At first the coronavirus seemed like a crisis happening at a great distance in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Then COVID-19 infections started happening close to home. I’m not a big worrier, but I’d worked with infectious disease experts for over a decade as the director of communications for the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative, so I knew a bit about how quickly a virus can spread.

I began wondering how places I frequent, especially dharma centers, where groups of people sit in close proximity and often eat and sleep communally, were preparing for the arrival of an infectious pathogen.

I contacted a number of centers across the United States, some big, some small, all with staff and teachers scrambling to do the right thing—the skillful action—as information and recommendations changed on an hourly basis. Here’s what I found out.

Cloud Mountain, Washington State

On January 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the United States: a man in his thirties, who returned to Seattle after traveling in Wuhan, China, presented with symptoms and tested positive.

The first death in the US also occurred in Washington state. A man died from coronavirus on February 29, just a week after 27 meditators arrived at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in rural Washington and took vows of silence for their month-long retreat. The retreatants had traveled from the US, England, and Continental Europe.

When I spoke to Laura Hauer, Cloud Mountain’s executive director, on March 10, Washington had reported 22 deaths and 162 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The retreatants had ten more days to go.

“They arrived with awareness that the coronavirus, theoretically, was out there and would move,” said Hauer. While the meditators spent hours each day on the cushion, reports of the spread of COVID-19 dominated the news.

“We have been monitoring any signs of illness very carefully,” said Hauer. “We did have one yogi come down sick. Her first symptom was a cough. We took her temperature. It was lower than normal,” which helped alleviate concerns, though the staff was aware that there can be idiosyncratic responses to any illness.

“We did give more information to her so that she could participate in containment of her own germs. She did a beautiful job,” said Hauer. “Everyone on the retreat has now been through the quarantine period and is quite healthy.”

The retreatants had come to Cloud Mountain to learn about and practice jhanas, or states of concentration, which are much easier to achieve in a distraction-free environment. For the first two weeks, staff and teachers, in an attempt to preserve the retreat experience, did not update participants on what was happening in the outside world.

On March 9, as issues around travel, especially air travel, were changing, the staff shifted priorities from protecting peace of mind to providing information for ethical reasons so that retreatants could make informed decisions, and “basically give us informed consent if they were going to continue in the retreat,” said Hauer.

“We did inform them … and amazingly we have not had one person take us up on the offer of making an early departure,” said Hauer.

She, like others across the country, has had a crash course in public health. “Early on I did get in touch with our county health department, asking them for recommendations,” Hauer said, adding that she spent the past few weeks “with my nose stuck in the computer… just trying to figure out what reality is.”

At Cloud Mountain, like other centers, many retreatants are over 60 and/or have underlying health problems, both factors of COVID-19 death risk. Earlier in March, as the number of cases in Washington climbed, the leadership team at Cloud Mountain decided to cancel all upcoming retreats in March and April, issuing full refunds.

“We’re not going to take a chance with people’s health,” she explained. “It was just too big a risk.”

Retreat fees cover all of Cloud Mountain’s basic operating expenses, but the center does not expect to lay off any staff once they close. “Donations above and beyond that allow us to do other things,” said Hauer. Those other things include a rainy day fund for unexpected situations. The cancelation notice for March and April was sent out. “Other than one email, everybody was extremely grateful,” she said. The jhana retreat currently underway is scheduled to end on March 20.

Upaya Zen Center, New Mexico

When I spoke with Roshi Joan Halifax, abbot of Upaya Zen Center, on March 10, New Mexico was one of the few states in the US that did not have a confirmed case of coronavirus.

Upaya, a large center outside of Santa Fe, has from 25 to 120 people in residence, depending on what programs are happening. On March 9, concerns about international travel prompted the staff to switch their chaplaincy training program from on-site to virtual training, a task they were scrambling to complete in a day.

“People come from all over the world,” said Halifax. “Community is one of the powerful aspects of the program, so to bring a new cohort in without warm-hand-to-warm-hand contact is a challenge. Our team has put the technology together. We’ll see how it works.”

Like other centers, Upaya had recently sent out an email, outlining precautions being taken to protect against COVID-19 and asking anyone with symptoms not to visit the center. Those coming from overseas were asked to cancel their plans. Full refunds would be issued.

In dharma centers across the US, changes due to COVID-19 are happening quickly. “I don’t think there’s a playbook for this kind of situation,” said Halifax. “It’s a bolt out of the blue.”

She and her team have consulted with clinicians, epidemiologists, and other healthcare experts around the globe. “The one principle that I operate out of is not to make decisions as a party of one,” she said.

Though Buddhist centers may temporarily suspend programs or close their literal doors, many are stepping up efforts in the virtual world. Upaya is ahead of most centers when it comes to social media and online video, with almost 10,000 Twitter followers, a podcast, a YouTube channel, and a crowd of Facebook friends who livestream dharma talks.

As travel and the economy slow, so do other things. “I think the good part is that we’ve just contributed to the reduction of the carbon load in the atmosphere,” said Halifax. “The financial implications are significant. What can you do? The markets will eventually rebound, and the center will rebound as well.”

At 77, Halifax is at high risk of becoming very sick should she contract COVID-19. Since her spring trips to Japan and Korea were canceled, she has found herself with unexpected space on the calendar.

“I’m grateful to have some time that’s unprescribed,” she said, adding that she now plans to visit her hermitage in the mountains. “I get to snowshoe in and tend to my wood stove and do deep practice for at least ten days.”

Insight Meditation Society, Massachusetts

Massachusetts had its first confirmed coronavirus case on January 31. By mid-February, Inger Forland, executive director of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a retreat center in Barre, around 70 miles west of Boston, knew COVID-19 was a force she’d have to contend with. She sent the first email regarding coronavirus to staff, started updating the board, and pushed information out to practitioners in advance of retreats.

When I first spoke to Forland on March 9, I had a personal interest in what was happening at IMS. I was scheduled to attend a retreat there at the end of the month. At the time, the notice on the IMS website indicated that retreats were going forward, though with a number of precautions, including requesting anyone with a respiratory illness, flu-like symptoms, or feeling unwell not to travel to IMS. Full refunds would be offered to anyone who felt sick or was worried.

In addition, the IMS notice said, “Given the intimate nature of shared space on a meditation retreat, we will quarantine anyone who develops flu-like symptoms or becomes unwell while at IMS. This precautionary measure of separation is suggested by the CDC and is designed to protect the health of the community.”

Forland said they haven’t had to quarantine anyone yet. “At this point, the [Massachusetts] Department of Health and Bureau of Infectious Disease is telling us, ‘Call us,’ because they haven’t rolled out protocols for organizations like this,” Forland said. “We’re not asking IMS staff to step into the role of healthcare providers.”

The main meditation hall at IMS holds 100 retreatants on cushions and chairs that almost touch each other. I’d logged a lot of hours on those cushions and have a fondness for the place. I’ve also been there in the middle of winter when the flu clobbered most everyone in the hall over the course of a few days. I’d learned to pack my own thermometer and cold medicine, just in case. But COVID-19 is not the flu.

IMS had received some coronavirus-worried cancellations, but not a lot. Most of their retreats have long wait lists, so if one person cancels, someone else takes the spot. “We haven’t seen a reduction in the number of people coming into the hall. The retreats are still full,” said Forland.

Like their counterparts at other centers, Forland and her staff were trying to make sense of a quickly changing situation.

“We’re all looking to understand what counts as safe. What are the right decisions to make and who are the authorities to advise us on what counts as safe?” said Forland. “There’s a lot of new communication between centers that didn’t exist before—a lot of information and perspective sharing that’s helpful for everyone.”

About half of IMS’s revenue comes from retreat tuition. “If … we made the decision to close the center, it would be a significant financial hit, but that would not be our first consideration,” said Forland. “We have the responsibility to serve as a safe container to support practice. People need to not just be safe, but to feel safe when they’re on retreat.”

On March 11, I received an email from IMS, requesting the balance due for my retreat scheduled to begin on March 28. I held off paying.

On March 12, IMS announced the closure of their retreat center effective March 16 (following the end of a retreat that is currently underway), with plans to reopen in mid to late April as circumstances allow. 

“It wasn’t a hard decision to make,” Forland wrote in an email. “Our #1 priority is the well-being of all who come to IMS—for work, for practice, to volunteer, to teach. It’s time to close.”

Milarepa Buddhist Center, Iowa City

The Milarepa Buddhist Center in Iowa City is part of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I spoke to center president, Ellen Marie Lauricella, on March 11. At the time, a message on their website instructed practitioners not to come to the center if they were sick or had traveled or been around anyone who’d been in a COVID-19 hot spot in the last 14 days.

“In Iowa City right now, we already have 12 confirmed cases,” said Lauricella. “People who were on a cruise on the Nile became infected, came back to town, and are now in quarantine. Several retirement communities are on lockdown.”

“We were going to have all of our practices this week, but honestly, it’s a day-by-day decision as to whether we should be closing the center altogether.”

“We serve about 15 to 20 people every week,” continued Lauricella. “Our community can do the practices at home, and we can reach out to everybody individually. As a small community, it’s easier for us to close down for six weeks or whatever it’s going to take, rather than expose anyone.”

The next day the center closed, posting a message that classes and practices would be hosted online until further notice.

Cambridge Zen Center, Massachusetts

The Cambridge Zen Center (CZC), located between Harvard and MIT and just a few blocks from a busy subway stop, closed its doors to non-residents on March 11.

In the shutdown letter posted on the CZC website, Jane Dobisz, guiding teacher, mentioned 41 cases in the county and 92 in the state, with numbers growing. “This led us to consider the safety of our own Zen Center gatherings, retreats, shared meals, groups, meetings, and practice sessions, all done in very close quarters, attended by thousands of guests each year, many of whom have traveled from cities and countries from all around the world,” the message said.

CZC, which expects to remain closed to the public until May 1, has about 40 residents, which includes a number of middle-aged people and several people over 70. “We really have a full span of anywhere from 18 to 75,” said Dobisz, who added that not everyone is in good health. “We have a lot of people streaming through CZC. The dharma room is packed, classes are packed, cushions are right next to each other. There are 40 people living there, some of whom could be put at risk with all of the coming and goings.”

The decision was made by Dobisz and the CZC leadership team. “We wanted to get ahead of it,” Dobisz said. “We thought timing-wise we may be early, but wouldn’t we rather be early than too late.”

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