Buddhism in Pandemic — Focus on North America

A collection of primary source material that would be especially good for use in the classroom.

Primary sources from American and Canadian Buddhist communities

  • “Did I Miss Anything?”: A Man Emerges From a 75-Day Silent Retreat: Beyond classrooms, mainstream media are a primary source of information about Buddhism for North America. How such media frame Buddhism both reflects and shapes the perceptions and distortions that Canadians and Americans carry with them about Buddhism and their Buddhist neighbors. A good example is this New York Times article that captured widespread attention in early June (the link contains a seven-minute audio recording of the article, for those who prefer to listen rather than read).  Daniel Thorson spent the early months of the pandemic in a silent Buddhist retreat, seemingly unaware of the pandemic raging outside the monastery. His story captured the longings of virus-weary America and demonstrates how Buddhism often appears as a source of fantasy and escapism for non-Buddhist North Americans.  Thorson’s is a real but atypical Buddhist experience, since most American Buddhists aren’t white, don’t spend much time on retreat, and didn’t have the privilege of sitting out the pandemic. Students might discuss what messages about Buddhism the mainstream media sends, including how media focus on extraordinary outliers molds North American perceptions of Buddhism and Buddhists, and how such distortions affect minority religious adherents.
  • How To: A Zen Master’s tips for staying sane in challenging times: In this short article, Sister True Dedication, one of the monastic followers of the well-known Zen Master from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh, compiles her teacher’s 10 practices for staying grounded during difficult times. Many of these practices mimic the monastic lifestyle at Plum Village communities, so students can get a sense of what their life is like. Discussions can include how this view of the monastic life compares with their previous ideas and if students believe these 10 practices would be useful to them in their lives. What are the steps they would have to take as non-monastics, to incorporate these practices into their lives?
  • Join in Chanting for the Well-Being and Healing of All Those Affected by the Pandemic: With temples closed and many areas under stay-at-home orders during the worst parts of the pandemic, Web-based offerings became the only available venue for continued practice and community support. The Online Zendo of the San Francisco Zen Center suddenly moved from a peripheral to a central activity of the temple, and participation increased. There were efforts to replicate all the normal ritual and teaching activities of the temple in virtual form. One such newly online offering was the Well-Being Ceremony. Students can note how the ritual has not only migrated to a new space with new delivery methods, it was also adjusted to speak to the needs of the present moment, with language updated to reflect concerns for frontline care providers and victims of COVID-19. Such adjustments to both form and content indicate the living nature of Buddhism, a set of practices with ancient roots but which are modified to meet the felt needs of each community.
  • On the Pandemic: A Buddhist Approach to Pandemic Grocery Shopping: While Buddhist leaders and institutions naturally tend to speak with the loudest voices, most Buddhists enduring the pandemic are not clergy. For many young Asian-North Americans, Buddhism is a cultural background but not necessarily a personal identity. Some begin to engage with that background through exploration in university courses on Buddhism, which also play a significant role in the initial Buddhist encounter for non-Asian Canadians and Americans. In this essay, undergraduate student Christine Li reflects on the problem of panic buying and hoarding in light of what she learned about Chan Buddhism in class. Students may wish to consider how Buddhist courses at university affect their own lives in small or large ways.
  • Practicing Equanimity in a State of Emergency by Gary Gach: It’s often difficult to grasp the concept of equanimity for undergraduate students. It can often seem passive and indifferent, instead of wise and caring. Equanimity is required during this time because people are being called upon to stay calm even in the midst of possible danger and much fear. Gary Gach, an American Buddhist author ordained as a lay follower in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, is able to describe this concept in relation to Covid-19 in vivid ways. Ask students to come up with further examples of responses to situations, which demonstrate equanimity.
  • Revelations from the Outbreak of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus: In one of the earliest North American reactions to the pandemic, Chinese Mahayana nun Shan Ci of British Columbia cautions readers that faith in the Buddha is not enough to avoid infection. At the time of her writing, there were only seven known cases of COVID-19 in Canada. She describes how her temple swiftly instituted safety protocols at the temple, and discusses Buddhist perspectives on karma, violence, and vegetarianism. Venerable Shan Ci also relates that the temple community will perform a Buddhist ceremony designed to ward off disasters. Students’ attention should be drawn to Shan Ci’s multifaceted Buddhist approach to protecting her community: she engages in ritual, moral instruction, and improved hygiene practices to mitigate present and future suffering.
  • Reverend Earl’s Shared Thoughts and Messages: Shutdowns in the United States began in March, and through the springtime New York City became the hardest hit area in the world. The death toll soared far past 10,000 and New Yorkers reported that the blare of emergency vehicle sirens was almost constant, at all hours of the day and night. In the midst of the emergency, one of the city’s oldest Buddhist temples, the New York Buddhist Church, closed its doors and considered how to continue. Beginning on March 24 head minister Earl Ikeda began posting his thoughts to a blog on the temple website. Drawn in some cases from the weekly dharma talks he started broadcasting from the temple’s empty worship hall, Rev. Ikeda’s short essays document the progression of the outbreak and his attempt to provide comfort, warning, and insight to members struggling with the threat of the virus and the sudden changes in their lives (scroll to the bottom and read upwards in order to read the posts in more-or-less chronological order). Students may be interested to note that Ikeda does not recommend any ritual solution to the pandemic—his form of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism stresses awareness and gratitude and does not believe that chanting or other ritual actions can directly change the physical world or our underlying karma.
  • “Sharon Sazberg Makes me Feel Better” on the 10% Happier Podcast: In this episode of 10% Happier Podcast, host Dan Harris interviews Sharon Salzberg, a lay American vipassana meditation teacher, about how she is dealing with pandemic anxiety. Salzberg conveys how she has made peace with the unknown, using attitudes of lovingkindness and understanding of interconnection. Salzberg’s personal feelings about the pandemic will hopefully be revealing and relatable to students. This episode is over an hour. Buddhism instructors could have students listen to this podcast on their own to prepare for class, or the instructor could curate a list of podcasts of similar lengths concerning Covid-19 for students to choose from, to discuss in class. Besides 10% Happier, other good podcasts would be Lion’s Roar and Tricycle Talks.
  • Together While Apart: Compassion for the Long Haul: For many contemporary Buddhists social service and charitable giving are primary forms of practice, and the tragedy of the pandemic is also an opportunity to carry out their religious activities. The American branch of the international Buddhist network Tzu Chi (based on Taiwan) leapt into action early in the pandemic. They issued a call for people to commit to daily prayers and a vegetarian diet, with a web form where individuals and groups could record their pledges. But their main response was to collect, purchase, and distribute millions of masks, face shields, gloves, and other protective equipment. Students can examine their website to discover the range of media and strategies—including dedicated apps and professional videos—that Buddhist charities use to stimulate donations and display back to members the fruits of their good works.
  • The White Way, July 2020 (Note that this link opens a PDF file): Buddhism is a global religion, but most Buddhists practice it in particular places, within specific local communities. The newsletter of the Mo’ili’ili Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Honolulu is a good example. Founded in 1906, the temple has nurtured many generations of American Buddhists through trials and tragedies, including the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent persecution of Japanese-Americans, and many natural disasters. The July issue of The White Way demonstrates the joy and changes that accompanied the reopening of the temple after temporary pandemic closure. Progress has been made, but life has not returned to normal: the annual mid-summer Obon festival has become virtual, many funerals are being done remotely, and attendees have to maintain distance from one another at temple services. But with masks on, Buddhist boy scouts, temple cooks, and traditional dancers celebrate various life milestones and keep their community going into the unpredictable future. Students can observe the range of activities across the generations of a thriving Buddhist temple and consider how the pandemic experience differently affects ministers, high school graduates, mourners, and others who participate in everyday Buddhism.