” The Vihara opened in November 2017. It hosts meditation sessions on Mondays and Sundays. They also offer “Dhamma school” (like Sunday school) for children. This is used to guide young children to adopt Buddhist values in order to find happiness. Although Vihara’s physical site is small, its community is growing. People travel from other states to worship at this Vihara.
The Theravada tradition of Buddhism practiced this vihara tends to be conservative in matters of doctrine and discipline. In Sri Lanka, an island nation south of India, Theravada Buddhism thrives. Over 70 percent of the nation’s population associates with Buddhism. From Sri Lanka, the Theravada tradition spread to Myanmar (Burma) and other parts of South Asia and from there to other parts of the world.
Monks serve as religious leaders and devote their lives to meditation and mindfulness. Men, at any age, may become a monk through specific ritual ceremonies. Becoming a monk is considered a generous donation to oneself and the community. A vihara is first and foremost the residence of monks. Buddhist laypersons visit the vihara to learn from the monks, meditate with them, participate in devotional religions, and donate to support them. Through this donation, laypersons earn merit for themselves and their community.
Activities at the Vihara
The Alabama Buddhist Vihara offers meditation services, a Poya program, and Dhamma school to the community. On Poya, or full moon day, people can spend a day at the temple to take a break from day-to-day life and spend time training the mind in mindfulness and spirituality. Throughout the day, attendees learn the dhamma, meditate, recite texts, and partake in discussions. Another important activity at the Vihara is meditation. These services are provided Mondays from 7:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. and Sundays from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. A large part of meditation is focusing on the mindfulness of the breath. Meditation focuses on the transformation of the mind. Through meditation, people can learn the patterns and habits of their mind. Lastly, Dhamma school, also known as Sunday school, is offered for children. According to the Alabama Buddhist Vihara webpage, Dhamma school “is an organized effort to provide an opportunity for our children in their search for a ‘right-way’ of living” and can guide children to adopt Buddhist values.
A highlight of the Buddhist year is the annual Kathina ceremony. The ceremony concludes the end of the traditional rainy season. New robes and other items are given to monks. This year, the Kathina ceremony took place on November 2nd and 3rd. During these days, people took part in ritual activities, such as Buddha Pooja, chanting, the monks alms round, and a luncheon.
The Alabama Buddhist Vihara has an important role in Birmingham’s religious community. Upholding their religious practices and beliefs while staying culturally embedded is a hard task. As other religious centers and practices migrate to Birmingham, this Vihara will serve as a place of hope. The community at this Vihara was welcoming and ready to open their arms to guests. As Birmingham is largely Christian, religious communities like the Alabama Buddhist Vihara are in a minority. Buddhism may not be popular in Birmingham, but the influence of cultural diversity is. Growing rapidly, Birmingham is welcoming new religious influences every day.
Alabama Buddhist Vihara
Address: 1217 Xavier St, Birmingham, AL 35224
Affiliation: Theravada Buddhism
Sources for Further Information
Alabama Buddhist Vihara. Accessed November 15, 2019. https://www.alvihara.org/.
Hays, Jeffrey. “MONKS IN THERAVADA BUDDHISM.” Facts and Details. Sept. 2018, http://factsanddetails.com/asian/cat64/sub415/entry-2819.html
“Religions – Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism.” BBC. BBC, October 2, 2002. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/theravada_1.shtml
Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Published December 17, 2019
Caroline Roach ‘23, Liv Cardwell ‘23, Payton Kaloper ‘22, and Tim Cleveland ‘23 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2019.