Buddhist Futures-Love in the Time of Coronavirus
We are approaching what I call the Buddhist Spring 2020. It is a movement to replace hierarchal Neo-liberal Buddhist institutions with communal anarchism and democracy. The series of Buddhist leader abuse scandals that rocked the Western Buddhist world over the last three years began to shred Buddhist organizations and sanghas. Practitioners left their practice centers, stopped donating to Buddhist organizations, even left the communal practice of Buddhism altogether. Buddhist meditation centers closed up shop, retreat centers were sold off to avoid bankruptcy. The whole legitimacy of Buddhist institutions in the West has been called into question. What does it mean to follow a teacher? Do we really need gurus? How are Buddhist organizations run—for the benefit of the community or the aggrandizement of the hierarchy? Do we want Buddhist aristocracies or democracies?
What this crisis of authority has begun, the coronanvirus pandemic has obliterated beyond recognition. We are truly in the middle of a revolutionary paradigm shift in Western Buddhism. Coronavirus is the last nail in the coffin of Buddhist hierarchies and institutions. Because of the pandemic, Buddhist sanghas can no longer meet face-to-face in meditation halls and retreat centers. Teachers can no longer sit on their thrones at the front of the shrine room and hold court. All Buddhist sanghas are moving their teaching and meditation sessions online or shutting down completely.
In the age of Coronavirus, the Network Rules. In the age of viral and virtual Buddhism, the Network is Swarming. The Network is now the DOMINANT form of Buddhist organization in the West. It is no longer a marginal add-on for low-income practitioners in isolated locations. Everyone is online in a truly egalitarian capacity. The hierarchy has been flattened and in many cases eliminated. No one can buy special access to ‘sit with the Guru’ at distant exotic locales that can only be reached by International airlines, lest they risk being a victim of the next pandemic. The age of Buddhist Brahmanism is over. The New Untouchables, the Buddhist Precariat, can get online and organize their own sanghas, teach themselves and each other. In fact, if anything, the Buddhist Precariat, gig workers of the world, are better at this than the Brahmins.
We are not going back. Once the pandemic is over, the institutional structures, financial frameworks and teaching methods of institutional Buddhism will have been irrevocably transformed. We are not going back to the old way. We are not forking over money we don’t have for plush meditation and retreat centers we don’t need. All we need is a Zoom account and the willingness to show up for each other. We will continue to educate ourselves, teach each other and accept responsibility for well-being of the community. We are organizing democratic, even anarchist peer-to-peer Buddhist networks. The Buddhist Precariat has taken over the Buddhist world in the Age of Coronavirus.
The Buddhist Spring is here, and it’s going viral.
And I didn’t have to do anything to make it happen.
This sounds so cleansing, so hopeful and so right. While the pain of this current era seems so encompassing, it has the potential for righting many wrongs and magnifying many assumptions of every aspect of our lives. I hope we use this time for compassion and thoughtfulness. We are all washing our bowls. And our hands.