The coronavirus has caused us all to face a prolonged period of uncertainty. Changes in finances, socializing, work, family connections. There have been disruptions in daily life and no one knows how long this disruption will last. 2020 has so far been a year where it's difficult to plan from day-to-day what's happening next. This uncertainty is difficult.
In Buddhist teachings, uncertainty is very much emphasized. Many of the teachings deal with facing the painful reality that almost nothing is permanent or certain.
While the pandemic continues on into the second half of 2020, spiritual teachers of all traditions are still reaching out to their communities, mostly virtually.
RMPBS Engagement Specialist Debbie Higgs interviewed Dharma Council teacher Yong Oh on what it has been like to teach Buddhism during the pandemic, and to offer some insight on how to cope during this challenging time.
Yong Oh is currently at the Durango Dharma Center. He teaches for the Chattanooga Insight Meditation group, and is currently on the Leadership Council for Thanissara and Kittisaro's Sacred Mountain Sangha. Yong is a graduate of Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s Community Dharma Leaders program and is currently a participant in the 2017-2021 Insight Meditation Society Retreat Teacher Training program as well as the Sacred Mountain Sangha Dharmapala program. Yong is also an acupuncturist, loves the outdoors and bringing the practice of meditation into nature, and aspires to support practitioners of color in the Dharma.
Challenges to teaching online.
Yong: Especially when I’m having an individual meeting or a group meeting with people… doing so through screen really taxes my nervous system, both in terms of sleep, and eyesight. It is different than being relaxed and receiving the experience [in person]. That is a pretty big issue for myself and for a number of other teachers I have talked to.
Debbie: There has been a lot of reporting about how it is so much more tedious to have to connect and relate through a screen.
Yong: [So teachers are] finding different strategies to work with that. Sort of looking past the screen, or having a softer gaze, but we’re so used to giving this wholehearted full presence and attention, especially when I am one-on-one with a person talking about their practice. That is a habit that is not easy to get away from—and it doesn’t feel authentic in that particular role either, to somehow ease back from really offering my full presence.
Challenges for Buddhist practitioners.
Debbie: I know for me going on retreat, one of the most powerful parts about that is giving up the phone for all those days. It is hard to do that right now.
Yong: Yeah, for sure. People who are practitioners going on retreat, or even into just a community evening talk, two things: one is that you do get a break from technology. You silence the phone, you simplify your experience, but also, there is something about being supported by others who are practicing with you. That can still happen through Zoom… but it’s different than an in-person room of people meditating together.
Yong: There is so much available online - access to different community centers and retreats that may not have been available offline. Whether someone didn’t have the time to carve out a week to go on retreat, or there were financial obstacles, or life obstacles were in the way, such as for people who are caretakers or they have families, and so being able to retreat at home through this online medium has been really valuable.
To be able to join in just by clicking a link and to be with colleagues and dear friends in different communities, it’s been wonderful. Maybe they do not have a meditation center in their community.
There are a wealth of offerings right now. It has opened up accessibility for people. And for people who traditionally have not been able to for whatever reason, can partake of, and enjoy these offerings.
An example for me is that I’ve been able to teach, and offer, and join in different Asian American offerings in Asian American communities across the country, which is not really available in the particular places that I live.
I participated in a weekend retreat offered by Spirit Rock Meditation Center for people of the Asian Diaspora. These particular circumstances in this time allowed it to come together in this way. It was a beautiful way to connect, and to talk about what is happening in each other’s lives during these challenging times, through the lens of practice. That was originally planned to be in person, and then it was moved online.
Wisdom of Buddhism for a pandemic
Debbie: I wanted to know if there was a Buddhist perspective to facing pandemics and disasters.
Yong: There is not one centralized perspective or position that is being held by Buddhism about the pandemic, but in general, Buddhist understanding is that what we are experiencing now is simply highlighting the way that things always are.
Things are changing. Things are impermanent. Life is always uncertain. It is just that we’re seeing more clearly now some of these truths of reality. We are seeing these truths right now in a much more vivid and some ways really challenging way, and it can feel quite disruptive.
This is the nature of how things are. If you look for certainty in things that are uncertain you are bound to suffer.
It is highlighting the ways in which we look for certainty. We attempt to find comfort in certainty. It’s not that these routines and structures and things that we count on in our lives are bad, but just to know, that so quickly in a matter of weeks, so many of the things that feel so concrete and so reliable can just shift. And so where can we then find a sense of refuge? Where can we find a sense of steadiness or trust? What can we turn to for peace, if all of these things around us are shifting and changing?
Debbie: So what can we turn to?
The perspective of Buddhist teaching is that we are learning that it is going to be very difficult to manipulate conditions around us in such a way that they are going to give us peace, or lasting happiness.
We really need to turn inwards to find calm, stability, joy, and happiness from within. We can spend too much time, too much energy, and it is almost chasing or trying to get all the things right in our lives. Rather than depending on these changing external conditions, look into the heart. Can there be peace there, and a sense of ease, a sense of well being, even amidst all that has always been changing.