Broadcast set up for Sharing the Dharma Day at Sravasti Abbey/Photo courtesy Sravasti Abbey

Live Online: Sharing Buddhist Practice During the Pandemic

By Ven. Thubten Chonyi

Without knowing it, Sravasti Abbey, the Buddhist monastery in Newport, began to lay the groundwork for sharing Buddhist practices during a pandemic many years ago. The Abbey launched our YouTube channel in 2008 and began streaming live teachings seven years later. Consequently, as concerns about the spreading coronavirus grew, we were in a position to respond quickly. By the time Gov. Jay Inslee announced his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” executive order, the Abbey’s March 29 Sharing the Dharma Day, our first public event of 2020, had already moved online.

Since then, we have offered teachings, retreats, small group talks, discussion groups, guided meditations, and special ceremonies over Zoom and Vimeo Livestream. Doing so has been harder than we expected, and the reward far greater than we imagined. It’s not how we planned to spend 2020, but here we are, all of us.

Live Programs

Sravasti Abbey is home to 17 monastics — mostly nuns — who live, study, and practice together full-time under the guidance of our founder and abbess, well known author and teacher Ven. Thubten Chodron. Committed to sharing Buddha’s teachings to benefit society, we offer a robust program of in-person activities that range from half-day school visits to month-long silent retreats. In a normal year, more than 1,000 guests — Buddhist and non-Buddhist — find their way to our peaceful, pastoral monastery, and we love sharing meals, our practices, and our life with them.

Ven. Thubten Chodron teaches on Sharing the Dharma Day/Photo Courtesy Sravasti Abbey

While the Abbey’s YouTube channel has over 5,500 videos with 19,000 subscribers, we urge practitioners to attend live events. In general, we believe learning Buddhism online is a distant second to experiencing Buddha’s guidance in the direct presence of a qualified teacher. But this year is different.

Adapting for the Web

Sharing the Dharma Day was the first day-long event we adapted for online broadcast. Offered monthly March through December, it’s something like a Buddhist open house. The program runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes a teaching, guided meditation, vegetarian potluck lunch, and structured discussion to help integrate the day’s teaching into daily life. People attend from all over the Inland Northwest. Some are curious spiritual adventurers checking us out for the first-time. Others are longtime Buddhists.

The first Sharing the Dharma Day each year is especially festive. It comes at the end of our annual three-month silent meditation retreat and signals that the Abbey is open to visitors once again. As many as 40 or 50 guests usually join us in the Abbey’s crowded Meditation Hall, happy to reunite after a long, snowy winter.

Now how could we re-create that in a virtual environment?

Despite our media experience, we had to think carefully about how to adjust the 15-year-old Sharing the Dharma Day formula for the web. Potluck? Of course not. Intimate discussion groups? We opted for Zoom. Teaching and meditation? That could be done on Vimeo Livestream. Meeting and greeting over tea? That would have to wait.

Word went out over the Abbey’s email list: Sharing the Dharma Day Online! Venerable Thubten Chodron would give the Dharma talk. Well-known Buddhist teacher Ven. Sangye Khadro would lead the meditation. The entire community would be ready to facilitate the discussion. We wondered who would come.

It worked

That Sunday morning, the monastic community gathered before the video camera in front of a giant painting of the Medicine Buddha so we could greet people as they signed on. As the streaming went live, our emcee invited the people signing in to identify themselves and say hello. And we were stunned. Over 800 people logged on that day, joining from at least 14 countries and all over the U.S. Clearly, people were hungry for spiritual connection!

The afternoon discussion groups—limited to 60 participants and conducted over Zoom—revealed the real need people have to connect. Ten monastic facilitators, backed by two nuns running the tech side of things, met with groups of five to seven. This allowed a place for folks to talk about how they were doing and how we were using Buddhist practices to cope with our personal circumstances.

A woman in Switzerland, outraged over her government’s response to the pandemic, shared how meditation on the Buddha of Compassion soothed her grief at a friend’s recent Covid death. Another woman, isolated and alone in her tiny New York City apartment, told how she recites the Metta Prayer—“May you be happy, May you be well, May you be safe, May you be peaceful and at ease”—at the sound of every ambulance siren. In March, she was doing this dozens of times day and night.

By the end of the day, everyone at the Abbey felt satisfied at the deep spiritual connections we had made via the Internet.

Going forward

Since the end of March the Abbey has adapted all our normally-residential retreats and study courses for web broadcast. The effort is challenging, incredibly rewarding, and seems to fill an urgent need. Although participation has fallen since that first spectacular online event, we still see around 200 people for single teachings and retreats, and many dozens more view the archived videos.

In addition, we’re keeping up with our regularly offered online teachings, including the daily “Bodhisattva Breakfast Corner” talks. People tell us these brief sharings on YouTube, often based on current events, help them navigate the vicissitudes of daily life, even in these challenging times. And so, for the time being, Sravasti Abbey is wide open online.

Ven. Damcho monitors a Sravasti Abbey Zoom course/Photo courtesy Sravasti Abbey

Life at Sravasti Abbey is based in communal living. Monastics live in dorm-like facilities and share all meals. We meditate, study, work, chant, and pray together. Our circumstances are similar to the conditions in nursing homes where Covid-19 has taken such a terrible toll. We grieved to read about the 13 elderly Felician sisters at the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary convent in Michigan who died from the disease this past summer.

Considering the unabated spread of the coronavirus, we have decided to continue offering programs online exclusively for the rest of the year. We will remain closed to visitors until next spring 2021, when we’ll reassess.

Buddha in our heart

As we weighed the risks of opening the monastery against the wish for in-person spiritual community, our abbess, Ven. Chodron, was philosophical. “Buddhists are fortunate,” she said. “Our spiritual connection is between us and the Buddha, and we hold the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) in our heart. We don’t have to reopen a building to do our practice.” Then she added, “Actually that’s true for all faiths. Whatever your belief, your spiritual connection is in your heart.”

All spiritual practitioners know this is true, yet we also universally experience the power of sharing our faith together with others. That’s why visitors flock to Sravasti Abbey in normal times. These, of course, are not normal times, and we are grateful for the technology that allows us stay open virtually.

Prayers for peace

“Dedicating merit” is a nearly universal Buddhist practice whereby we direct the positive energy of our virtuous actions—as well as metta or loving kindness—for the benefit of others. These days, when we dedicate our merit at Sravasti Abbey, we especially remember all those suffering directly or indirectly from the effects of the pandemic as well as the pernicious virus of racism—through illness, death, grief, economic hardship, anxiety, or fear. We pray that they be happy, well, safe, peaceful, and at ease. We pray for reconciliation, kind communication, and peace in our country and in the world.

With gratitude, we also dedicate our merit for the welfare of the makers of Zoom, Vimeo Livestream, YouTube, and all the programs, platforms, and apps that allow spiritual communities to practice together during the pandemic. By their effort, practitioners of every faith can meet safely, helping to nourish the spiritual connection in their hearts.  

Our world is aching right now, and needs the love and compassion that is taught in every spiritual tradition. How fortunate that people of faith can still meet together, fortifying the sources of goodness in ourselves to better meet the challenges of difficult times.

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