From The Black Death and the Trans-formation of the West, David Herlihy, writes of the, “death” as a liberating force, pushing European society forward, destroying it, but at the same time transforming it, spurring new growth and possibilities. There is a reason according to Herlihy, “that the…characteristics of the population collapse of the late Middle Ages [were] Europe’s deepest and also its last.”
Herlihy’s thesis is simple: that the Black Death created the demand for labor saving devices as the population dwindled, and this in turn pushed European society forward. Herlihy looks at the social effects of the plague on women, art, and society in general, and comes to the conclusion that the plague was, in the long run, a good thing for Europe.
Will the COVID pandemic, in the grips of which we still squirm, have a profound effect on Buddhism, not only in the west, but globally? Only time will tell. Since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic in-person sangha gatherings were curtailed. We switched to virtual gatherings using the Zoom platform. For a few months, in the summer and early fall, we supplemented these with once a month in-person Gongyo (Daily Service) and meditations services in the hondo. Until it was deemed too risky to meet that way, even with masks and social distancing. But with cold weather approaching we could not keep windows and doors open. All our other activities, the Tuesday tutorial and monthly sutra classes, have also been virtual.
Once we began the virtual meetings many people joined us from around North America and the world. Most people would agree that joining virtually is not the same as meeting in person. It is quite a different environment and interpersonal dynamics are very different. Those who are not near a Tendai temple, or even a Buddhist temple, have been able to participate in what we do, albeit in a different format.
I began referring to this expanded group, local and non-local people online, as a meta-sangha. The meta-sangha has many of the same characteristics as any Buddhist sangha, with some very real differences. A Buddhist sangha is an assembly. Whether one is sitting in the same room with other sangha members, or hundreds, thousands of kilometers apart, it is still an assembly. Meta, has many definitions, one of which is beyond, over,’ etc., often denoting change or transformation. Meta-sangha is a sangha transformed, beyond the original.
Certainly, there are many things we cannot do together on a digital platform, but it does permit activities that would otherwise be unlikely if not impossible. In the past we had guest speakers for the in-person discussions, Mu Soeng, and Reverend Earl Ikeda, are two that come immediately to mind. Recently the Venerable Ichishima Shoshin, has been joining our Wednesday evening gatherings from Japan. Since sensei doesn’t travel great distances these days, his joining our gatherings would be unfeasible if it were not for our Zoom gatherings.
For those who are not aware of Ichishima sensei he is the head of the lineage in which Shumon and I took Tokudo (soryo – monk/priest vows). He has been our teacher and mentor for over thirty years. Sensei is Professor Emeritus of Taisho University in Tokyo, Japan. I would be remiss if I did not mention that he is the 8th person in Tendai history to receive the prestigious Tendai Tokubetsu Kōrō-shō (Tendai Lifetime Achievement Award for International Activities and Scholarship) and holds the title of Tendai-shu Kangaku, a Buddhist academic at the highest level, of which there are only a handful in Japan.
Tendai Buddhist Institute / Tendai Shu New York Betsuin, would not exist if it were not for him. When Shumon and I started this temple in upstate New York. It was as an affiliate of one Ichishima sensei’s temples, in Chiba,, Japan, Tamonin. About five years after we established the temple, we became the Betsuin, or branch, of Enryakuji. But our origins were with that small village temple in Matsuzaki, Japan, and even the name of the Hondo, Jiunzan Tendai-ji, was given to us by Ichishima sensei
A participant of our Wednesday evening gatherings, and good friend, Job sensei, had reason to be in touch with Ichishima sensei recently and they began talking about the Wednesday evening gatherings. Job asked if Ichishima sensei would be willing to lead a discussion once a month on a Tiantai publication by Zhiyi that sensei had recently finished translating into English.
On March 31st Ichishima sensei submitted the final draft of the Zhiyi’s famous Hsiao chih-kuan to Bukkyo Dendai Kokai (BDK), publishers of the English Tripitaka, and distributed outside Japan through the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. Sensei has kindly agreed to present a series of ten lectures followed by questions and answers on this seminal and instructive work. He will be doing one chapter a month for ten months on the third Wednesday of each month. April 21st will be the first chapter.
I don’t know if we will come to the conclusion, like Herlihy, that the Covid pandemic was, in the long run, a good thing for the world. It will certainly have transformed many aspects of our daily lives, including our Buddhist sanghas. It certainly changed the way that I have perceived sangha in the past, and it has changed our perceptions of what is a sangha.
Thank you for being along for the ride as we look forward to continuing with a new meta-sangha. We are still the small village temple that started 26 years ago, but with a larger footprint. I hope as time goes on and we return to normal in-person activities, people from distant places will be able to join us for retreats, trainings and special occasions. Meeting everyone face-to-face will be a special pleasure.
Love and Gassho . . . Monshin