Reflections on Temple Resident Life Under Quarantine

· Essays, Reflections, Sangha News

Residency at our Brooklyn Temple has always been an interweaving of NYC energy with the Zen Buddhism of a lay practice center. In these early weeks of the pandemic, our current residents Oliver, Jo and Brian, have shifted gears from their personal and Temple related routines. Here they offer an inside view of their lives and Zen training, greatly changed and yet in important ways still very much the same. — MR

Post by Oliver Jay Hartman, Temple Staff

It’s hard to put into words what the last two weeks have been like for me at the Temple. With this virus has come a palpable state of anxiety that seems to pervade the whole city. Before, the constant honking of car horns, people singing on the sidewalk, and birds chirping could all be heard from inside. Now only the birds remain; the only thing we hear from distant vehicles are the sounds of police and ambulance sirens, and those who choose to leave their homes are in no mood to sing. 

Oliver checking altar flowers

The virus has created a hole in everybody’s lives, and everybody has been affected in some way. The most poignant moment of our new reality for me was the first weekend that we were closed. We were unable to connect to the Livestream for service up on the mountain so we held service just the six of us; later, we crowded around my computer to watch Shugen Roshi’s dharma talk. After the talk, at the point when the sangha would typically gather for cookies and the residents would clean up, there was instead…nothing. No Alec to joke around with, no Virginia to greet with a hug, no Tenfu to remind me of a post office-run. The Sunday program was over. I have grown to appreciate this sangha—after just three months this Temple has truly become my home—and to be disconnected from the sangha (who greeted me from the beginning with such generosity and love) was a bit of a blow.

Fast-forward two weeks later: the social distancing that originally felt like a depressing isolation has evolved into an ever-growing network of connection. This sangha has come together in ways I never would have expected—text chains of people checking in on each other, the Monastery putting together online offerings so quickly, and the teachers making themselves so available—just a few of the ways we as a community have been able to be there for each other. I receive emails, calls, and texts nearly every day from people sending their love to us at the temple. I attended an art practice workshop led by Hojin Sensei that had at least 30 people, and a lot of us wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity otherwise. People regularly check in on us at the Temple and make sure that we are cared for mentally, physically, and spiritually. It means so much to know that many people’s hearts are with us, and I hope the sangha knows that the residents’ hearts are with each and every one of them too!

Jo, Brian and Oliver holding morning liturgy service in the Buddha Hall

We—and I mean everybody on this planet—are in uncharted territory here. I count myself lucky to have the support of such a fantastic community. Our group of five residents has dwindled down to three, but we are going strong. We still follow the regular Temple schedule for dawn and evening zazen, and we hold morning service (I now have a much greater appreciation for those who have come before me as liturgist).

To my NYC sangha: it is an honor to be holding space for you during each period of zazen. When this is over, and we can open our doors for you again, the Temple will be here to welcome you back home. I love you all. Be well!

Post by Jo Hannah Eidman, Temple Resident

It’s been a really interesting time, filled with so many extremes and in-betweens too; so much stress and joy, fear and meaning. Growing up here, the only other time I’ve felt this connected with other scared New Yorkers was 9/11. 

I work on a crisis text line where people can text in about anxiety, depression, suicidality, etc. As you can imagine we have had exponential growth in the past few weeks. Not only are we seeing more need for counseling, but we are also seeing more people signing up to be volunteers (it can be done 100% remotely). I am continuously struck by this appropriate response: when there is panic and uncertainty, so many are responding with compassion and generosity. In fact, to illustrate this further, the group that is far over-represented in our new volunteers are Asian Americans, a group who are currently being targeted with racist hate crimes. 

Work is dominating most of my hours, but I am trying to keep a balance. I created a very detailed schedule that includes time for exercise, cooking, calling family/friends (especially my grandma, who is isolating alone in Queens), and even tea on the fire escape. It’s just been day two so we’ll see if I can keep to it! 

Of course the Temple schedule is still in full swing: zazen in the mornings and evenings, a simple breakfast together, zooming with teachers, and we’ve started checking in more often with each other. I see my fellow residents doing more and more for others: Oliver arranged beautiful flowers yesterday; Brian cooked many meals to donate to those in need. In some ways it feels like we are three caretakers of a lighthouse: a structure that represents safety in turbulence; a sanctuary that requires daily maintenance; a place of shelter and calm in a dark time. 

Post by Brian Wilkens, Temple Resident

For me, current events have stretched the fabric of reality so thin that it’s easy to see how precarious, fragile and precious life on this planet actually is. My illusion of safety and comfort is gone. Faced with so many forces that are out of my control, I have to ask: What was ever really in my control to begin with?    

For me, the answer is my reaction. Service and work practice have emerged as a thread that connects me to practice, the sangha and the world. My zazen is scattered and unfocused. I simply sit through and notice, returning to breath when I can. Right now my concentration is better when I’m in action, especially when that action comes from “How can I help?” And I’ve been surprised to find numerous ways to help while maintaining a helpful distance.  

Through service and work, I’ve been learning about the karma of thought and intention. For example, I’m the morning jikido. Many of my responsibilities have changed: we no longer sit in the zendo, we sit instead in the Buddha Hall, so the form and the flow of my morning ritual has been altered. However I still start each day meeting Tika on the landing. Somehow she always knows what time I start, and she likes to help. I still care for the altars in the zendo. And I still offer incense at the entrance. I found myself doing this the day after we closed. I knew nobody would be coming through the door. I knew the residents wouldn’t be coming down. I knew nobody would ever know (well… until now) if I did it or not.

But I also knew many people wanted to come through the door, who couldn’t. And in that moment, keeping the incense lit for them seemed like the most important thing I could possibly do.

I have no idea how the karma of morality works. Why it works. It doesn’t really make any logical sense to me that the universe cares about my thoughts and intentions. Karma makes more sense to me when I think about it like Newtonian physics.  I can’t understand how a little thing that I do in the morning can help create an aura of love and support around people who are alone and in isolation across the world. But somehow deep in my heart, I know it does.

It’s such an honor and a privilege keeping this practice alive as a resident in the Temple. Especially during these times. Thank you all for the opportunity and your practice.    

Main altar in the Fire Lotus Temple zendo

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