Shelter in Place: Practicing in the Pandemic

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Several years ago, the Berkeley Zen Center board was discussing how things were going at ZC. At that moment, everything was rolling along well, but my teacher Sojun Roshi off-handedly commented that, “Things are wonderful…and in a moment they could go away…pffftt!”  I lacked the imagination then to see a pandemic coming.

With the COVID-19 pandemic taking root in China, Europe, and now in the United States, I realized that fear and social displacement was arriving. By March 3, we were no longer greeting each other with handshakes or hugs. We were learning to wash our hands frequently with soap and water for twenty seconds, about as long as it takes to recite the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and to use hand sanitizer freely. Over the next few days, as Italy and Iran were internally quarantined, local supermarkets experienced a run on toilet paper, with hoarding and panic-buying. If you hadn’t laid in a good supply of toilet, you might be up shit creek for a while.

On March 7, I was supposed to leave for the Upaya Chaplaincy Training in New Mexico. Shortly before my flight, the training was redesigned to be done online instead of face-to-face. At the same time Berkeley Zen Center suspended all of our public programs until the crisis abated.

Overnight our world has changed. Social-distancing with no social gatherings; working from home, with endless hours of video-conferencing. Schools closed and kids staying home for home schooling. Restaurants shut down. Streets emptied of traffic. I began to binge-watch TV series, old and new. The air was cleaner. The city was quieter. Simultaneously one breathed an atmosphere of kindness and an atmosphere of anxiety.

Having shut down all of our public programs at Berkeley Zen Center, we took a step back and reflected on how we would sustain our precious community, our meditation practice, and the study of dharma. Here are some of the things we are doing.

We have set up an Online Zendo at Berkeley Zen Center using the Zoom platform. Of course, you are welcome to join us. In fact, this is a great time for many of us to sample the practice of our sisters and brothers in far-flung places. Our link is at the bottom of this page.

The startup format is simple. Forty minute periods of zazen twice a day: at 7:30am and 5:40pm. Ring three bells to begin each session; end with one bell. We have an image of the BZC altar as the default view on Zoom.

Attendance is about 30 people each day. We had nearly 80 for a sangha meeting on Sunday evening, and we plan to have these meetings every two weeks. In subsequent weeks, we will begin to roll out short liturgy, classes, practice interviews, and maybe one-day sittings. But we’re going slowly. Each step we take has unforeseen complexities and calls for people willing to take responsibility.

While we learn to take care of ourselves and each other, many of us wonder what do Bodhisattvas practice at this moment. We bow to doctors, nurses, technicians, public safety professionals, truckers, farmers—and many other who are doing essential work supporting us. In our sangha, some of the younger members are shopping for the elders. And everyone has the capacity to reach out to others to see if they need help, supplies, or a simple conversation. 

We also can freely admit that we don’t know quite what to do right now. This is the First Tenet of Engaged Buddhism: Not Knowing. The Second Tenet is: Bearing Witness. The Third Tenet is: An Appropriate Response.

Not Knowing is Beginner’s Mind, shoshin in Japanese—the mind that meets each moment fresh and with curiosity. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” We are living out a great human experiment. There will be failures. There already are. Some people will die, perhaps unnecessarily, tragically. But it’s not all loss. A national or international “time out” is a creative moment. We are already exploring new ways of practicing Buddhism, new ways of maintaining our necessary social fabric. This fabric is tough and durable, tougher than we may think it is. So, we can wrap ourselves in it and survive, even as things we think are essential to our everyday life fall away. Look for the small or large ways we can be of service to others. Keep the Bodhisattva’s Prime Directive in mind: “Sentient Beings are numberless. I vow to save them.”


Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley Zen Center
24 March 2020

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The Four Marks of Existence : Hozan Alan Senauke

I suffer because I want things
To be different from how they are.
I want to go to the gym
And I have to do sit-ups in my office.
I long for tacos and beans at Picante
And I settle for lukewarm takeout.

Impermanence is all I can count on.
The world we knew
Has turned around in a handful of days.
My god, will it always be like this?
Yes, and it always has been this way.
Blossoms fall and weeds grow.

The ache of social-distancing
Is the suffering of no-self—
I am pulled away from all of you, who are my self:
The woman behind me on the checkout line;
The prisoner I visit in a narrow steel cage;
The fiddler whose tune is naked without accompaniment.

Take a breath and enjoy it.
Things change and we change too
Universal truths flourish even in pandemic
Resisting truth is suffering
Accepting truth is nirvana,
Which does and does not make life any easier.


Hozan Alan Senauke
21 March 2020
Berkeley, California



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