Vihāra, a Sanskrit and Pali term (विहार)-literally "abode " - refers to a place of accommodation for Buddhist monks and nuns that can be referred to as a nunnery or monastery. Outside the Buddhist context, the word can also refer to a place of pleasure or a walk.
It originally referred to a refuge used as a fixed residence during the rainy season (vassa or varṣaḥ) by early Buddhist monks.
The appearance of vihara is linked to the retreat that Shakyamuni Buddha practiced during the rainy season, a retreat made necessary by the violence of the monsoon.
It was thus a question of finding refuge in a protected place for a few months, before the monastic community could resume its life of wandering. This stop was also linked to the risk of killing insects and earthworms on the paths that had become completely muddy.
The residences established during this season were, moreover, called varṣaḥvasa, "abode of the rains," and it is undoubtedly the rules necessary for living in a permanent place that are the origin of the fixed monasteries.
According to the monastic codes (vinaya), once the sangha has accepted the gift of a vihara, it cannot be taken back from them, and so it remains the permanent property of the monastic order.
Organization and evolution
The first vihara must have been simple wooden or bamboo constructions. On land donated or made available to the community by nobles or wealthy merchants wishing to earn merit, permanent structures of hard construction soon appeared, usually located near cities or major roads; cenobites began to compete with, but not replace, wandering monks.
By the first century B.C., the general form of the vihara was fixed: meditation cells, or sometimes small rooms, surround a central space; the vihara is built next to a chaitya (stupa), which it sometimes includes at the back of the space facing the door. Vihara and chaitya constitute a sangharama, the "garden" or "residence" of the sangha.
In northern India, troglodyte forms appeared, of which Ajanta is an example. They were later found in the caves of Mogao. From the first century onwards, large monastery-universities such as Nalanda or Anuradhapura in Ceylon appeared.
The vihara thus evolved in two main directions: village monastery temples or university centers. The Buddhist monasteries and temples of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist regions, where the rainy season retreat is not respected, have their own architectural history and bear different names according to type and region.
The modern vihara
The typical modern vihara includes a meditation room surrounded by cells and houses an altar with a representation of the Buddha. A bodhi tree is located nearby.
Since Buddhist monks are never cloistered, but are free to move from place to place outside of the vassa (rainy season retreat) period, the vihara may house only a few residents at certain times.
Nevertheless, today the vast majority of Theravada monks reside permanently in a monastery. The rules that govern life in the vihara are contained in the vinayas (monastic codes).
In Thailand the vihara has become a temple, with the monks residing in structures called wat.
Use of the term vihara
The Theravādin monk Walpola Rahula states that in the second century B.C., during the reign of the Sinhala king Devanampiya Tissa, a monastery was usually referred to as a vihara or arama.
The Indian state of Bihar, the cradle of Buddhism, derives its name from the many vihara monasteries that were once found in this region. The name of the city of Bukhara may also be derived from this word.
The Chinese translation of vihara, jīngshè (精舍), is not used for traditional temples and monasteries, but has sometimes been retained since the late 20th century by Buddhist study or practice groups.