I write this from a peculiar perspective, as editor of Northwest Dharma News, a Seattle-based twice-yearly digital publication produced by Northwest Dharma Association, and as the leader of a Buddhist meditation group in Kirkland, Washington, called Eastside Insight Meditation.
(In this tradition Dharma (Dhamma in Pali) simultaneously refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and the path to enlightenment, the contemplative path to be followed for people to find ultimate freedom of heart and mind, irrespective of outer conditions.)
From the editor’s seat, shepherding into publication multiple stories about Buddhist groups’ responses to the pandemic, I’ve gained a unique entry into the thinking and understanding of Buddhist leaders across the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada.
I am sure nobody in the dharma community has enjoyed the pandemic.
While it is true that most Dharma groups have been preparing for the end of the pandemic, they also have been adapting to this time, and benefiting from it, in ways most would never have anticipated.
I’ll reflect on several of these that may prove educational.
The first has been the removal of geographic boundaries and limitations, which for many have opened up new worlds.
Groups across the region swiftly shifted to online gatherings, usually through Zoom. This typically meant meeting online for a period of meditation or some other form of Dharma practice, followed by a Dharma talk, and questions and discussion.
While most at first felt Zoom was without question less fulfilling and engaging than in-person practice, that perspective slowly evolved.
While most had expected communities to wilt online, in fact, over time many sanghas (communities) grew in two key ways.
One was that many sanghas started gaining new members from outside their normal geographic boundaries, people from far away who never could have attended before. This was aided by the fact that Buddhist approaches are as many and varied, as the people who teach them, creating untold opportunities for potential students to meet with teachings or teachers who fit their temperament.
The move to Zoom also opened doors to people with physical conditions – such as those who are blind/visually-impaired or lack mobility – to more easily attend teachings and join sanghas wherever they wanted. For instance, our own sangha, Eastside Insight Meditation, has gained numerous people who may have had difficulty attending previously, and are now core members of our community.
Many new sanghas have also formed due to the flexibility and accessibility of virtual gatherings. For example, two senior students of Thich Nhat Hanh, one on Guemes Island near Anacortes, the other in Palm Springs, started sitting together online every morning. They then invited a few friends, and swiftly the gatherings grew until it became Morning Light Sangha, with more than 60 people attending.
While Buddhist groups bloomed during the pandemic, something similar happened for individuals’ practice, a second benefit. This grew out of the fact that Buddhist practitioners are essentially contemplatives, and Buddhist practice is ultimately individual. The pandemic has proven a boon to individual people in multiple ways.
For one thing, while many people over the last two years grieved the loss of large entertainments like concerts and sporting events, and large family gatherings, for many Buddhist practitioners this has been something of a relief. To generalize, many found the receding of social pressures, and the lessening distractions of sensory input, a positive boon for their practice. They turned their isolation and the closing arenas of social intercourse into an arena for protracted retreat.
The result is that many people hunkered down in their apartments or homes and devoted themselves to deep and protracted meditation retreats in ways they were unable to do before. For these people the last two years has been more a time of fruition rather than despair.
Related to this individual deepening, the pandemic has also opened individual access to the most accomplished Buddhist teachers around the world, which I consider a fourth benefit. Pre-pandemic, the primary way to hear teachings from such teachers was by attending their retreats, an expensive process that often required lots of travel, made more difficult by how quickly retreats often filled up, leaving many stranded on lotteries and waiting lists.
But over the last two years some of the greatest teachers have been offering extensive teachings online. I’ve had far more exposure to such teachers over the last two years than any other time in my 30 years of practice.
Many of these retreats have been global, adding a new degree of depth to the experience. For instance, Bhikkhu Analayo held teachings through an organization in New Zealand, even though he was in Massachusetts, to about 60 people around the world. As another example, Gil Fronsdal, a very seasoned teacher who’s so popular it was nearly impossible to get into his retreats, now reaches more than 400 people daily online. He started offering virtual 30-minute meditation and 15-minute talks at the start of the pandemic, and to his surprise it became a global phenomenon.
Now that things are opening up, nearly all Buddhist groups are opting for some form of “hybrid” practice, which means offering teachings and practice periods, and retreats, simultaneously online and in person. This embraces all people, and the technology is good enough that the distinction between online and in-person participation virtually vanishes.
What has been surprising is how many people are opting to remain online, in our case about three-quarters, even when things are relatively safe on-site in terms of the pandemic.
The pandemic has certainly been a cause of great difficulty, but the Dharma community has found ways to adapt that have brought joy and connection. The increased participation, inclusivity, and accessibility through virtual platforms, have added more opportunities to deepen one’s individual practice, and have enriched the Buddhist community in many ways. We will never forget the lives lost during the pandemic, but we also celebrate the opportunity before us for growth and new relationships.