An Online Meditation Community
By Jonathan Durden, Riley Dauwen, and Ian Jones
The Cahaba River Sangha is a small Buddhist meditation group founded in January 2021 that practices mindfulness and meditation together in a virtual setting. Despite America being “a relative newcomer” to Buddhist practice this close-knit community is made up of people of all different backgrounds (Prebish 183). The sangha welcomes diversity. It accepts everyone, regardless of their religion, gender, sexual orientation, or belief system. Prioritizing the practice of mindful meditation, The Cahaba River Sangha refrains from discussion of texts and theories, and instead focuses on personal experiences.
The sangha meets once a week on Thursday evenings. The purpose of meeting is to create a safe space where members can comfortably practice mindfulness and meditation in a calm and receptive environment. Meetings generally begin with a few minutes of mindful breathing at the tone of a bell. Also known as “calm meditation,” this breathing method is meant to keep the mind from wandering by concentrating on the awareness of ones in-breath and out-breath (Harvey 248). This is followed by twenty minutes of sitting meditation. At this point, it is important that each member finds a comfortable sitting position to put their bodies at ease. In doing so, everyone must “constantly see your body as empty and quiet, inside and outside communing in sameness,” so that they can effectively unite their bodies and minds in meditation (Cleary 10). Once everyone has cleared their minds, it is then time for members to engage in a time of sharing and listening. Individuals are given the option to share personal experiences in a confidential safe space, while others practice mindfulness by attentively listening. Finally, the meeting is brought to a close as the mindfulness bell is rung once again, signalling everyone to participate in three more deep breaths together before bowing and saying goodbyes.
The Cahaba River Sangha is unlike any other community in Birmingham. It has some similarities with the Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center, in that it is an inclusive virtual community that exhibits the practice of meditation and mindfulness, but there are more differences than similarities. The is Cahaba River Sangha is an independent, local group, whereas there are many Shambhala Buddhism centers across the country. And because it is so much smaller in size, it is easier to form bonds and close friendships with other members. Unlike Shambhala, it also focuses solely on meditation and refrains from studying texts. This makes it easier to diversify the population of the group because Buddhist texts are not being imposed upon anyone.
Although the Cahaba River Sangha avoids conversation related to Buddhist texts and theories, it still values a lot of Mahayana Buddhist teachings; many of these teachings being from a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Hanh has been an influential Zen monk and Engaged Buddhism activist in the twentieth and early twenty-first century (Prothero 111). The sangha values his teachings because they bring light to the many benefits of meditation. He has taught that with experience and practice, one can achieve a calm body and mind and lessen one’s suffering. In order to do this, it is important to first cultivate trust in oneself by trusting the practice of meditation. With experience and proper practice, a bond of trust will be reached.
Trust in oneself through meditation will lessen suffering, but even so, suffering is inevitable. Because of this, Nhat Hanh teaches Buddhist methods to most effectively deal with it. He suggests that mindfulness is the key to understanding suffering. Once suffering is understood, it can then be calmed down, embraced tenderly, and transformed into something else.
Once trust in oneself and an understanding of suffering is established, an individual is much more capable of managing their emotions, but this is not the last step. Nhat Hanh also emphasizes the importance of compassion to others: “Once there is seeing, there must be action.” In Mahayana Buddhism, Engaged Buddhism is encouraged by bodhisattvas, people on their path to enlightenment. The mindfulness that we practice to better ourselves should be reflected onto others around us, so that they too can understand suffering: “The bodhisattva thus at once turns away from samsara as a place of suffering and at the same time turns back towards it out of compassion of the suffering of the world” (Gethin 229). This modern practice was coined by Nhat Hanh in the 1960s, and is referred to as “Engaged Buddhism” (Prothero 111). In this practice, the Buddhist values of compassion and loving-kindness are motivators in spreading their this-worldly activism.
Another way that the Cahaba River Sangha understands suffering is by seeing wisdom within the defilements: hatred, desire, ignorance, pride, jealousy. This teaching comes from contemporary Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. From a young age, the Tibetan Buddhist master quickly rose to popularity because he was able to weave both his personal experiences and modern science into his teaching of meditation (The Yongey Foundation). Rinpoche, born in 1975, explains that the defilements are the cause of suffering. In order to see wisdom in them, we must first understand the impermanence of life, and that these defilements are only temporary. Second, we must ask ourselves, “What do I want?” and dig deep enough to find something of meaning.
As you can see, The Cahaba River Sangha is a distictive and welcoming place where members can better themselves in the practice of Buddhist meditation. With their sole focus on the practice of meditating mindfully, the sangha is a great fit for anyone. Using teachings from contemporary monks, the community strives to create an environment where mindfulness can be practiced in the acts of meditation, sharing experiences, and deep listening. It doesn’t matter what your age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even religion may be, the sangha will welcome you with open arms.
Bercholz, Samuel and Sherab Kohn. 1993. The Buddha and His Teachings. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1993.
Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center. 2021. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://birmingham.shambhala.org/.
Cahaba River Sangha. 2021. “Meditation Community in Birmingham, Al – The Cahaba River Sangha.” Cahaba River Sangha. Accessed September 16, 2021. http://cahabariversangha.com/.
Cleary, Thomas. 1989. Classics of Buddhism and Zen. Boston, MA: Shambala.
Gethin, Rupert. 2014.The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goodwin, Charles. 2014. Buddhist Meditation Theory and Practice. John Wiley & Sons.
Harvey, Brian Peter. 2013. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history, and practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prebish, Charles S., and Kenneth K. Tanaka. 1999. The Faces of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Prothero, Stephen R. 2020. Religion Matters: An Introduction to the World’s Religions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2020.
The Yongey Foundation. 2021. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.yongeyfoundation.org/.
Jonathan Durden ’25, Riley Dauwen ’25, and Ian Jones ’25 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2021.
Published November 29, 2021