Over the last 20+ months Tendai Buddhist Institute has adapted to the pandemic identified as COVID-19. Never in the history of human infectious disease has a virus been studied more intensely within such a short period of time. The mobilization was a massive undertaking, that depended on science and public health methodologies. A normally slow enterprise.
Science is not the linear process that many people imagine. There are continual recalibrations that take place as new technologies are employed, false starts, old assumptions nullified, new results to be tested and rejected or verified. This pandemic has amply demonstrated this process. It seems many people are skeptical of science and scientists after watching the normal course of action being made in real time.
The same process has occurred in our sangha’s response to the pandemic. We have employed technologies that keep developing. Many of our preferred ways of doing things were rendered inoperable, and the results of the experiments required employment of different methodologies. We are continually revising our procedures in response to changing situations.
The notion that the COVID virus will be eliminated has become a recognition that COVID will be endemic. Expect to receive yearly vaccinations for COVID 19 the way we have yearly flu shots. Anticipate that starting next fall there will be a flu/COVID combination in a single vaccine available. A continued series of societal adjustments will take place. The Japanese phrase Shoganai, ‘resignation, that it can’t be helped’, fits the situation.
Several weeks ago, the Karuna Tendai Dharma Center, Board of Directors, met to address the changing scenario. As a result of our discussion, and in response to the latest CDC guidelines, we have a new (and improved?) schedule starting this month.
A new variant of COVID-19, Omicron or B.1.1.529, has made an appearance in South Africa as of this writing. The World Health Organization called it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the W.H.O. said in its official description. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant.” Will this have an impact in North America? Any response is speculation. Will it affect how we conduct our gatherings? Same answer. We will be aware of changing conditions and act accordingly. The new procedure will be in place unless and until the conditions change. We will let people know if there are changes to the procedure when we send out ZOOM invitations each week.
The New Procedures
There will be an in-person assembly each week for the local, vaccinated, sangha. This will consist of a discussion in the kuri (abbot’s residence) followed by the meditation service in the hondo (main temple building) and a potluck dinner back in the kuri. We are obtaining hospital grade air purifiers for both the kuri and the hondo as added safety measures. In other words, to the people attending in person it will be pretty much the way it was before the pandemic, except that some people will be attending the discussion via ZOOM. We will see them on the television screen.
Starting December 8th there will also be a complete evening for the people who participate via ZOOM. All the elements that have been included in the ZOOM only presentations will be present in the new format. Namely, greetings, discussion, questions, Gongyo, Shikan meditation, Dharma talk, joys and concerns, service completion, closing statement, and the end. We are investigating improved techniques and technology to make these sessions a bit better. Potluck dinner would require Star Trek style food synthesizers, or replicators. A bit beyond ZOOM and current technology for the foreseeable future.
The way we will accomplish the new procedure is that when the in-person people leave the kuri for the hondo one of the soryo (monk/priest) will go out to the hondo to conduct the service and meditation there and another soryo will stay on the ZOOM presentation and complete the evening online. We are fortunate to have many people who are sufficiently trained to carry on in both the ZOOM only and in-person venues.
We will continue the time limit of the Zoom presentation to about 1½ hours. The service in the hondo is longer because the gongyo and meditation are longer. It has been my observation that 1½ hours on ZOOM is about the maximum people can tolerate before ZOOM exhaustion sets in. As with any of the procedures we have implemented since the beginning of the pandemic we may need to adjust things as we go along. This pandemic has taught us the meaning of impermanence if nothing else.
During the Board of Director’s meeting mentioned earlier we explored various options. There were positive and negatives to most scenarios. There were options that would have required investments in technology with little significant benefit. Some solutions were technologically possible but in conflict with Tendai teachings. The solution we came up with is a compromise on several levels. But is consistent with the mission of Tendai Buddhist Institute. That is that Sangha has an equal footing with the Buddha and Dharma. We wish to do this in a way that the sangha who live nearby, as well as those who may be spread around the globe, are aware and knowledgably about each other and practice together as an integrated sangha. As long as the local and extended sangha can be together for a significant portion of the activities, we can be a maha-sangha (greater sangha).
A Last Word
Before signing off for the month I would like to say a few words about our sangha during these challenging times. This is the time of year we express our gratitude. We may do so to HaShem, Allah, God, Vishnu, our Buddhist ancestors, to nature that has provided for us, to other people in our lives, to people we have never met, animals and plants, the natural world around us, all are worthy of our respect and gratitude.
Evolutionary psychologists conducting research on happiness inform us that happiness does not come from material possession or acquiring more – of anything. Having enough food and shelter to live with dignity is all we need. Too often we confuse our needs with our wants. This should not be a surprise to those of us who follow the Buddhist Path, or any traditional faith tradition. Shakyamuni Buddha taught us of that simple observation over 2,500 years ago.
Happiness, according to our faith tradition, and now verified by the psychologists, comes from three things. Gratitude – in all the ways just mentioned above, Giving – monetarily, but mostly of ourselves through our time and effort, and lastly Purpose – when we have a true non-self-centered purpose in our life we thrive. When we don’t, we wither.
When we look at the past, almost two years, we realize that those people who have looked only to their own ease, and sometimes ideological perceptions, ignoring the wellbeing of others, were left to bemoan their misfortune. For those of us who have taken the opportunity to express gratitude, give to others and maintain a purpose, have met the challenges of the pandemic more gracefully.
We don’t know what lies ahead, we never really do. Aniccā (impermanence) is one of the Three Marks of Existence. All sentient beings experience fears, expectations, hopes, and aspirations. What we do know is that by following these three simple qualities that have been handed down to us by or ancestors, individually we will be better able to adapt to what happens. When we do this as a sangha, we will be a more vibrant and contented followers of the Buddhist Path.
Love and Gassho . . . Monshin