Inside the Cloistered Cloister

· Articles & Essays

by Hokyu JL Aronson

>>> Lately I’ve been thinking. Years from now, everyone will speak of their life in quarantine, who they were with (if anyone) and how they occupied their time. But for now, and for a while to come, what many of us are reflecting on is where we were just prior. What was that life of easy mobility and carefree interaction? Where did it go? When will it be possible again? Although living in a Buddhist monastery grants me a stable predictability of schedule and community even through a pandemic, I’m also thinking of the lead up to the lockdown, bewildered by the difference.

In the late stages of winter, when people still visited their aging parents in Florida, or anywhere for that matter, I was on a flight back to New York when I became aware of a tightness in my throat and glands. My father had been getting over an upper respiratory infection that my mother had endured the previous week. They’d hoped I wouldn’t get sick like they’d been, but by the time I got from JFK to the subway, it was clear something was coming on.

With desperate stubbornness, I plodded on to my evening plans: dinner at a popular pizza gastropub in Kensington, Brooklyn with a couple friends I hadn’t seen in several years. It was packed, the way so many restaurants were on Friday nights, and we stayed till closing time catching up and talking close in order to be heard over the Spotify playlist. By the time I collapsed in bed, and over a fitful night, the self-deception was over: I was sick with what felt like a whopper of a cold. I stayed in bed most of the next day, taking up a spare room at the Zen Center, and then caught a late afternoon bus back upstate. I had to get out of the city. After all, it was the end of my vacation week and I had further plans for Saturday night in Kingston at a different crowded bar, seeing an experimental guitar performance with another friend. I dutifully warned him that I’d just come down with something and he brushed it off. “No worries, I’ll pop a vitamin C when I get home.”

People used to say things like that.

Did I have COVID-19? I didn’t really consider it at the time. Although the virus ransacking China and parts of Europe was surely headed this way, and although it was already the top story on everyone’s minds, we didn’t yet know it had made landfall in North America (as early as January, in fact). We didn’t yet have evidence from the peak of infections and deaths in the greater New York area in April and early May that indicated Coronavirus was actually rampant in early and mid-March. To all of us, and officially, the epidemic had yet to go pan.

When I returned to the Monastery on March 1, I exercised the same caution that I normally would with a cold, which is to say, not a lot. To be clear, ZMM has become much more vigilant in recent years when it comes to contagions. Residents are encouraged to “go down” as soon as they feel symptomatic of something greater than common fatigue.

Things used to be different. The Zen culture was less supportive of what could have been interpreted as pampering. If others more senior could tough it out and soldier on throughout the day, there was internalized pressure for you to do the same. Consequently, colds and flus would ravage the body resident. By the time individuals felt awful enough to really require rest and even medical attention, they might find themselves in a cluster with others, sometimes grouped bunk by bunk in the Jizo House.

Like I said, I’m stubborn and so, perhaps, did not exercise the caution that I should have when returning to my community. One resident did get sick the following week, and then another. Just a week or two after my trip, the country was now in the panic zone. COVID was declared a pandemic on March 9. The young residents who I likely passed something on to were put in improvised isolation, a fate I’d escaped, flying under the radar of those early days in March. One recovered within forty eight hours and remained symptom free before being let out. The other endured nearly a week of persistent symptoms. But then nothing. No one else got sick and no one got tested.

Shugen Roshi shares the latest news on the growing pandemic with residents in late March.

During this time, for the Monastery as for the greater society, there was much uncertainty, even more uncertainty than we have now, if that can be believed. Shugen Roshi and various monastics and staff were closely following the news. One resident with organizational experience, Annie Ng, was made itso facto Coronavirus czar. Her daily caretaking assignment, which often extended through the morning, was tracking the latest statistics and announcements and compiling a daily briefing with the latest information available: How many cases in New York State? How many in Ulster County? What did these numbers indicate about transmission rates? Annie, along with Sekku Harrison, also researched sanitization protocols and best practices for containing, if not eliminating, the spread of something invisible, potentially lethal, and probably inevitable.

New York State essentially shuttered itself on Friday, March 13. The next day, we did the same.

Temperatures taken 3x a week. (We later got an infrared thermometer.)

A Live Situation

Those first couple weeks are a blur to me now. Meetings, huddles, cancelations. We sent an email out to our entire mailing list but were mostly vague on what and how we would be responding to this crisis, other than observing state and local guidelines and continuing to update our podcast. Within days, it seemed, a number of practice centers and Buddhist publications were sending out inspiring encouragements and announcing online teachings and group meditation. A friend of mine in Brooklyn with subscriptions to many a Buddhist mailing list, including ours, noted that the MRO seemed to be lagging in actually giving people something to to do. She forwarded me one announcement after another and included her own note at the top: “Where are you guys?”

What could I say? I wondered how many of these places had full time staff who could work around the clock if necessary to get something done. Our core staff are monastics following a rigorous training schedule.  That wasn’t about to change, but one way or another, everything else would.

Senior monastics meet with lay senior students over Zoom to discuss the quarantine.

Although we’d already been offering small group sessions with teachers over Zoom and livestreaming Sunday talks monthly for a couple years, we almost immediately decided to make everything live: morning and evening meditation, liturgy services, and then improbably, sesshin intensives. Shugen Roshi, who has historically greeted each of our gradual moves online with cautious skepticism, set aside any hesitation (his own and others’) in this dramatic transition. Almost overnight, we needed to flip our mode of sharing this place and our practice. The iron gates had swung closed and, as for so many other sanghas and institutions across the world, the portals and platforms bridging space and time had flung open.

For those of us inside the cloistered cloister, the shift has been at times imperceptible and yet in so many ways life changing. When we first increased all the live streams and Zooms, Hojin Sensei said she felt like she was in The Truman Show. Just keeping Zoom meetings organized with two, then three, and now five accounts turned Sarah Sands, our program coordinator, into a high volume switch board operator. I divided my time experimenting with different microphone setups in the zendo, crafting our weekly newsletters and coaching teachers on Zoom etiquette. (“Raise those laptops, folks! No one wants to look up your nose for 90 minutes!”)

Hojin subsequently became an enthusiastic Zoom proponent, offering weekly workshops on creative expression and meeting regularly with students, including the heroic Temple residents in NYC.

Most Monastery residents have adjusted to diminished privacy without too much struggle. The camera is an inconspicuous eyeball wedged into the zendo woodwork. Making sense of this pandemic from each individual’s perspective is a different story. Speaking personally (with the awareness that others share some or all of these tensions), I have found myself struggling at times with a sense of guilt for the privilege of living in community and relative safety at a time when so many others’ lives have been upended, when so many are living in isolation and scarcity. How can I possibly offer enough to match the gifts I’ve received, beginning with the gift of life, and now with good health, comfort and contact?

On the flip side, what will happen if the contagion is inadvertently brought into our biome bubble? From the beginning of the quarantine, residents were asked to remain on the Monastery grounds or within our neighborhood for walks and exercise. No outings further than where your feet can take you. A few of us are responsible for errands a couple times a week and we maintain strict protocols with masks and gloves and sanitizer. But what if we miss something? What if an outside delivery person is less cautious than we’d like? It could be weeks before we realize it, by which time a dozen or more people could be sick.

And what protocols do we follow, and to what degree? Families quarantined together do not exercise the same cautions they do outside their home. They breathe the same air, use the same utensils, turn the same doorknobs. People need to feel comfortable in their own home. And this property of 220 aces and several large buildings is our home. Virtually every scenario was considered before settling on the protocols we do have in place, and they balance comfort and sanity with basic steps to minimize risk. And they will shift over time. But are they enough? Are they too much? Although we have two registered nurses in residency, if an epidemiologist were to pay us a visit, would they tell us we were fooling ourselves into an illusion of safety?

These are important questions and they are also their own kind of infection. Normally not one to panic, I have at times struggled with the sense of inadequacy to the challenges we are all facing. Of course, this is valid. We are all individually inadequate which is why we need each other. But the fear that I am not doing enough to keep my 31 “housemates” safe, or to adequately provide for them in my role as kitchen manager and procurer, can be, in a word, activating. And how can I do enough to help keep our broader Sangha informed and engaged during this time when people are drawing strength from their practice centers (and from each other), even when they can’t visit in person?

Making Contact

I needed to shift something about how I was holding all this. I knew that much. One of the first books I read on eastern religion as a teenager was Be Here Now, that seminal guide to the present moment, designed for the Age of Aquarius. Ram Das passed away last December, just as the world was entering into the Age of Covid. But I found myself returning to that original, timeless teaching as a refuge. When I felt the rising temperatures of dread and anxiety, which for a while was each time I sat down on my cushion, I would make contact with the breath and my body and instruct myself to be here, to be now.

What does it mean to be here? To be at one with here; this present place with these present people, these present sensations. What is it to be now? To embody this moment, not this societal moment, per se, but this actual moment that I am experiencing which might include what is happening beyond my immediate surroundings? These are not questions that will solve the pandemic, or make me more productive, or smarter. They will not tell loved ones beyond my reach that I have not abandoned them, though they may not hear from me as much as they hear from their non-cloistered yet equally quarantined friends. But if I am merely a part of this dynamic whole—and the dynamic response—then surely I can only do my part if I am in touch with the wholeness, the sufficiency of this very moment, of this very part.

Chanting Master Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra on April 11.
(Zoom monitor in upper right and camera in the middle for outside participants.)

No Distance

Someone on the outside recently asked me if I felt that the quarantine has brought the residents closer. This should be the case. Instead of dispersing when we’re off schedule on hosan, we’ve gathered.  Instead of going out for a meal, a hike, or other diversions, we’ve had an open mic night, a Passover Seder, a poetry group, the occasional tea ceremony, and many movie screenings. We’ve also joined together a number of times to more deliberately process the experience. How are we each carrying the weight of things at this time? What private grief are we bearing about a relative or friend who has been touched by COVID? And also quite relevantly, how are we affected by the actions of teachers, seniors and those with authority in our sangha in a time when power and transparency (or lack thereof) are already feeling so threatening?

I’m sure many of us would say that yes, the pandemic has presented opportunities for getting to know one another better, for sharing more deeply, for feeling more deeply. I’m sure or at least hope that the quarantine has brought families closer, couples closer. I hope it’s brought individuals closer to themselves without losing an appreciation for the sacred social. But I answered no. For me, I don’t have a sense of being closer because of this. My sense is that residency is always bringing us closer. We can remain guarded even in times of great vulnerability, and generously transparent without any extra provocation. Living in community, training in waking up, serving when it’s a joy and when it’s not. We are all always in this together.

There have been a number of challenges these last few months, some low points, personally speaking, and some highlights. Among the wonders of this time has been the opportunity to work with Hojin Sensei at the clay studio. Each summer, Hojin offers a ceramics retreat focused on raku firing. Due to the popularity of the program and the limited number of people whose work can fit into the kilns during a four day workshop, those of us in residency almost never get to take part. And then our busy lives prevent us from finding other time to explore this gate of creativity. But sometimes a space opens up in our lives that shifts things unexpectedly.

Over the course of several Saturdays this spring, sometimes following a Dogen studies series with Shugen Roshi (and outside Sangha over Zoom), Hojin gathered us together and placed balls of clay in our hands. Some of us had never handled clay before, and as we pushed and pulled the cool mud between our palms, the tight cluster of particles loosened up and responded. Some aimed at making tea bowls, some followed a different path toward forms with logic of their own.

As we massaged and shaped the clay we talked, and listened, and were silent. Another Saturday we glazed, learning how to wax parts of the bowl, keeping the clay’s original purity unadorned, or festooning our objects with color and character.

Finally, one warm spring day as ango drew to a close, we fired. We learned to wait for the kiln’s red hot combustion to transform the bowls and their glazes. We waited, not knowing what might survive the firing and what sort of changes would be occurring within. Twenty minutes later, when the top was lifted off the kiln, each bowl was seized by giant pinchers, transferred to a can fire of tinder and leaves, and finally dunked in water to be cooled.

Surprisingly quickly, each bowl was ready to be grasped by hand and appreciated for its own shockingly unique character. We gazed upon them all, sometimes unsure who’d made what, and set them out on the afternoon grass. All this, made possible by tragedy, and love, and earth, and water, fire, air, and space.

All this, and more to come.

The theme for May’s sesshin was Metta, lovingkindness for all beings. The week also brought to a close our spring ango training period and, just as we would in other times, we marked the occasion with an ango group photo. Those photos normally show a large crowd gathered on the Monastery’s back steps, a crowd mostly made up of people who had completed the ango and the sesshin. This time, as our Livestream kept running after the morning program and sangha looked on from their homes near and far, it was just the residents who gathered for the photo, just a group of people who had sheltered together for three months (and mostly longer) of intensive Zen training. On the opposite wall from us hung the ango scrolls; long hand-written rosters of those who had committed to the ango, some of whom were present for the opening ceremony 90 days earlier, not knowing how much this spring would change them and their plans.

But as we emerged from ango and our week of silence, we learned of other endings, other absences. Disrupted lives, suffocated dreams. That Sunday morning we held a fusatsu ceremony, a liturgy of atonement and renewal of vows. Shugen Roshi gave a moving talk on the ravages of injustice and relentless suffering, leaving a number of us in tears. For those of us cut off from all media that week, he shared the news of mass protests following the documented death of a black man in Minneapolis, slowly murdered by police, having been accused, essentially, of stealing a pack of cigarettes. George Floyd’s murder, coupled with the disparity in COVID deaths and infections along racial lines, burst the storm cloud of America’s skies, having grown continuously darker—not with the advent of racism and domination—but with its undeniable proof of life, 55 years after the greatest legal victories of the Civil Rights Era.

The MRO’s response to these tragedies and our shared hope and commitment towards change are being documented elsewhere. For me and fellow residents of this cloister, we can bear witness to this tumult, but some of us feel frustratingly at a remove. We can write letters, call congress, vote. We can study our own roles in perpetuating racism and oppression and we can do that together, holding ourselves and each other accountable. But we do that in a context which, for some, may look like an escape from the responsibility of engagement, an escape from the demands of justice.

To me, it is neither of those things, and yet there is a tension that must be leaned into in order to be fully felt and explored. For me, what comes back is proof of the worthiness of this path. My monastic vocation is the greatest protest I can muster in response to the cries of the world. In a residents meeting later the following week, my senior dharma sister Shoan voiced a similar sentiment. First expressing the frustration of not being more directly involved in the current movement, she said, “But I chose this life very deliberately, very consciously—as the way I want to address the suffering of the world. At the root. I don’t see what we do here as separate from the world at large. But I know I also need to make that real.” Mmm hmm.

Photo credit: Amanda Flavell via Unsplash

Outside our gates, across the local communities and the continent, things are opening back up. In peremptory fashion people are stepping out, getting back to work, re-turning and re-tuning. As of this writing, the Monastery is exercising a bit more caution. Our risk may be low but in a household of 30, our stakes are quite high. We’ll loosen a few restrictions and watch reports along with everyone else. We’ll respond in whatever way best protects the health and safety of this community. We’ll do our best to preserve these buildings, grounds, and less tangible resources for the time being, and for the time when we can yet again open our physical practice spaces to others.

We’ll germinate, sprout, flower, burst, and in some cases, bolt. We’ll do what’s always been done in monastic communities for as long as we can, and in as many ways as there are individuals among us. With joy, with sorrow, with faith in the Three Treasures, and in one form or another, with you.

May 18 — Mn. Yukon gets surprised by a resident flash mob in the garden to celebrate his birthday with song and apple pie.

Currently a novice monastic, Hokyu JL Aronson serves as Tenzo (kitchen supervisor) and oversees a variety of Monastery media projects.

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