Together Alone: Online Sanghas in the Age of Social Distancing
Meditation communities have quickly moved online—but the switch to virtual practice hasn’t been without its challenges.
(TRICYCLE) — The coronavirus pandemic has the world wondering what it means to live in connected isolation and the Buddhist community is no exception. Meditation centers, yoga studios and religious and cultural institutions quickly improvised their way to a new normal with cameras and high-speed internet connections. Living in a technological age means with a myriad of tools and applications at our fingertips, we never need to leave the comfort of our homes for a sense of community, even if it is a virtual one.
But using technology to facilitate what were once face-to-face encounters is not without its challenges. “You have to teach people in their heart to drop the thought of distance,” said Jundo Cohen, founder of Treeleaf Zendo, an all-digital sangha that originated in Tokyo, Japan. For the last 12 years, Treeleaf has provided a virtual Zen community for people all over the world. Some are unable to leave their homes due to illness, while others live in areas with small populations. They meet online to engage in zazen meditation, oryoki, a ritualized form of eating, and other Zen practices.
“There is always this sense that you are experimenting with the camera and the sound and it may feel artificial,” Cohen said. “But Zen has always been a kind of dance or performance with robes and incense and music. You now have to think of using the camera and the microphone as a way of bringing the people sitting at home into the ceremony.”
Roshi Joan Halifax, abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, had never thought of streaming the center’s daily zazen sessions before the pandemic. “The technology we’ve deployed facilitates the communication of our practice here to a much wider sangha,” she said. Once they decided to temporarily close their doors to outside visitors, Upaya’s staff mobilized quickly. They brought in the local cable provider to increase their internet speed and installed a high-definition camera in the zendo. Upaya also took steps to move its chaplaincy training program online.
Making the transition was trickier than expected. “It was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” Halifax said. She added that the center aims to be as conscientious as possible about the health and well-being of the community. “Technology provides transparent pathways for people to stay in the context of the community,” she said. “It takes deep patience to actually allow oneself to accept the conditions that the whole world is experiencing and to have the forbearance not to fall apart.”
Many museums and cultural institutions are also going digital. After the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City was forced to close its doors as part of the city-wide shutdown, the museum directors decided to feature the Rubin’s Tibetan Shrine Room on YouTube and as an interactive resource on their website. Prior to closing, the shrine room was a wildly popular spot for both first-time visitors and longtime members seeking meditation and quiet contemplation. In order to recreate this space virtually, museum staff recorded a two-hour high-definition video of the room, complete with flickering butter lamps, thangka paintings, and religious objects such as incense vessels, cymbals, and an offering pitcher. They also added a soundtrack of Buddhist monks and nuns chanting mantras to deepen the online-viewing experience. “It gives some sense of calm in this time of great uncertainty,” said one online commenter.
With yoga and meditation classes moving online, finding a time to practice with others from home has become relatively easy.
A common stumbling block that yoga and meditation classes moving online run into is the sound quality. Part of this is tied to the limitations of live-stream technology—the tinny chime of a bell marking the start of meditation or the echoing feedback loop when the video conference’s audio is not muted. There is also what sonic ethnographer SA (Stacey) Bliss described as “the energetic, cooperative, vibrational loss of what it sounds like to be in a room sitting quietly with other people.”
“[In those environments], you are being supported by others,” she said. “I’m not convinced that that power translates online.” But Bliss doesn’t believe that sitting or practicing with others online is without merit. “Thought waves can be powerful en masse,” she said. “If we are all online thinking and not being distracted by what’s going on in our own environment, then we can replicate some of the experience [of practicing with people in real life].”
This period of connected isolation seems to offer the opportunity to form a different understanding of the nature of reality. According to Treeleaf founder Jundo, a good teacher can help dharma practitioners realize this. “Most of reality is created between the ears,” he said. “This [situation] teaches us something about how the mind makes the experience.”
Halifax shared a similar sentiment. “Maybe some people would find it a dharma door, and others might find it weird. Bless them both,” she said. “[Online practice] is not for everybody. I know that many of us who are sitting in the room or at a distance miss the warm hand-to-hand and face-to-face connections. This kind of intimacy is a really important part of Zen.” Nonetheless, Halifax was grateful to be able to offer the teachings and practices of Upaya online. “Yet the hardness of this presents an extraordinary opportunity. There’s a great sense of gratitude that we have the blessing of the technological resources available to share that blessing in any way we can.” One virtual visitor to Upaya’s daily zazen service expressed her gratitude on Facebook, commenting, “It has been a few years since I stepped into zendo for an early quiet stillness, bowed, and took my place. Tears flow. I needed reminding of who I am. Thank you, I shall return.”
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.