Dear Sangha,

It has been a few weeks since we began reading and hearing about COVID-19 with every headline and every news report. All other news has been relegated to an afterthought as news, information, misinformation and speculation about the COVID-19 pandemic appropriately grabs our attention. When we are told not to panic our first reaction is to feel a sense of panic.

Victims of this pandemic are first and foremost those who contract the disease and experience the more virulent symptoms or die as result of the disease. The current estimate by epidemiologists is that 40% – 70% of the U.S. population will contract COVID-19; that’s 132 to 231 million people. About 80% of those who develop the disease will have mild symptoms. Isolation or quarantine is required so that those at high risk are not exposed. CDC estimates between 2.4 to 21 million people will require hospitalization. That is beyond our hospitals ability to respond adequately, with less than a million hospital beds available nationwide. Then there are the employees who are quarantined, and a demand for equipment, especially ventilators, that will be in short supply. This is a worst-case scenario. There are many unknowns about this particular pathogen, so we use a combination of infectious disease models to make best guesstimates in predicting how the disease will develop.[i]

If this is not bad enough there is the economic disruption. This is a worldwide disturbance. The U.S may be in a better position than many other nations to withstand this predicament. But that does not assure those people whose employment is interrupted or curtailed and those whose retirement plans that will undoubtedly take a big hit.

There are other issues that are important to the society at large. What happens to the children whose schools are closed and who depend upon school breakfast and lunch programs for their food security? How do people who choose to isolate or those who are quarantined obtain food, prescription medicines and other essential supplies? No less important will be the lack of social contact as a result of isolation. We need this interpersonal human contact for our psychological and emotional wellbeing.

Most churches, synagogues, mosques and temples in the capital region of New York, as well as Columbia County, New York and Berkshires County, Massachusetts, have been cancelled for the next few weeks. Gatherings above 250 people have been banned in many states. Funerals, weddings, and other important assemblies have been postponed. The response to what may be the most challenging pandemic in over a century is not an overreaction. We should have taken many of these precautions a month ago as a preventative.

At Tendai Buddhist Institute we will be suspending all our activities for the next two weeks. This includes the Wednesday evening services, Tuesday morning Mo-Ho Chi Kuan tutorial and the one-day retreat on March 21st. We will resume our activities with a restructured Wednesday evening on April 1st. The current CDC guidelines indicate that the problems of contagion in assemblies can be mitigated by reducing the density and proximity of participants. We will therefore not have our normal program of discussion/lecture, followed by the Tendai Daily Liturgy and Shikan meditation service, concluding the evening with a pot-luck dinner. We will eliminate the discussion/lecture and pot-luck dinner, because they require very close contact and food handling.

We will assemble in the hondo at 7 PM and have the regular evening service with an expanded dharma talk. We will finish at approximately 8:30 PM. We will set up the hondo so there is the designated two meters between people, there will be no handshakes or hugs; gassho and bow will be sufficient. If a person develops any symptoms of COVID-19, namely a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, they should not go outside their house and if the symptoms become serious seek medical care and test for the illness.

We have a number of people who are at the greatest risk for COVID-19. This includes people over 65 years of age, and people with heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. If you are in a situation where you can not leave your home because you are in isolation or quarantine, or you are in a high risk group, I will coordinate with the sangha ways for you to receive food and essential supplies, as well as prescription drugs. Please contact me and we will see that your immediate needs are met. If you have any questions, concerns, or a need to share, please do not hesitate to contact me.

This pandemic demonstrates interpenetration, all phenomena are all equally connected to each other and contained in each other, in a very real and concrete fashion. We can learn from this and use it as a lesson to increase our cooperation with all sentient beings. While we may need to isolate in order to preserve our health, we should not view ourselves as isolates who are independent of others and seek only our individual needs and desires. To make a distinction between me and the other during this period of crisis, or anytime, is to deny the sacred that resides within each and every one of us.

While I might not see you for a few weeks you are in my thoughts and I look forward to a renewed fellowship when we can gather together again.

Gassho and love . . . Monshin

[i]   For those who don’t know, my graduate work was in biomedical anthropology and I taught courses in Global Public Health, City and Human Health, etc. at the University at Albany, Human Biology program, as well as Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and was a Health Care Policy Analyst for the New York State Department of Health.