While COVID-19 has turned the whole world upside down, Theravada monastics have faced unique challenges because of the restrictions of the Vinaya, or the Buddhist monastic code. Even getting food has become a challenge, as the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (monks and nuns) follow rules that prohibit storing or cooking their own food and cutting or injuring plants, let alone animals. Monastics usually walk into nearby human habitations with their begging bowls to gather their daily meal, which must be eaten before noon, or remain at their monastery while householders bring food or cook it for them there. This “economy of gifts” requires close daily contact between almsgatherers and laypeople—a partnership that the Buddha intended to cultivate but that COVID makes nearly impossible.
Both Theravada monastics and laity have had to get creative to address this and other challenges to the symbiotic relationship between them, according to bhikkhus and bhikkhunis from three North American monasteries on the West Coast: Birken Forest Monastery in Canada; Metta Forest Monastery in Southern California; and the sibling centers of Dhammadharini and Aranya Bodhi in Northern California. The increased seclusion forced on everyone by the pandemic has, according to the monastics, in their cases led to a surprising increase in connectivity with the rest of the world. The basis of their monastic life—dependence on others for gifts of food—has not become a damaging vulnerability. Instead, the relationship between monastics and laity has proven itself to be resilient and adaptable.
The Economy of Gifts
For years, the bhikkhunis at Dhammadharini in Sonoma County followed the ancient tradition of going on walking alms rounds (pindapata) in the nearby towns of Sebastopol and Petaluma—towns with no cultural context for shaven-headed women in orange robes walking silently down their streets with metal begging bowls in hand. Even before they established Dhammadharini Monastery in Sonoma county, the bhikkhunis would go on pindapata in San Francisco’s East Bay. During COVID all that has changed. The bhikkhunis now shelter in place at their monastery, where some Sri Lankan families from the local community bring them food every day. A similar, but more elaborate arrangement holds court at the Pacific Hermitage where the bhikkhus—who used to go on pindapata in nearby White Salmon, Washington—receive their meals from an organized team of rotating lay people who drop food off to the monks on their porch every day before noon, the time after which they are not allowed to eat meals.
Wat Metta and Birken both have on-site kitchens where the resident bhikkhus are given food by long-term lay residents who volunteer to prepare it for them. At Aranya Bodhi, the hermitage associated with Dhammadharini, the lay steward has begun happily wildcrafting forest and ocean vegetables to offer to the resident bhikkhunis.
While financial gifts to the monasteries are down, Ajahn Sona, the abbot of Birken, said that costs were also generally down. “The needs of the monks are really more minimal than most people can imagine. The monasteries are all closed to hosting short-term lay visitors, and most running costs are actually associated with providing that.”
“In many ways we’re perfectly situated for a pandemic,” said Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the abbot of Wat Metta, which has been closed to short-term visitors since March. “We have space to walk around; we have a lifestyle that emphasizes being quiet, learning how to get along, and knowing what to do with your mind.”
The pandemic has meant fewer visitors for the monastics, but they are neither bored by the solitude nor are they entirely alone. The COVID lockdowns have expanded these monastics’ use of the internet to disseminate Buddhist teachings.
“Due to broadcasting on Youtube and Facebook [mediums previously used lightly, if at all, by most of the Theravada sangha], worldwide outreach of the dhamma has become much stronger,” said Ayya Sobhana, a bhikkhuni and elder teacher at Dhammadharini. “We are used to a constant stream of international visitors,” she said. “When they come they tend to bring some drama, some agitation which we need to meet with our stability and help settle. Right now we have turned more to focusing on refining the harmony between us, the way we speak and comport ourselves toward each other.”
“We enjoy the solitude greatly,” said Ajahn Sona, who now offers a six-week course on Youtube on cultivating the jhanas (refined and pleasurable states of meditative absorption). His colleague Ajahn Sudanto at the Pacific Hermitage unpacks and discusses this course with viewers over a “morning coffee,” an interactive video he hosts on Youtube, where he answers questions from the laity in real time. Ajahn Thanissaro has likewise been meeting with students across the world to answer their questions about meditation on Zoom. I dropped in on one such session where the Ajahn managed to impress his Brazillian students by pulling off some jokes in newly learned Portuguese.
Ayya Tathaaloka, a bhikkhuni and elder leader at Dhammadharini explained how bhikkhunis around the world recently came together for a historic event—for the first time an international meeting of bhikkhunis chanted together the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, which tells of the Buddha’s first teaching. This international chant gathering might never have happened if it hadn’t been for the forced seclusion of bhikkhunis in their monasteries. Due to the recent resuscitation of the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha after it was wiped out by war and famine centuries ago, this may be the first time a large international convocation of bhikkhunis chanted that discourse in a millennia.
“Emerging from the winter retreat into the time of COVID,” said Ayya Tathaaloka, “I felt a real sense of urgency to respond to what is happening with dhamma.”
Ayya Sobhana said that they had been chanting parittas—protective chants that generate blessings—and teaching on the theme of brightening the mind through meditation. “It’s not so hard for people to realize dukkha [suffering],” Ayya Sobhana explained, “but less easy to know how to brighten the mind, how to gladden it, how to develop piti and sukha [meditative rapture and ease].”
“We are also emphasizing the Buddha’s teachings on right speech and social harmony,” Sobhana added, “to help people deal with the amount of anger and conflict that is happening in the country right now.”
“The dhamma is needed as a counter to the horrific behavior we’re seeing,” echoed Ajahn Sona. “Both psychologically and physically it can make people sick.”
Both Ajahn Sona and Ajahn Thanissaro, when discussing spiritual practice during COVID, coincidentally referenced the same Buddhist teaching, the Pabbotama Sutta, a discourse from the Samyutta Nikaya that recounts a conversation between the Buddha and King Pasenadi, a prominent follower who built many monasteries and features in several suttas. “The Buddha once asked King Pasenadi if mountains were moving towards his kingdom killing everything in their path, what would he do?” recounted Sona. “The King said he would practice sila (moral restraint), dana (generosity).”
“This is the proper response to a pandemic: stay moral and be generous and kind. That’s the proper response to a huge tsunami of unemployment and sickness and death.”
“The three mountains of aging, illness, and death have been moving in all the time,” Ajahn Thanissaro added. “This is nothing new, the instructions are to calm your mind and practice dhamma.”
“There is nothing unusual about being in the midst of illness and death,” said Ajahn Sona. “This is what spiritual practice is for, it’s for this situation, it’s not for the good times, it’s not for the fun, it’s for the fact that there is this deep uncertainty.”
Ayya Tathaaloka spoke from another angle, saying that months of enforced solitude in the wilderness had given her new insight from the wilderness itself. “I’m learning dhamma from nature in ways which I never did before,” she said. “I feel like, oh my Buddha, we’re so disconnected from our natural world and having a sense of being grounded in our natural world … Our conditional correlation with our natural world, how our bodies and who we are are so dependent on that there may be hope for our world when we combine the dhamma with that awareness—after all, that’s what the Buddha himself did.”
An Uncertain Future
Despite the fact that certain sanghas have weathered this crisis well, we should not overlook their vulnerabilities. Wat Metta, for example, has two foreign nationals living there as bhikkhus. The reserve funds of the monastery could be depleted if they became sick and required ventilators. Health insurance for monastics in the US (if they have it) must be paid for by the laity as monastics do not keep, or even touch, money. Prospects of a lengthy economic downturn combined with few visitors to Buddhist monasteries easily conjure up fears for the long-term survival of monasteries in the West. Yet so far, Buddhist lay people have rallied to protect the third gem of sangha. As the pandemic rages on throughout the world, one has good reason to hope that will continue.