By Eve Romm
Until two weeks ago, joining the residents for zazen meant hurriedly finishing the dinner dishes, throwing on my coat and heading down the road to the Monastery. Opening the front door, I would be greeted by the smell of incense and the wooden dragon’s arresting gaze before finding an empty seat in the zendo.
These days, sitting with the sangha has a very different routine. As 7:30 pm approaches, I along with practitioners living down the road or as far away as New Zealand will make room on our altars for a laptop and open the Monastery livestream, where gray-robed residents filter in and take their seats to the familiar rhythm of the timekeeper’s han run. This week, more than a hundred people are participating in “virtual sesshin” from their own homes, committing to four hours of zazen per day, periods of mindful eating and work practice, and limited contact with email and the news.
Strange as it is to have my laptop and Internet connection suddenly become a central part of my meditation practice, it’s surprisingly powerful to be able to see and hear the zendo. Particularly poignant are the small, ordinary sights and sounds: the familiar rustling of robes and crackling of radiators, the straightening of zabutons after service, and whispered conferences about the subtleties of service positions. Shugen Roshi recently made a small but telling change in the liturgy: instead of bowing towards the center of the room as part of the formal exit, the monastics and residents now turn and bow towards the back of the zendo, where the livestream camera is mounted. This subtle shift makes me feel intimately included in zendo practice, even at a distance.
Not all of our digital community happens in silence, though. Everything from Zen Kids meetings to art practice sessions to conversations with teachers and monastics has been moved online, so almost every day there is an opportunity to see the faces of the sangha. As much as I miss the physical presence of the community within the monastery building, there is an unexpected silver lining to this time of distancing—the ability to be in closer contact with the many practitioners who live too far away to come to the Monastery regularly. On many of the Zoom meetings, there are faces I’ve never seen, or see infrequently—the New Zealand sangha gathered in their zendo, students living overseas, old friends of the Monastery who have moved away, and many others.
In addition to the generous virtual offerings coming from the Monastery cloister, the lay sangha has found a number of other ways to use the digital tools available to nourish practice in this time of uncertainty. Seigei Spark and Sankai Lemmens, both senior lay practitioners, started a “Sangha Treasure” google group, a platform for sharing photos and staying connected. Shea Zuiko Settimi and Mary Bosakowski, who share a house in Phoenicia, host a Zoom meeting every night at 8 PM to check in, chant the Metta Sutta, and offer dedications or intentions.
Regarding this daily moment of connection, Mary writes: “It’s so warming, so enriching, so tender for us to spend this time and explore this teaching, together. And, afterwards, to go around the circle and offer our personal dedications. We have members of our own sangha, other sanghas, as well as friends who, while they may not identify as Buddhists, join in whole-heartedly. We may be few, or more than a few, on any given night, but each and every night has its own power and grace. I’m grateful for this time together. Grounded by it. In awe of it.”
These new digital tools have great potential, but also present some challenges. It’s hard to maintain a mental cloister when the same screen that houses my virtual zendo also offers email, text messages, work, and a host of other distractions. After some experimenting, I found a method that works for me: I tune into the livestream while sitting, but keep my laptop out of sight. That way, the kyosaku’s whack and dokusan bell provide the familiar soundtrack of sesshin without the seductive glow of the LED screen.
Other lay practitioners have found their own ways of balancing digital engagement with solitary practice:
Shea Settimi says, “I’ve learned that I have to get really quiet and grounded before I ‘enter’ the day. I do stretching, liturgy, sitting, tarot practice and journaling. And then I open it up. I’m blessed to have a very large and amazing circle of friends, but talking/texting all day with others can be exhausting. I’m still learning to find the balance. I’ve also begun evening rituals to plant intentional seeds in my mind before going to bed. In a time like this where there is so much uncertainty and so little that I can control, the power of my mind feels really magnified. Every choice is important because I can experience the effects so directly and immediately.”
Seigei Spark set up a new home zendo in her painting studio. She spoke to me about the challenge of doing zazen in front of the computer, noting that the “checking mind”, which is pulled to texts, emails, or the news, is hard to let go of when the device is within arm’s reach. Although Seigei mostly does her zazen practice off-line, she expressed gratitude for the extensions of zendo liturgy into the home sphere that the livestream enables.