By Eve Romm
In the 2500 year history of Buddhism, sanghas and practitioners have always had to adapt to difficult times, and our own era is no exception. The dharma which has been passed down to us survived natural disasters and political marginalization, famine and war, conflict and corruption. So it’s no surprise that training in the MRO continues with vibrancy, creativity, and enthusiasm despite the fact that the Monastery’s and the Temple’s physical gates have been shut for several months. In the past few months, many of the traditional rhythms and forms of training have had to adapt to the lack of in-person contact between the resident and lay sanghas, and it’s exciting to watch new skillful means arise to meet these new challenges.
In May the sangha celebrated an unusual one-person Jukai ceremony as Sarah Sands received the sixteen precepts, the dharma name Taisho (“radiant body”), and a rakusu which she sewed while closely supported by expert seamstress Kaishin via Zoom. Taisho’s commitment to right action was witnessed and celebrated by twenty-eight residents, and no less than 165 at-home bodhisattvas! Those on the docket already to take the precepts have been invited to come into residency at the Monastery if they can to complete that week-long training which concludes with a Sunday ceremony.
A few weeks prior, Claudia and I sat tangaryo, a full day of unstructured zazen culminating in a short New Student Entering Ceremony marking our first entry into the zendo as formal students asking for the support of the community. This time, the traditional circuit of the zendo included a bow to the Livestream camera, a poignant way to signal our gratitude to and continued connection with the fiercely committed sangha members outside the gates.
Although both Claudia and myself saw Guardian Council as lay practitioners before the shutdown, we were able to come into residency by completing a two-week quarantine at home. Now that testing is more widely available in New York State, prospective residents have the additional option to receive a COVID test in Kingston and then remain in isolation at the Monastery until the results come back. This new method, while more convenient in many ways, is also a bit unpredictable. While some have gotten their results promptly in a day or two, others waited in Room 33 for more than a week!
The Training Office recently met with the senior students who comprise the Guardian Council to discuss how the process of becoming a student can be made available to those at home, many of whom had Guardian Council and tangaryo dates cancelled due to the shutdown. Given the success of the online face-to-face teaching that Shugen Roshi, Hojin Sensei, and Hogen Sensei have been offering, the decision was made to experiment with a new process for becoming a formal student remotely. For those who have completed an in-person Introduction to Zen Training Weekend and a sesshin at the Monastery or Temple and who feel ready to make a commitment to a teacher, there is now the option to meet with Guardian Council via Zoom.
Prospective students who pass through online Guardian Council will then be able to sit tangaryo in their homes, supported by a monitor, again via Zoom. The traditional tea with the teacher will be replaced by an informal Zoom meeting, and shokan, the process of formally asking for the teachings in the dokusan or daisan room, will also happen remotely. Recognizing that there is no substitute for real-life presence at such a poignant moment, those who go through this process virtually will be invited to do their nine bows to their teacher again in person once we can open again.
Formal students who have not yet dipped their toes into the unfamiliar water of virtual face-to-face teaching are warmly invited to give it a try. It’s been an authentic and valuable practice for those who have taken it up to date! And those who are not yet formal students, including participants in the online Zen Practice Weekend, are encouraged to become Practicing Members of the MRO and to reach out to the seniors for one-on-one conversations if they wish.
Although the closed doors may be frustrating to those in the local community used to stopping by every few days, the wealth of online offerings has been a boon to those living further afield or with limited mobility. As a resident, I’m constantly inspired by the strength and dedication of the lay practitioners doing intensive sitting in their homes month after month – the energy of your practice is palpable, and a source of great encouragement, support, and liveliness to those of us within the cloister.
When I asked Shoan if there were any general comments she’d like to make about training during the coronavirus pandemic, she spoke about the importance of remaining in contact with the Three Treasures. She expressed the hope that all sangha members, regardless of formal affiliation, will find a way that works for them to stay connected – whether that’s the Livestream, email, phone calls, paper letters, or something further outside the box. More than ever in this time of widespread isolation, we need each other!