It is worth spending a few minutes doing your homework if you intend visiting a Buddhist place of worship – a Vihara. Owing to the fact that a number of Buddhist traditions are relatively new to the UK, the place of worship you could be visiting might belong to one, or more, of a number of traditions – traditional Theravadin, far eastern Mahayana, Zen, Nirchiren and so on. It is likely that the Buddhist place of worship you will find to visit will have been established either by western converts, or by refugees from perhaps Cambodia, Burma or Tibet. Remember also that Buddhist worship is individualist rather than congregational. Congregational worship occurs mainly at festival or celebration times. This should become a key learning concept.
It is important to remember that Buddhism is five hundred years older than Christianity. Buddhism spread over most of the far east and took in all the cultural and religious influences of the countries with which it came into contact. The beliefs and practices of Buddhism also developed and matured and this had a big influence on the style of buildings used for worship by Buddhists.
However, at the heart of Buddhist belief were the Three Jewels –
I seek Refuge in the Buddha, I seek Refuge in the Dhamma,
I seek Refuge in the Sangha.
And it was the Sangha, or community of monks, through which meditation and devotions were made, that had the biggest impact on the style of building. Because Buddhism generally focuses its devotions through meditation, then it is inevitable that this practice will have a significant impact on the type of building. There are arguably two main traditions of Buddhism. The first is Theravadin or the Tradition of the Elders which is to be found in for example in Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand. Here the oldest traditions of devotion and meditation are still adhered to, and it was probably these traditions that were first introduced to the UK by British academics and explorers. There are Theravadin Viharas in the UK and it is worth finding out if there is one near you.
Mahayana traditions have a more complex belief system based on the Bodhissattva and but still retain the tradition of meditation as a central act of devotion. Thus there will be similarities of style in the buildings.
Two further descriptions of a vihara, one in the south of the country, another in the north, can be found on London Grid for Learning site which was written by the RE adviser for Hackney Borough, Mr Karl D’Cruz. And at www.interfaithkirklees.org.uk .