Each morning Shumon, Kairen and I do the daily service in the sanctuary. Kairen is temple assistant, so I sit on a chair to the right of the altar so that Kairen can practice the service as leader. Shumon is assistant. When we don’t have a temple assistant Shumon and I rotate daily as leader and assistant. It is such a privilege to be able to do this in our inspiring hondo daily.
The Doshi (leader) is performing the mudras, mantra’s and visualizations that are part of that role. In so doing the body, speech, and mind are integrated. There is also uniting the forces of the physical cosmos around a series of intentional acts of Loving Kindness. As Egyoji (assistant) one is not just assisting the Doshi by keeping track of the service, ringing the large gong (Dairin), and keeping the beat for the chant, one is acting with Compassion, in so doing gaining an inner resilience. As the sangha (participant/ observer) off to the side, chanting, singing, and offering, there is the Sympathetic Joy of being part of the purifications, the, offerings, and experiencing equanimity from the harmony the arises in being the practice.
Sitting in the chair by the altar I am in a position with a different perspective than I would have normally. Participating on the side of the service, I am paying attention to the words and their intent, the actions of the leader and assistant, and in the environment in which I sit. This is a meditation on text, visual, sound, fragrance, meaning and aesthetics of the total experience.
From this vantage point I see the windows on the west side of the hondo. The gentle hills, trees, shrubs and ground cover are a landscape of which I never tire. Over weeks and months the windows are a screen that reveals the changing of the seasons and the here and now. On Monday, May 8th, there was a brief snow that covered the scene with white, a surprising treat for a mid-spring day. Today, the light green of new growth, by July the deep green of summer, in October, yellows, oranges and reds, soon to be replaced in November by browns and grays, into the white of winter. The scene is a constant reminder of change. Yet, a reminder of the regularity of the seasons, familiar and distinct.
On the Kenmitsu-dan (exoteric/esoteric altar) incense wafts upward from the kasha goro (shoko, ground incense burner and egoro (shoko incensor with handle). As Shumon strikes the taiko (drum) to the chanting beat of the Heart Sutra, the sound waves strike the incense smoke just enough to change its pattern as it rises, doing an intricate choreography of transience. The words of the sutra riding on the ephemeral smoke as an offering to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. At the end of each distinct chant is the sound of the Dairin, a mellow punctuation. The scent of the incense opening my awareness of all the chants; Sangemon . . . Kaikyoge . . . Hogo . . . Yakushi Nyorai Mantra, we commit on behalf of all sentient beings.
Starting one’s day in sacred acts, purifying, offering, and supporting the sangha, alters the ways we view the world around us. The mind is uncluttered and available, a rebirth from yesterday to today. There is no us and them, there is only We. Completing the Daily Service and walking outside, we leave the hondo with a renewed purpose and dedication. This happens each and every day, a blessing. Each day filled with prospect. It is a transformative experience . . . not just once, but over and over again.
I know some people view ritual as meaningless. There are people who adopt Buddhism, but reject the rituals associated with traditional Buddhism as non-rational. Twentieth-first century religions that cloche their meditation, or other practices, in secular humanism are more to their taste. To me that is like smelling the fragrance of the peach without biting into it and tasting the sweet and tangy, then being nourished by it complex components.
Traditions and rituals are the reason Buddhism is still around after 2,500 years. Rituals are integral to Buddhism and are intended to connect the person with something larger than their individualist tendencies. It is too bad that people do not trust the traditional forms to have value. Perhaps that is part and parcel of a general distrust of institutions, but more about that some other time.
The travel writer Rick Steves writes about people who go to new places as being in three categories, tourists, travelers, and pilgrims. There is an analogy to Buddhist practitioners. Tourists (meditation for meditation sake) have a bucket list, take selfies and see travel as a personal experience. Travelers (participating in modernist Buddhism) expands one’s horizon, they learn more about the world. A pilgrim (traditional Buddhism) is for one’s inner being and to learn about the self. In the later category the person is in turn connected intimately to the world they explore.
Rick Steves also writes about travel as a political act. He writes. “Travel connects people with people. It helps us fit more comfortably and compatibly into a shrinking world, and it inspires creative new solutions to persistent problems facing our nation. We can’t understand our world without experiencing it.”
When living abroad I noticed this about myself. The more I saw the U.S. from outside its borders the better I gained an understanding of its place in the world, its strengths and weaknesses. Also, the better I understood myself, my strengths and weaknesses. When doing the Daily Service in the morning, the better I understand myself, and the more connected I feel to everyone and everything I come into contact with that day.
There is a connection, not sure that I can enunciate it properly, between the Daily Service and travel abroad. Something to reflect upon.
I retired as a college professor several years ago. I vividly remember teaching the public health and biology of epidemics, and pandemics. Being a biomedical anthropologist, I placed these into the contexts of biological and social synthesis. I spent several sections of courses on the effects of climate change and the eventual pandemics that would result from the convergence of a degraded environment, zoonosis, pathogens and demographics. In all of these courses there was the undercurrent that those who would suffer most were the marginalized and disenfranchised people in societies. Somehow, while teaching that this was an immediate threat, in my mind, it was always sometime in the future beyond my lifetime. The histories, case studies, and raw data never fully prepared me for the ugly reality.
The COVID -19 pandemic, like all epidemics, is not an equal opportunity tragedy. In past journals I wrote about some of our beloved musicians who have been felled by this virus. This can give the impression that there is an impartiality to the contagion. The reality is that people of color, immigrants and the poor are at greater risk than the population at large. African Americans are twice as likely to be infected and die from Corona virus as white Americans. Black Americans have more existing medical issues, less access to health care, and are more likely to work in unstable jobs, and in essential jobs. The Navaho Reservation in the Four Corners area of the Southwest follows New York and New Jersey in COVID -19 active cases and deaths. During the H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009, Native Americans died at four to five times the rate of other Americans.
The political dimensions of our experience with Covid 19 exacerbate the issue of who is exposed to the virus, how those exposed are cared for, and how the virus is spread. One so-called collateral damage is the escalation of food insecurity.
It is with this in mind that I make a special plea for the Emergency Food Drive for the South End Children’s Café, 25 Warren Street, Albany, NY 12202 (zip code is very important). From an email I received, the Director Tracie Killar, writes, “We are very extremely low on food. We provide food to over 500 children and families each week and have food on hand if someone is in need.
If you can join us and offer any of the items on our list (listing especially needed foods) we would be grateful. Thank you in advance for your kindness. ”
People can make monetary donations through checks written to the South End Children’s Café and mail to PO Box 10581, Albany, NY 12201 or donate online through PayPal at http://www.southendchildrenscafe.com/home.html.
All donations are tax-deductible and people will receive a thank you note from us. Thank you again and please stay safe and healthy.
Science is not a liberal conspiracy.
The New York State Phase I for the shut down in the Capital Region (this includes Columbia County) is planned for Wednesday, May 20th. That means a lessening of restrictions regarding construction, manufacturing and certain other activities. The Capital Region is testing more aggressively than anywhere else in the state, including New York City, and it now has enough (400) contact tracers.
One of the more interesting comments made by Governor Cuomo during his Saturday address is that he had assumed that most of the new COVID cases were by essential workers or in extended care facilities. In fact, the Department of Heath released a study that indicates that most new Corona cases are in people who are staying home. This would indicate that they, or those with whom they come in contact, are not following the mask/six feet rule when shopping, walking, etc. This is disheartening.
With respect to churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples opening, the Interfaith Alliance of Upstate New York (IAUSNY), of which I am a Board Member, has been asked by religious leaders in our area to consider and create a set of criteria by which we might open in Phase II, rather than Phase IV. Ms. Deb Riitano, the Executive Director of IAUSNY and myself are organizing a Zoom conference of members that will develop a set of procedures and a plan to make it possible to reopen our sanctuaries for religious gatherings in a safe and respectful way. We will forward our plan to Department of Health professionals for their input before a final approval by the Board. At Tendai Buddhist Institute we have already been working on a tentative plan. My best guess, and only a guess at this point, is that we will be meeting in a controlled setting in July. Let us keep our fingers crossed.
Once we are functioning in our sacred space again it is likely that we will continue to use Zoom and other media to stay connected with people who live outside the immediate area. It seems strange for me to say that. I have never been a fan of social media, but using this teleconferencing type of meeting does make sense for those who do not have the ability to get in a car and schlep on over. We’ll see how it goes.
A quick aside. When we see people not wearing face masks and maintaining social distance, should we pass out cards that state, “You are not wearing a mask which violates my constitutional rights regarding freedom of movement and peaceful assembly.” Is that rude or practical?
We know that when this isolation is over our world will never be the same again. That is not to say that a year from now, perhaps two, we will be gathering together to attend a concert or have dinner with friends, and we will once again feel a sense of companionship and closeness that we are denied right now.
Universities will certainly have changed. People who work in an office may commute two or three times a week rather than every day, spending part of their workweek at home working remotely. Viral specialist now suspect that this particular virus may become endemic and we will be taking a vaccination for it in addition to our seasonal flu vaccine. There may well be one or two surges in the future that require at least partial isolation for a time. The economy will take quite a while to reorient itself. Some of the restaurants which we have long considered our favorites, the small boutique shop or specialty shop may no longer be in business. In a short period of time there will be new restaurants, new specialty shops. These features will blend into what we will refer to as the new normal.
If we work diligently, we might be able to make some of the structural changes that are necessary to live on a habitable planet. Rather than a new normal of too much fossil fuel use we might use this as a reset. We may consider our food differently with less waste. This may depend upon who was elected president and a reorientation of Congress in November. This will be vitally important. Involve yourself and vote.
I am already beginning to think about BP, Before Pandemic, and PP, Post Pandemic. Along with some of the changes that we might be able to make positively in this reset will we begin to look at people a little differently. BP we took many people for granted, the healthcare workers in nursing homes, hospitals and clinics. Not just the doctors and nurses and nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants, but the, custodians, cafeteria workers, and administrative people. Will we go to the grocery or convenience store, the gas station, the farm supply store, and see a person who is at the checkout as a service worker or will we think of that person as essential? If we do this, that will also contribute to a structural change to a more equitable society.
Once we are PP will we take with us a sense of gratitude for those who took care of us during this crisis? When we meet friends and neighbors at the coffee shop will we hold them a little more dearly than we did BP? Will we have taken the period of time we have been isolated as an opportunity to reflect and reorient our lives to the more important things to us as individuals and to our society as a whole.
How I long to sit with sangha friends during our discussions in the gathering room, doing the service and meditating together in the Hondo, then sitting and enjoying potluck dinner together in the evening. We will be there again, and this will be an opportunity to recognize just how valuable these moments are. Let us not take for granted what we have lost during this time of illness, death, and isolation, but also what we may gain by going through this catastrophe. We will not be the same. We have the opportunity to grow and be better.
Please accept my blessings, my love, and my sincere hope during these times of travail. We will be together again.
Love and gassho . . . Monshin