Without knowing it, Sravasti Abbey many years ago began laying the foundations for sharing the Dharma during a pandemic.
The abbey, a Buddhist monastery north of Spokane, Washington, launched a YouTube channel in 2008 and began streaming live teachings seven years later. Consequently, as concerns about the spreading coronavirus began to grow, we were positioned to respond quickly.
By March 23, when Washington state Governor Jay Inslee announced his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” executive order to slow the virus’ spread, the abbey had already moved its March 29 Sharing the Dharma Day event online.
Since then we have offered teachings, retreats, small group talks, and special ceremonies over Zoom and Vimeo Livestream. This shift has been harder than we expected, but the rewards have been far greater than we imagined. It’s not how we planned to spend 2020, but here we are, all of us.
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 Venerable Thubten Chodron. Committed to sharing Buddha’s teachings to benefit society, we offer a robust program of Dharma activities ranging from half-day classroom visits to month-long silent retreats.
Each year more than 1,000 guests—Buddhist and non-Buddhist—find their way to our peaceful, pastoral monastery. We love sharing meals, the Dharma, and our life with them.
While the abbey’s YouTube channel has over 5,500 videos with 19,000 subscribers, we urge practitioners to attend live teachings. In general we believe online Dharma is a distant second to experiencing Buddha’s guidance in the direct presence of a qualified teacher. But not this year.
Adapting for the web
The first event we took online was our monthly Sharing the Dharma Day. Offered March through December, it’s like an all-day Dharma open house. The program runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes a Buddhist teaching, guided meditation, a 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 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 all our media experience, we had to think carefully about how to adapt 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! Ven. Thubten Chodron would give the Dharma talk. Well-known Dharma teacher Ven. Sangye Khadro would lead the meditation. The entire community would be ready to facilitate the discussion. We wondered who would come.
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, the designated emcee invited the people signing on to identify themselves and say hello. We were stunned.
More than 800 people logged on for that Sharing the Dharma Day, joining from at least 14 countries in addition to the United States. Without doubt people were hungry for the Dharma!
The afternoon discussion groups—limited to 60 people and conducted over Zoom—revealed people’s real need to connect. Ten monastic facilitators, backed by two nuns running the technical side of things, met with groups of five to seven people. This created a place for folks to talk about how they were doing, and how we all were utilizing Buddha’s teachings to integrate 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 us 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 by the deep connections we had made via internet Dharma.
Since March we have adapted all our retreats and study courses for web broadcast. Ven. Chodron’s canceled spring teaching trip to Europe was converted into a series of nine talks scheduled for European time zones. We’re continuing to adapt programs for the summer.
The effort has been challenging, incredibly rewarding, and seems to fill an urgent need.
Of course like everybody else, we had scheduled our 2020 events to be mostly like every other year. We had also intended to launch an exciting new project: the first-phase construction of a huge meditation hall and library.
After practicing in our modest garage-converted-into-a-meditation hall for 16 years, we are planning to finally build our beautiful new Buddha Hall. It will have plenty of space to support the growing community and the ever-increasing throngs of guests.
But now the throngs are online, and we don’t know when the doors will open again. We’ll keep things virtual for the summer at least, then wait and see how conditions unfold. We continue to develop our Buddha Hall plans, but due to the virus smashing the economy, we don’t know when construction will begin.
Buddha in our heart
On May 22, the day President Donald Trump ordered houses of worship to reopen, Ven. Thubten Chodron was giving another online teaching. Commenting on the president’s edict, she said, “Buddhists are fortunate. 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 in community. That’s why visitors flock to Sravasti Abbey in normal times. But these are not normal times. And so Sravasti Abbey’s “house of worship” is open online.
As Buddhists dedicate our merit each day, or offer metta (loving kindness), we can remember all those suffering directly from the coronavirus—through illness, death, grief, economic hardship, anxiety, and fear—and pray that they may be happy, well, safe, peaceful, and at ease.
We can also dedicate for the welfare of the makers of Zoom, Vimeo Livestream, YouTube, and all the programs, platforms, and apps that allow us to practice together during the pandemic. By their efforts we can meet, which helps nourish the spiritual connection in our hearts.
You’re welcome to browse these Sravasti Abbey resources:
Venerable Thubten Chonyi has studied Buddhist meditation and philosophy with Venerable Thubten Chodron since 1996. In 2007 she joined her teacher at Sravasti Abbey, an American Buddhist monastery where she ordained as a novice in 2008. Ven. Chonyi received full ordination at Fo Guang Shan temple in Taiwan in 2011. At the abbey Ven. Chonyi focuses mainly on communications—website content, publicity, and so forth—and supports the Dharma programs.