First – Thank you everyone who attended and participated in the Spring cleanup day on April 30th. We got a lot done, spruced up the grounds, and enjoyed a sangha activity. There will be another clean-up day on June 18th, the weekend before the Public Tokudo ceremony noted in the calendar. This gives you another opportunity to chip in and have a good time. Did I mention that it builds merit?

“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression that is claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese blessing/curse. The saying is apocryphal, with no actual Chinese source found. However, you get the intent.

That being said, it would seem we are living in interesting times.  We are living in confusing, challenging, and anxiety producing times. This seems more so now than any time during my seventy plus years of life.

This was evident on April 2nd, when Tendai Buddhist Institute held its mandatory yearly Executive Board Meeting for the temple. Among the items discussed was when and how in person gatherings should be held, not just at Jiunzan Tendai-ji, but at all the sangha. Should in-person gatherings be limited to fully vaccinated individuals, do we check certificates, are masks required, on and on. Keep in mind that at the time there was government discussion about whether lock downs would be reimposed, masking mandates were being lifted around the country, a relatively new variant of COVID was increasing rapidly in incidence. The culture wars regarding personal freedom versus social responsibility were bringing out the worst in people.

We resumed our in-person gatherings in March. Shortly after our first meeting I received an email from the spouse of a regular attendee who was very irate that we had returned to in-person gatherings. She informed me that such a move was totally irresponsible etc. Within a few days another member had seen a person at a social event who attended our gatherings several years ago. She said she was interested in attending again and asked if there were restrictions on attendance. When she was told we require vaccinations she sent an angry email later saying she would not attend a religious organization that ‘discriminated’ because we required vaccinations. She is a known anti-vaccination advocate.

During our board meeting we concluded that different sangha would need to follow procedures that matched the municipality and conditions where each individual sangha is located. What is true in Columbia County, New York at a particular location and point in time is not the same as Ontario, Canada or Arlington, Virginia, Puerto Rico, etc. at the same or different point in time.

People who study public health note that human beings are very subjective when it comes to personal risk assessment. We all recognize, for instance, that a person in their late teens has a very different notion of risk to oneself and others driving a car contrasted to someone in their fifties. People who consider themselves rational may still be extremely subjective in their personal risk assessment.

People who are not allergic, have religious philosophies (i.e. Christian Scientists) or are otherwise restricted from taking vaccinations view the vaccine as more dangerous than COVID. Close to 1,000,000 people have died thus far from COVID. This does not include the numbers of people who have experienced long COVID which may lead to further deaths and disability in years to come. It is estimated that perhaps 15,000 people may have died from the vaccine. To put this into perspective, the number of people in the U.S who have received at least one vaccine is 256,777,440. The percentage who have died from the vaccine is 0.00006 percent of the population compared to 0.003 percent of the population who have died from COVID-19.

I don’t need to address the political, conspiratorial, alternative medicine and downright bizarre origins of the antivax proponents. That’s of interest to me as a biomedical anthropologist, but it would take us deep into the weeds.

What has largely been missing in the discussion regarding vaccinations and masking is what public health people have long sought after; protection of the vulnerable by vaccinations, quarantining and other measures. This also happens to coincide with the Buddhist concern.

Vaccinations have been promoted to people as individuals. This may be a reason that many people frame the discussion as a personal choice. Mandating vaccinations and masks, which has been employed successfully since the 19th century, has been seen as an abrogation of individual rights. As I wrote over two years ago when masking was the only preventative measure, if one person wears a mask, (this was before K-95 masks became the gold standard) the person wearing the masks is better protected, if everyone wears a mask we are protecting each other. We need to view vaccinations in a similar light.

From an evolutionary biology perspective as any infectious agent evolves it transforms from more virulent to less virulent, less infectious to more infectious. This is true of viruses and bacteria especially. If a virus kills its host and is less infectious it will not be as successful in reproducing, which is ultimately its purpose. The COVID virus is a case study in this scenario. As it mutates, from Alpha, Beta, Omicron, and now on to Omicron BA.1, BA.1.1 and BA.2. it is becoming less lethal and easier to spread. While the case numbers around the country are currently climbing rapidly, the hospital and death rates are plunging.

Because we have required people to be vaccinated in order to attend our in-person gatherings, and we have hospital-grade air purifiers in both the hondo and the house, we have not had any COVID cases develop in people while at our various in-person assemblies.

The pandemic is still a concern, however if a person is fully vaccinated and attends a Wednesday evening service, the chances of infection are less than catching the flu during flu season, and the consequences about the same.

Anyone who perceives him or herself as more vulnerable may attend and wear a K-95 mask. We have them available for anyone who would like to wear one. There is no judgement. Also, anyone who is not vaccinated is also free to wear a K-95 mask. Pretty soon vaccinations will not be required to attend, because the unvaccinated are benefitting from everyone else in attendance being vaccinated. That is the way we limit the ravages of epidemics.

The sangha associated with Tendai Buddhist Institute are both virtual and in-person. It is great that the Dharma can now be propagated to people more personally, thousands of miles from our humble village temple. If possible, attendance in-person is always more desirable. However, one is still a valued sangha member if connected to our temple from afar.

The COVID pandemic has ravaged society and had many undesirable consequences. Conversely it has made us realize just how precious human social contact is, and especially sangha. Let us reflect on our interconnectedness in a way that we did not before this modern plague.

With Love and Gassho . . . Monshin