Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. —Arundhati Roy, April 2020
As I‘ve been saying, the pandemic is restructuring Buddhist institutoins in the West. The old model of high-rent urban meditation halls, and costly rural retreat centers are not fairing well in the pandemic. This is both because of the absence of participants and volunteers to run these centers, and becuase of the economic impact of the pandemic. People don’t have the extra dough to pay $300 for a retreat or a make donations to a Buddhist center; they’re just trying to eat and keep the lights on. Shambhala centers in San Fransisco and Berkeley CA are shutting down or close to it, and those are the most well-padded people in this crisis, the tech sector. Many rural retreat centers have shut down operations and are begging for money. The Barre Centre in Massachusetts is struggling financially as they are forced to cancel all residential retreats and move them online. Since one Zoom meditation session is pretty much the same as another, it gets harder to “upsell” the celebrity of a popular teacher and charge more than is typical for a lesser known local teacher.
But what IS happening is that some people are starting to show up to online meditation sessions that before this would never have set foot in a meditation hall or retreat center: the working class. Now, I’m not talking about the really poor, the destitute who don’t have an internet connection. But I am talking about the working class, sometimes referred to as the ‘lower middle class’ who have a smart phone and access to wifi. (Don’t forget, you can call in to a Zoom meeting with a standard phone line if you don’t have internet). These are what I have called the Buddhist Precariat: gig workers, frontliners, part-timers, human service workers, delivery and sanitation workers, checkout clerks at the supermarket. These are the people who are starting to show up at these Zoom meditation sessions, who are ‘here for the first time’ and want to know what this Buddhism thing is about.
Furthermore, many patrons of the Upper MIddle Way who used to spend thousands of dollars flying across the world to go on exclusive retreats are no longer in that cushy category. Many find themselves (temporarily) facing the same financial insecurity as the Precariat, except they have better laptops and broadband connections. Their world feels very different now; it’s far more threatening and uncertain.
I sat in on a couple of meditation sessions with practitioners who were formerly patrons of the Upper MIddle Way and they are not doing well. They are frightened and anxious, isolated and struggling without the usual comforts and diversions of weatlh. Their coping skills are strained to the limit. But when I get online with the Precariat, they show remarkable fortitude, resilience and insight. They’ve been through this before, or really, this is how it’s always been, so nothing’s different now, except they just hope they don’t get sick. The difference between the two groups is remarkable.
Not only is this new group of practitioners more decidedly working class, they are also far more diverse. They include far more people of color, more queers, more single moms, and more people who have struggled with disability, addiction and mental health. One woman started an online meditation group for sex workers. Unlike their yuppie cohorts, they dress weird and have funny haircuts of different colours. They look like they’ve been through a war and they sure as hell know what they’re talking about. Straightforward no bullshit honesty is the way they approach the dharma and their lives.
Up till now, Western Buddhism has been dominated by yuppies, so-called Boomer Buddhism. But my guess is that once this is over, and I think that will be at least two to three years from now, we’re never going back to the way things were. We’ll be going back to the New Normal. The New Normal is a Western Buddhism that shrinks its financial liabilities, owns less property, depends less on exotic retreats and celebrity teachers, and has found new ways to reach out to a more diverse class of practitioners. Meanwhile, the Buddhist Precariat will have organized its own sanghas along more horizontal and democratic lines. The Buddhist Precariat will produce innovative strains of the dharma that emerge from their very different lives.