I arrived in New York as a young man at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. In those early years hardly a week passed—sometimes not even a day— without news of a friend who had fallen ill. The disease utterly changed my own life, and eventually took the life of my partner. Though I survived physically unscathed, my youth and my outlook were shaped by the experience, which in time led me to a Buddhist practice that I continue to this day.
There are significant differences between then and now, but it’s impossible for many of us not to view what’s happening through the lens of that past: now as then, communities of care have emerged to tend to the sick despite national leadership that is by turns incompetent and indifferent to the point of cruelty. Without proper equipment or sufficient support, teams of medical workers risk their own health to care for the sick, just as, in the early days of AIDS, friends, family, and even strangers gathered, as they cannot now, at unknown risk to themselves to comfort the ill.
Whereas the AIDS pandemic took its toll over years, the current crisis has unfolded with astonishing swiftness, and I can’t even guess where we’ll be by the time this issue is delivered. And so I’ve been asking myself, what can a quarterly magazine offer at a time like this, when it will necessarily miss a moment that demands an immediate response?
In the current pandemic, the very same Buddhist teachings that grounded me after years of loss help ground me today. In moments of panic or fear it is so easy to lose touch with the sources of wisdom we each need to draw upon for guidance and direction. So while a quarterly magazine cannot respond nimbly to rapidly changing events, it can keep us connected to the enduring values of care and compassion that do not change, values that sustain us over the long run. As Masha Gessen wrote recently in the New Yorker,
The real question, though, is: How do we handle this as a society, as communities? What are the opportunities for mutual aid and care, even amid calls for social distancing? What is the response that creates, on the other side of this epidemic, not a collection of atomized individuals who survived a plague but a polity whose members helped one another live?
For me, and, I hope, for our readership, the Buddhist emphasis on wisdom and compassion will guide our response and bring us together.
On March 10, the Tricycle staff began working remotely. At the center of the pandemic, in New York City, we had little choice. And although years ago I griped often about the Internet’s contributing to greater social isolation, I’m deeply grateful for the connection it affords us at a time when the best we can do to help is to remain physically isolated from one another.
While the magazine can help ground us in teachings that stand the test of time, it is in their online presentation that they find more time-sensitive expression. To that end, we have begun offering a series of free livestream teachings to the public; short practices for relief and resilience; and a free workshop for turning obstacles into opportunities. As we go to press, well over 20,000 people have registered for them, and we are immensely pleased that these offerings seem to speak to a real need for practical guidance in a time of great suffering. I’d like to think that when all is said and done, we—all of us in the Tricycle community—can say that we stayed connected to the true spirit of the teachings. If we can do this, we as a community will emerge stronger for it. I have seen it before, in the community of care that emerged during another pandemic nearly four decades ago.