The last month of 2020 caps a disjointed period that began last March. We were simultaneously subjected to a once in a century pandemic resulting in death, disabilities and torn hearts – economic upheaval for the average person that will be takes years for recovery – a belated reckoning with our African American brothers and sisters that has been a soul searing exploration for caring people of all races – a bitter political upheaval rending the fabric of our nation – and a sense of separation from family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers, that has been surreal. Many of us are happy to say good riddance to the year of the Metal Rat. 

As quick as we are to look forward to better times it is best to recognize that Covid 19 is resurging around the world. We should be observing social distancing, wearing masks, staying within our own home groups, and not mingling in groups larger than six. In other words, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Recently we have been given hope that vaccines have been tested by the pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, that seem like they are ready to go. Early studies demonstrate a 50% – 95% effectiveness, depending on the vaccine, in preventing viral infection.

Not so fast. These vaccines still need independent testing, how long will that take? Several months. Then they will be released first to health care workers, extended care facilities, essential workers, etc., before they are ready for most of us. Expect widespread distribution next May or June. The logistics, oh yeah the logistics.

Most of the ready for prime-time vaccines are a two-shot immunization, spaced three weeks to a month apart. Thus, we need about 660 million doses for the U.S. alone. We can’t mix the vaccines. This means taking the Pfizer vaccine then a month later taking Moderna vaccine. If your first vaccine is Pfizer, the second vaccine must also be Pfizer.

The serum must be refrigerated. One of the vaccines needs to be frozen to – 90 degrees Fahrenheit; there are not currently many facilities prepared for that. They must be shipped under those conditions.

Then there is the issue of those who will not take any vaccine, and those who don’t trust this particular set of vaccines. If the vaccines are available, able to be distributed and a significant portion of the population does not take it – well – we still have a problem.

Be aware that there will be some people who are not good candidates for the vaccine, including some people in nursing homes. There will also be side effects scares that will make many people anxious.

It’s masks, social distancing, no restaurants, movie theaters, stores open, etc., for some time. maybe late 2021. Epidemiologists are preparing us for a ‘long dark winter.’

Recently Shumon sent a note to the Jigyodan (Tendai Overseas Charitable Foundation) in Japan, suggesting that we might have an anniversary celebration next October or November. This assumes that we will be back to semi-normal by then. In fact – we do not know when we will be back to semi-normal.

Do not despair, do not be attached to a quick fix. Another way to look at this December is to look forward to the holidays: Bodhi Day (Shakyamuni Buddha’s Awakening commemoration on the 8th), Hanukkah (10th – 18th), Solstice Day (21st), Christmas (25th), and New Year’s Eve (31st). We will not be able to celebrate these milestones with our families and friends. However, we can and should use this opportunity to examine the meaning of the holidays we celebrate, beyond the materialism and the joy we experience by gathering together.

What is the true meaning of Bodhi Day? It signifies Siddhārtha Gautama  meditating under the Bodhi tree that resulted in his awakening, becoming Shakyamuni Buddha.  Sitting meditation the evening into the night before Bodhi Day, or reflecting on awakening and the buddha nature that resides in our consciousness are time honored ways to honor this observance for many people. Decorate your home with candles and other lights, prepare a special meal and celebrate the Solstice. With each holiday there is a special observation and a special meaning that we should concentrate on this year.

For 25 years we observed New Year’s Eve at the temple by starting the meditation service around 11:30 PM, sitting meditation into the New Year, listening to the sound of the large gong ringing 108 times, finishing the service around 12:30, we proceeding to the Kuri (main house) for sake, champagne, finger foods and quiet celebration and communion. Some people stayed the night so they would not need to drive home, often several hours away. This year, 2020, was going to be the first year we would do an earlier evening service because many people said they no longer stayed up so late, then have a New Year’s Day service. Oh well. This year we will be conducting our weekly service via Zoom on Thursday evening with the gong ringing during the meditation. The sake, champagne and finger foods are up to you. 

Humans are social animals. Our evolution is dependent upon our ability to cooperate and sacrifice for others. That’s part of the reason this isolation and separation from each other is so difficult. Many of us may feel overwhelmed by being alone and without meaningful human interaction. Others of us find the alone time to be welcome. However you happen to be during this social artificiality you can be assured that its tenure is finite.

In much the same way that December is a time to delve into the true meaning of our holidays, observances, and commemorations, it is also a good opportunity to examine purposeful living. Many writers have shared with us that difficulties in life generate the construction of purpose. We know what is good, happy, and peaceful by having experienced anxiety and trouble. It is important to accept our feelings as they are, to know their purpose and then to do what needs to be done. Use this phase of upheaval and turmoil to better understand the underpinnings of this life, accept what we cannot change, and strive to change the things we can. Most importantly, experience life, moment to moment, day-to-day, not as a gift with the expectations that go along with that, but experience life as it is with a sense of awe. For now, know that we may be apart, in our own homes, but together as a sangha and as friends. We will join together hand-in-hand, with hugs, in the foreseeable future. In the meantime use your time with purpose and wonder.

Love and Gassho . . . Monshin