The Covid-19 infection rate in Alameda County is still increasing, even as Berkeley officials plan to reopen retail businesses, outdoor dining, religious services, and more, while they urge continuing use of face masks, physical distancing, and limited contact with people outside one’s “social bubble.”
At Berkeley Zen Center we miss the intimacy of the zendo and other community activities. In March, responding to the pandemic, BZC acted quickly to move our practice onto a digital platform. More than three months later, we have an “online zendo,” with daily zazen, a Saturday program, lectures, classes, dharma groups, day-long sittings, practice discussions, and regular all-sangha meetings. Many members are working hard to keep all these new forms going as smoothly as they are. It would take the rest of this page to name everyone involved and delineate the responsibilities they have taken on, but we do want to give a shout-out to the tech team: Judy Fleischman, Gary Artim, Laurie Senauke, and Kelsey Chirlinn, for supporting all of us in this transition.
Meanwhile the Coordinating Team—Gerry Oliva, Mary Duryee, Sojun Roshi, and Hozan Sensei—along with the Practice Committee and Senior Students group, have begun to discuss how to make a slow transition back to face-to-face practice. We are consulting closely with BZC’s Health and Safety team, which is tracking directives from the California Department of Public Health, translating the CDPH’s evolving policies into safety and sanitation protocols for our community.
BZC is planning a careful and gradual transition to a new normal. When we do choose to restart activities on Russell Street, attendance will be limited, social distancing will be in place, and thorough cleaning and sanitation will be integral to our practice. Meanwhile, we will certainly maintain the robust digital practice created on Zoom and other platforms. No one knows what normal will look like, but, having opened the digital door and seen what it offers, we will continue to explore that space. This may well be necessary, because we have no idea how long the pandemic will last. Chances are we’ll have to continue distancing and wearing masks for in-person encounters until a reliable vaccine emerges, and maybe beyond that.
So, we will sustain Suzuki Roshi’s Zen in ways he could not have imagined. We will do this together, with gratitude to all those, near and far, who work to keep us well and creative.
Hozan Alan Senauke
Plagues and natural disasters appear regularly throughout human history. No times, places, or people have been immune to these occurrences. During Japan’s Kamakura period a series of plagues and famines burned across the country. During the Kanki Famine in 1230-31 roughly a third of Japan’s population died—from 1.5 to 2 million people. In that year Dogen Zenji left the famine and sectarian strife of Kyoto to practice in an abandoned hermitage south of the city. I think of this as Dogen’s approach to social distancing in the 13th Century.
What did Dogen rely on during this terrible time? Zazen for sure, but we don’t exactly know more, except, that in the midst of crisis he moved away from the center of the turmoil. Did he cultivate hope or radical hopelessness? Are they different? Dogen turned inward for a time, surely digging into zazen. He turned inward, then opening his dharma eye he widened the field of enlightened action and stepped forward into his world.
In 1231 Dogen began composing Shobogenzo, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, and wrote Bendowa, the first expression of zazen in the Japanese language. Two years later he founded Kannondori Temple in Fukakusa, the locus of practice for his community over the next ten years, before he moved to Fukui Prefecture and built Eiheiji.
The way of our zazen practice is to turn inward, noticing and embracing everything that happens within us, which allows us to regulate and harmonize body and mind. Zazen enables us to put our mind in order. The purpose of our practice is, with a well-regulated mind, to take beings across to the shore of liberation. The form of our sangha practice is to create an island of sanity in a world of turmoil. We do this by offering material needs, dharma teachings, and fearlessness. We reflect on justice, a sense of proper balance among all people and beings.
In this pandemic moment we need all these offerings: inner reflection and work for justice. These are strange days. Streets are virtually empty but for people in masks, stores are shuttered, businesses are going broke, religious services have morphed into video conferences. We hardly dare to imagine the future. For the last month, as we practice social distancing to tamp down Covid-19’s impact, it is sometimes hard to know when we are turning inward and when we are moving in the wider world. Such provisional distinctions seem less clear with each passing day. It feels as if we are living in a dystopian novel, a bad dream. And we are writing that novel as we live it. But there is a lot of love out there. Warm greetings as strangers pass on the sidewalk.
At Berkeley Zen Center, where I live, we are sewing masks, offering food and funds to those in need, sweeping the temple grounds, and sustaining a daily zazen practice and Saturday dharma talks, cultivating fearlessness even as we learn of friends and family struck by the virus. Actually, we are sustaining Zen practice and it is sustaining us. Right now I am not much thinking about the future. There’s something fresh and creative about such “hopelessness.” Not to hope for things to return to some imagined normal, but to feel alive and full of questions right now, and now, and now.
We would never wish for a time like this, and we grieve for the thousands of lives lost from Coronavirus and from governmental irresponsibility. Still there is an opportunity here for each of us to stabilize our mind and be of service, as Dogen did in his own time of crisis. What is that opportunity for you? How does practice teach us to love each other?