Over the past month we have seen the gradual relaxing of the Shelter in Place guidelines that have dramatically reshaped our lives since they were first ordered in March. Many stores are now offering curbside pickup for shoppers and restaurants have started to open for outdoor dining. Our neighborhood pool is open with new rules, such as masks should be worn at all times when not in the water and no pool toys are allowed. If you wish to relax on the pool deck, bring your own chair from home because all common pool furniture has been replaced with large squares of red tape guiding the families to sit six feet apart from one another.
San Mateo County restrictions on gathering at houses of worship have also been relaxed, which has prompted several Sangha members to ask, “When will we be able to return to the Temple for in-person services?”
When San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow made the decision to allow religious gatherings, he issued an open letter to all faith communities in the county outlining his perspective and concerns regarding our gatherings. He wrote, “I want you and your congregants to be aware, that allowing religious gatherings isn’t being done because I believe it’s safe. In fact, I don’t think it is safe or wise to have gatherings of any size right now.” In the following days, Dr. Morrow generously took time out of his busy schedule to host a Clergy Town Hall with faith leaders from across the county.
Dr. Morrow explained that while the Shelter in Place measures prevented a large spike in cases that could have overwhelmed our healthcare system, the virus continues to spread in our community. Indeed, a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports a 31.5% increase in new Covid-19 cases in San Mateo County since gradual reopening began on May 18. With regard to the growing impression that the worst of the virus outbreak has passed, Dr. George Rutherford head of the division of infectious disease and epidemiology at UCSF is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, as saying “The virus doesn’t listen to the radio, read the newspaper or watch CNN. This is us trying to talk our way out of biological phenomena with an organism whose only purpose is to reproduce.”
During the Clergy Town Hall meeting, Dr. Morrow acknowledged that some religious communities may decide to go ahead and hold in-person gatherings but emphasized that all attendees need to be made aware of the risk of infection. He went on to say that religious gatherings should be held outdoors if possible, no-one over the age of 50 should attend, and all participants, including clergy, should wear a face covering at all times. Shared objects like service books and incense containers should be put away for the time being. Dr. Morrow was particularly adamant that singing, chanting, and group recitation should be avoided at religious gatherings, describing these activities as “about the best way you could think of to spread the virus far and wide and infect many.”
Given the dangers of chanting and singing together at an in-person gathering, Dr. Morrow encouraged religious communities to offer services livestreamed over the internet. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we will continue holding our weekly Sunday services via the Zoom Meeting internet application. Subscribe for information about how to join the services online at http://sanmateobuddhisttemple.org/subscribe/ Participants who do not use a computer are encouraged to dial (650) 446-6670 to join the services by phone. This is a direct dial number, so no IDs or passwords are required.
In order to observe a timely remembrance of loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore, some families have opted to hold memorial services via Zoom as well. For those who wish to observe memorial services in-person, the Buddhist Churches of America Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada has provided guidance to all ministers that the traditional schedule for holding services such as the 49 Day, 100 Day, One Year, Three Year Memorials and so on may be postponed until a safe in-person gathering is possible. At this point in time, we may consider holding small outdoor in-person services with spoken word readings from the sutras in lieu of chanting, provided we carefully observe safety precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing.
As I consider what a service that conforms to the guidelines provided by Dr. Morrow would look like, without our usual incense offering, sutra chanting, gatha singing, or comforting hugs, I ask myself, What practices are essential in the life of the Nembutsu? Fortunately, we have the following clear and reliable guidance on this matter from one of Shinran Shonin’s letters:
If, holding [the nembutsu] well in your heart, you are certain that your birth [in the Pure Land] is completely settled, then in expressing your appreciation of the Buddha’s benevolence, nothing else is necessary; you should say the nembutsu, being always mindful of it. You should say the nembutsu, being always mindful of it.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 560-561)
I long for the day when we can once again all gather as a Sangha in the Hondo, share in the offering of incense, and sit shoulder to shoulder before Amida Buddha while we chant the words of the Larger Sutra in the full voices that make the San Mateo Buddhist Temple such a special place. In the meantime, I take comfort in Shinran’s wise teaching that when we live each moment with mindfulness of the Buddha’s benevolence, the nembutsu is all that is necessary.
Namo Amida Butsu