“Obstructions can lead to freedom. We can be like the bamboo that crushed by an object will grow around it. We have a chance to learn from this pandemic. We will be socially isolated, but our minds cannot be imprisoned in our houses. Now is the time to dive deeply into our spiritual practices. Now is the time to be the level-headed ones who can be there for others in their suffering. Now is the time to use social media for connection and healing. Now is the time to shine.” – Judith Joy

After hearing the long undulating sounds of the bell, Selina slowly massaged her hands and face, tenderly transitioning out of meditation. The crisp pitch of the bell signaled for everyone to stand up and practice walking meditation. Breathing in, she felt the toes and sole of her left foot press firmly into the golden brown wooden floor. Breathing out, she smiled softly with gratitude as her right foot touched the floor. Then Seline slowly walked out of the room and into her baby daughter’s room. Over the wooden crib walls, her darling lay in the same fetal position as before, tucked away under a light blue cotton blanket, and looking as peacefully still as if she too had just benefited from the meditation next door.

Seline gazed for a few more moments, and then carefully walked back to her sitting cushion on the floor. She mindfully reopening her laptop, and there was her beloved Sangha – seated beautifully and quietly on her screen, having just finished walking meditation and waiting for another sitting meditation to begin. Present and at ease, Seline was with her Monday evening online Sangha, and she felt truly at home.

During the initial outbreak of the corona virus, Seline was heartbroken that she was no longer able to attend her Sangha’s gatherings due to social distancing. Her local Sangha was the basis of her practice and social support, especially as a young single mother. Being with them was her weekly emotional and spiritual renewal. When her Sangha stopped meeting, a grey cloud of fear and despair filled Seline’s heart. Spring was coming, but instead of feeling full of warmth and joy, the pandemic filled future looked stormy, dark, and lonely. Without her Sangha, how could she survive alone with only her baby for unknown months in lockdown?

Shortly after, Seline’s Sangha began transitioning from in-person gatherings to virtual Sangha. Hearing this, Seline’s heart soared as if it was leaping out of the confines of her small apartment and into abodes of her wider community. She wouldn’t have to brave through this challenging season of isolation alone. Soon after, Seline was receiving invitations for online retreats and weekly meditations from friends in different cities. With meditation groups every day of the week, Seline practices more often now than she was ever able to before as a single mom. She is able to have the best of both worlds, meditating with her Sangha regularly, while being fully present to her child’s needs at home. Like so many others, virtual Sangha helped turned Seline’s social isolation into spiritual transformation.

Even just 10 years ago, this kind of virtual Sangha connection was impossible for most Sanghas. Hundreds of thousands of practitioners, or perhaps even millions around the world, spanning various languages across dozens of countries are connecting and supporting each other’s meditation practice through virtual communities. Virtual conferencing platforms allow people to connect fluidly and reliably through both video and telephone options so that anyone can join a meeting. From the warm and comfy seat of your own couch, simply tap the link, and within moments, you’re in. The Sangha home is right there with you.

Opening Virtual Dharma Doors

The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on families and communities everywhere, killing thousands indiscriminately and threatening survival for those already suffering economic depravity. It’s at times like this when we need the strength of our spiritual community and practice to lean on and flourish into the most. Refuges of human presence, compassion, and wisdom can replenish our hearts in the darkest moments of fear and isolation.

Virtual gatherings are a perfect communal antidote, as Sanghas evolve technologically to become forces of “Karuna action” in the face of Corona Virus. (Karuna is the Pali word for “compassion”).  Fortunately, it’s never been easier to do this, no matter one’s experience in the digital world. Spiritual communities everywhere have been making this transition practically overnight. Hopefully this article can support your community to make the leap to virtual presence more supportive and powerful as well.

Last October, I was invited to give the keynote presentation at the European Buddhist Union’s annual conference in Barcelona, Spain on the topic of “Digital Dharma.” Dozens of teachers and leaders representing different Buddhist traditions throughout European countries came for several days to connect with one another and learn ways to grow their community’s online presence among other topics of interest.

President of the EBU, Ron Eichorn initiated the Digital Dharma topic about a year ago, knowing how much Buddhist leaders and teachers could grow their Sanghas and expand outreach through more sophisticated online presence. Of course, at the time we had no idea that a pandemic would soon close the doors of almost every zendo around the world. It was wise intuition and great planning by Ron and the EBU Council to support European Sanghas growth in this digital age, and right now it’s paying off big time.

The conference was a predominantly older group, representing Sanghas from many corners of Europe. At 39 years old, I wasn’t the youngest person at the conference, but I had to be close. The spectrum of tech knowledge and experience in the room spanned between impressive, eyebrow raising, and honestly shocking. People asked questions that would make a teenager cringe with embarrassment. “What is a webinar?”, someone asked early on. To make sure he wasn’t the only person there with such a question, I asked, “Who knows what a webinar is?”  Almost half the room didn’t budge. Many had never been on a Zoom call; nearly the same number had never heard of Zoom. “Google Hangouts? Never heard of it,” someone else said. “Wow,” I thought, “This is going to be a rough ride.” But we dove into the material together, exploring virtual resources, answering tons of questions, and learning from various people’s experiences about what is possible to offer online. Technology can be intimidating, but I found that they were hungry and excited to learn how to take advantage of these tech resources that were outpacing their Sangha’s walking meditation speed. One of the main takeaways was how easy it can be to begin offering online teachings and practice. By the end, I felt hopeful and encouraged by their enthusiasm, but also admittedly skeptical how much they would actually implement on their own back home.

Six months later, and I’m amazed how their Sanghas have grown in leaps and bounds into the virtual world! My conclusion now is that if this group of folks can learn how to bring their Sanghas online, then any Sangha can too. The success stories are much better told by the Sanghas themselves. I recently heard from Gabor Hargitai, a Hungarian Dharma Teacher in Budapest who attended the conference in October and whose Sangha previously had minimal online presence.

“After the European Buddhist Union gathering, I told the leaders of our Sangha what I heard, and we started discussions on this topic. We had time to try this and that, so we slowly started to collect information about the different possibilities. We had some online meetings on Skype, and we created a Facebook group for live streaming. But when the virus crisis appeared, we realized that we must act fast, and based upon our previous experiences and knowledge we installed a system for the online teachings to substitute our group meditations.

We stopped all our offline activities and closed the centers for the public; the other teachers and I stopped traveling to other centers. Then we set up a google form to collect registrations for our regular events, which now only go online. We decided to use YouTube for the lectures because it keeps the recordings, it is quite manageable, and it can be listened too later, etc. Only those who register can access the recordings. From the registrations we have emails of people who wanted to listen our programs, and we regularly send the actual YouTube links for the lectures.

We offer meditations for beginners, and these are accessible for everyone on YouTube. For practices which require more intellectual knowledge and meditation experience, we use Google Hangouts Meet, which provides a more intimate, interactive forum. These events can be attended only by invitation.

As I see, the Sangha members are very happy and grateful for this possibility! There are many, who are endangered by the corona virus so they stay at home now. They need the inspiration, teachings, and meditation, and now they can participate in these ways.

In the beginning, it was quite difficult to speak to a camera, without any reaction from an audience. But after some time, we started to “feel its taste,” as we say in Hungary. Now we are feeling very positive about it all. Although there are many hardships from the virus, we try to turn this situation from a “problem” to a “possibility”, which can help more people than we could ever reach before.”

Another friend of mine, Freedom Rivera practices in a young adult Sangha in the USA. She recently shared, “Wake Up New York held our first Sangha last night! It was wonderful to connect and practice together despiser the challenge we are going through in the world. We used Zoom and given that the the group was so big, we were able to use the break out group rooms for check-ins and sharing our internal weather. We also used the ‘shared screen’ feature for the group to read the book “Fear” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Then we were able to hang out together online after the official closing.”

As Gabor and Freedom both share, when their Sangha doors closed, they learned to open new ones. Now their communities are creatively opening more doors of practice to others than before.

Easy, Inexpensive, and Possible

Across the globe, Sanghas are now chanting, “I take refuge in the virtual Sangha.” This week alone, I was invited to Sanghas in Toronto, London, Washington DC, Mexico, Northern California, the Netherlands, and many more. I would be tempted to visit Gabor and his Sangha if I spoke Hungarian. But maybe you can, and that’s part of the magic of virtual Sanghas. You can connect in whatever language, affinity group, or culturally specific Sangha you wish! People are learning how to host online gatherings everywhere, and it’s bringing unique benefits to more people and communities every single day.

So where can one find or create such a virtual Sangha home? There’s dozens of reliable video hosting platforms to use. The most common one Sanghas use is Zoom; it’s extremely user friendly, super reliable, and inexpensively priced. It has different features that allow for breakout rooms, recording sessions (video or audio), and either video or telephone call in so that people can join regardless of their devices. There’s also free options such as Skype, FreeConferenceCall, and Google Hangouts. But if you have more than a few people, then the connection may become unreliable, especially during social lockdown when millions are online. For 14 euros per month, a good Sangha connection is worth it! That’s how much it costs for Zoom Pro, and you can have up to 100 participants, scheduling meetings whenever you want. It’s a lot cheaper than renting a space in the city!

Online Zendo Guidelines

During the past week, hundreds, if not thousands of Sanghas have made the transition from in person to virtual connection, and they have been developing specific guidelines to support the virtual practice space. A friend of mine, Brian Kimmel leads practices with the Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound in Seattle which transitioned three of their Sangha gatherings onto Zoom. Brian shared with me recently, “Zoom is our only functioning practice center at the moment because of restrictions and precautions due to the pandemic. We are also helping our practice facilitators train in being a Zoom host.” Brian’s Sangha sends people “Online Practice Guidelines” before attending video calls. These guidelines are based on resources such as Plumline and San Francisco Zen Center who have been offering online gatherings for years already. Brian reflected that these resources “made this transition period for our local community a little easier. We did not have to completely reinvent the wheel. Instead, we added touches that spoke to our local communities.”

Online guidelines help people understand not just technical information, but also how each individual can help contribute to harmony, concentration, and ease in the collective practice. Every Sangha can adapt them according to their own needs. For example, they may encourage participants to arrive 10 to 15 minutes before the online meeting to settle themselves without distraction or interrupting the meditation. They may encourage a clean workspace so that the computer screen doesn’t reveal lots of clutter, or have minimal visual background distractions. Here are a few guidelines that you may like to check out to inform your Sangha’s virtual practice: Online Zendo at San Francisco Zen Center, and Still Water Practice Center (Maryland, USA.)

Beyond the Pandemic

Another beaming ray of light that is piercing through the heavy storm clouds of this pandemic is the greater capacity for Sanghas to reach people online even after this public health crisis wanes. When people begin meeting again in person, Sanghas will still have greater outreach through online presence. The infinitely long arms of the virtual bodhissatva will be able to reach those who were never able to attend in person.

Like Seline, so many parents, especially single parents feel left out of Sangha life during the most challenging period of their family’s development. Not everyone has a grandparent willing to babsit, and most Sanghas don’t have children’s programs. But now, the Sangha can come right into one’s living room several times a week, while the parent never roams farther than the sound of their baby’s voice.

Young parents are not the only ones connecting through online mindfulness communities. Consider Joseph, a 34 year old video producer whose work keeps him traveling around Europe. This Wednesday, Joseph is in Barcelona, far from home in London. But it’s no problem –  his Sangha is traveling with him, just an hour later than usual. He hooks up online, and finds a dozen practitioners ready to practice together.  Like many others in the business world, Joseph spends just a fraction of each month at home. His online Sangha has become his most reliable companion, having been with the group for 3 years strong despite his crazy schedule. Some of the his Sangha members have moved multiple times, having left family, friends, and neighbors. Through it all, no matter where they move, their virtual Sangha keeps traveling with them.

In some countries where people live under authoritarian regimes, like China, people are not allowed to have Sangha gatherings freely as they wish. The governments fear the power of these communities and restrict them from meeting in person. Virtual Sangha has been a wonderful refuge where people can still gather online, without feeling afraid that the police will be outside their door when the Sangha is over.

Online Sanghas are Just Beginning

Plumline.org is has been the central nursery of newly born online Sanghas in the Plum Village tradition. They have three Zoom accounts and anyone can start or join an online Sangha group who practices in this tradition, no matter where they live. Over thirty Plumline groups exist in over seven languages, with different themes of practice, meeting every day of the week. Last fall, I interviewed Plumline visionary and co-founder, Alipasha Razzaghipour about why he thought these groups have bloomed in recent years and what’s to come. Ali shared “Technology is redefining the intersections of space and contact in our world, radically changing the way we relate to distance and travel.”

Ali recounted that a dozen years ago, the first online groups were based on text messages. “I will begin meditating now,” typed one member into the chat box. “Okay, me too. Enjoy your sit,” confirmed another. Just being aware that another Sangha member was meditating together with them in that moment was already supportive and beneficial for those far away from in person Sanghas. “Not everyone can join a local group, for any number of reasons, so being with a virtual Sangha is better than none at all. Online Sanghas are not for everyone,” Ali shared. “But in person Sanghas are not for everyone either.” Some virtual Plumline Sanghas are celebrating their 9th and 10th birthdays together!  With such longevity, these groups are undoubtedly providing a steady source of Dharma nourishment to people.

Practicing mindfulness with others non-locally has other advantages. It presents a golden opportunity for small niche groups of practitioners to come together in ways that were never before possible. Consider someone living in a small city who wants to practice with a Sangha that is dedicated to exploring environmental issues. Whereas her local group doesn’t have the interest, it will be easy to find a dozen (or many more) practitioners across the country with that calling.

Some people really wish to hear the Dharma in their native tongue, but there’s no Sangha near them that does. This may not seem like a big deal for those who speak the same language as the dominant group in their country of residence. But to live in Vietnam and speak Polish, or to live in Poland and speak Vietnamese, finding an online Sanghas that speaks Polish or Vietnamese can be quite an amazing opportunity!

Alipasha admitted that there are a number of drawbacks of meeting online as well, depending on the digital platform. For one, the degree of transmission from teacher to student practitioner is not the same online as in person, and perhaps that gap can never be fully closed. So it’s really valuable that new practitioners really taste the experience of practice in person, whether during a retreat or a weekly group. This can happen before or after meeting online. Ideally, people can practice both in person and online to support their practice.

There’s also the obvious distractions of being on a computer during meditation. Ali jokingly shared that on several occasions, “I’ve noticed during Dharma sharing, that someone is wearing glasses and I can see the light reflecting a changing computer screen. They were clear browsing during our practice.” He laughed, noting “We are in fact inviting people to meditate right in front of perhaps the biggest source of addiction in their lives – their screens!”

Ali advised, “It is important to remind new practitioners to approach the video conference as they would a Dharma Hall. We all have strong conditioning when sitting in front of a screen, from online shopping, to conducting research, to checking emails. If we remind practitioners to bring ‘the mind of practice’ to the online meeting, treating the space as sacred, then people’s behavior and the energy they contribute will naturally change.” While meditating online has challenges, it can help transform people’s afflictive habits and ambivalent relationships with technology.

As technology continues to advance its capacities to provide more lifelike experiences for users, the degrees of separation continue to dwindle. When asked what the future holds for online communities, Ali assured me that this growth has just begun. “We’ve seen the evolution of digital Sanghas fly forward in the last few decades; from text based Sanghas, to multiple person phone calls, to Skype, to Google Hangouts, and now to Zoom. Just watch, it won’t be long before we are meditating together in a virtual meditation hall.”

Whatever the future holds for virtual capacities, Sanghas are embracing technology right now more than ever. In this period of Corona virus outbreak, most people don’t have the choice of attending in person anymore. It’s either virtual Sangha or no Sangha. When offered, people are stepping into refuge of the former. And no one knows how long this will last.