Lockdown Dharma

Buddhist communities consider if, when and how to reopen

By Liz Kineke • Spring 2021 issue 


This spring marks one year since COVID-19 was first detected in the United States, after which Buddhist centers across the country swiftly shut down. But as the US begins the daunting task of vaccinating millions of people, sanghas have a new challenge: deciding when and if they should reopen, and if they do, what it will look like. Although some are opening on a limited basis, many centers remain extra cautious, expanding their remote offerings and staying online-only until the vaccine is widely distributed.

Seattle was an epicenter in the early days of the US pandemic, and the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple moved its services online on March 22, 2020. The center remains closed today.

In the meantime, this 120-year-old Jodo Shinshu community has grown adept at creating a virtual presence through its YouTube channel, which was only sporadically active prior to the shutdown. Now, in addition to weekly services in English and Japanese, the sangha broadcasts a talk show-style discussion called “Minds of Ministers” featuring local Jodo Shinshu clergy. The sangha also recreated online the beloved Obon festival, when Japanese Buddhists honor their deceased ancestors. Traditional Japanese Odori dancers and taiko drummers wore masks and maintained social distancing in prerecorded performances. The temple also produced a virtual memorial service with ritual chanting, incorporating footage of six different cemetery sites in the area.

Before the pandemic, an estimated 14,000 people passed each year through the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC), a sangha with teachers from different Buddhist traditions in downtown Oakland, California. After the center closed, the staff formed a self-described “Safety Squad” to monitor COVID developments and plan for the center’s eventual reopening. In July, EBMC announced on their website that the sangha would not reopen its physical space until spring 2021 and would base its plans on public health advisories.

Over the fall months, restrictions eased in New York City, the pandemic’s former epicenter, where more than 20,000 people have died. Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, abbot of the Village Zendo, said via email that while the community is “very conscious of the importance of a place to practice,” they’ll continue to meet virtually until a vaccine is available and infection rates are low.

But not all centers remain closed. New York State has allowed religious organizations to reopen at 25 percent capacity, and the Kadampa Meditation Center in Glen Spey, a two-hour drive northwest of New York City, did just that in July 2020. Temple visitors are required to use hand sanitizer upon entry, maintain social distancing, and wear a mask at all times, according to the center’s website. The temple itself implemented enhanced surface cleaning and installed acrylic barriers.

In Wisconsin, the Chosei Zen community knows that reopening is not a permanent state. The Madison Rinzai Zen temple temporarily closed in March 2020, reopened in June when the state loosened restrictions, and then closed again in July as the numbers started to rise once more. The closings were disappointing for members, and the community considered staying open by introducing mitigation measures but ultimately decided not to do so.

Chosei Zen will remain closed for in-person practice for the foreseeable future, although a group of four practitioners continue to live and train together at Chosei’s dojo in Spring Green, Wisconsin. On the brighter side, what developed out of this destabilizing period was a new way to connect through an online platform called the Virtual Dojo. In addition to meeting twice daily on Zoom for zazen (sitting meditation), practitioners can take advantage of intensive one-on-one training with a teacher. Online courses in the fine arts include shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and shakuhachi (bamboo flute); there is also a weekly tai chi class. Heather Meikyo Scobie Roshi, who spearheads the Virtual Dojo endeavor, was surprised by how well it’s working. “Our tradition puts a lot of emphasis on entering Zen training through the body, and also on ki [energy],” she said. “So most of us were pleasantly surprised to find that Zen could work at all online.”

Reporting for this article was supported by Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, a journalism and resource initiative based at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Liz Kineke is a journalist who for the last 14 years has specialized in reporting on religion. She has written and produced 45 half-hour shows about religion in America for the CBS Religion & Culture series.