The challenge, propagating the Dhamma during the COVID-19 pandemic

The article “Buddha in the Digital Age” published in the Straits Times more than a decade ago on May 9th 2009, featured Buddhist groups using internet to spread the Dhamma among the youth groups, is a precursor to the proliferation in the spreading of the Dhamma digitally online amid the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Courtesy of SPH The Straits Times dated May 9th 2009.

COVID-19 pandemic, Social distancing and work from home (WFH)
With the implementation of the circuit breaker (CB) from April 7th to contain the spread of the COVID-19, many non-essential services like attending religious services, among many other service providers, are strictly prohibited. Senior citizens are encouraged to stay at home and maintained social distancing. The work from home (WFH) scheme is encouraged and many do stay at home to work thus reducing the risk of exposing themselves in the public place and the office or workplace and also to main social distancing. Wearing of face masks outdoor is mandatory. Many Buddhist establishments are void of congregation of visitors, devotees and well-wishers.

The Challenge
It is indeed a noble deed to continue to propagate the Dhamma for the well-being and benefits of all beings as Lord Buddha did 2,500 years ago: “Go not in two to one place. Preach, O disciple, the law, the beginning which is noble, the middle of which is noble, and the end of which is noble, in spirit and letter: preach the whole and full, pure of holiness. There are beings who are pure from the dust of the earthly, but if they hear not the gospel of the law, they perish: they shall understand the law.” [(Hermann Oldenberg, “Buddha His Life, His Doctrine, His Order “ 2006, page 131). (DN II, 48)].

The Buddha unlike most other teachers, did not use only His monastery or His auditorium for teaching. The Buddha taught His disciples mostly in the open air. The Buddha’s class-rooms were public parks, cemeteries, rock-slabs, sandy stretchers, shade of trees, fields, pasture-land, poor hovels, public roads and the forests. These were places that had an uncluttered environment. (“The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived The Supreme Buddha” by Venerable Weragoda Sarada Maha Thero).

Following the tradition of the Buddha, the class-room style of teaching and listening to the Dhamma in monasteries, temples, centres, or meditation centres or any auditorium and; prayers or puja at the Shrine Halls, with congregation of devotees, attendees or well-wishers with the teacher, preacher, facilitator or monk is a customary and a preferred choice.

During the CB period, propagation of the Dhamma the traditional way is not possible as gathering at any one place is no longer allowed during a pandemic, to restraint the spread of the COVID-19, much as we would wish to follow. Incessantly, from June 2nd during the Phase One which will last for at least four weeks, places of worship can reopen for private worship up to five members of the same household, can pray together at one time. What a great constraint!

Online digital platform to the rescue
Prior to the CB period many Buddhist establishments have at least one digital platform, namely the official website, (albeit some could be passive and others dormant) and many also included Facebook, YouTube and WordPress which are not interactive. Later Facebook allows live-streaming and the latest applications like Zoom and Google Meet are interactive platforms for online live meetings.

“The show must to go on!” goes a saying. So the CB period should not be an impediment in the propagation of the Dhamma in the cyber age. There is no right or opportune time to go digital, but circumstances may dictate a conducive condition to go online or compelled by an adverse climate like a pandemic.

As there is no immediate light in sight at the end of tunnel for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Buddhist establishments are going online to provide their services digitally. Fortunately, they are inundated with many free applications like Facebook, YouTube, WordPress, Zoom and Google Meet which are easily accessible, led to acceleration of Buddhist establishments jumping on the tech bandwagon using the internet to propagate the Dhamma online, flourishes overnight.

Many services like daily puja, chanting, meditation, classes, Dhamma talks are conducted on digital platform and streamed live viz Facebook or Zoom. Others would record and uploaded them to YouTube or blog or website.

Classroom versus virtual presentation
Many may be unaccustomed to an electronic learning (e-learning) mode gazing at a screen of a computer monitor, laptop, tablet or smartphone alone, an environment alien to a formal classroom ambience. It is no surprise with the older folks associate learning with a teacher and also many of them are not tech savvy. Venerable Ananda, too, had the same notion upon learning of the imminent passing of the Buddha. “And the Lord said to Ananda: Ananda, it may be that you will think: ‘The Teacher’s instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher! It should not be seen like this, Ananda for what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and discipline will, be at my passing, be your teacher.’ ” (D.ii,154).

And for some listening and learning from a teacher in person is preferred just like Vakkali who wished to see the Buddha in person. “For a long time, Reverend Sir, I have desired to approach the Exalted One to look upon him; but I have not sufficient strength in my body to approach the Exalted One to look upon him.” “Enough, Vakkali! What is the use of your looking upon this foul body? Whoever, Vakkali, sees the Truth, sees Me. Whoever sees Me, sees the Truth. For, Vakkali, seeing the Truth, one sees Me; seeing Me, one sees the Truth.” (SN. iii, 119-120).

Seeing Buddha
After the paranibbana of the Buddha, there were no images of the Buddha. The only depictions of Buddha appeared through the use of symbols like: the Bodhi tree, stupas, empty seats, footprints, and the wheel. But, after the invasion of the Hellenistic army of Alexander the Great, which conquered the territory of Bactria, what is now part of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, human images of Buddha appeared.

The Buddha of that time looked much like the Belvedere Apollo (330 AD), beautiful and dressed in Hellenistic style. He is shown in a light toga, with a halo, the contrapposto stance of the upright figures, classical Mediterranean curly hair, and the top-knot. Some of the Buddha statues were also made using the Greek technique of creating the hands and feet in marble. Nowadays, many researchers wonder, do any of the Buddha’s represent the face of an ancient king who changed the image of Buddhism forever? (“Ancient Origins, Reconstructing the Story of Humanity’s Past”).

Standing Buddha, Gandhara, 1st century AD. ( Public Domain )

So basically, the image of the Buddha was a later invention. Early Buddhist disciples and forest meditators practised the Dhamma without any faint idea of the features of the Buddha. Nevertheless, many Asian cultures formulated their own form of image of the Buddha like Thai, Myanmar, Tibetan or Sri Lankan tradition. When we bow or prostrate before the image of the Buddha is in reverence to the founder of the TRUTH (teachings) and not to worship or idolise Him.

Is it essential to be with the presence of the Buddha image for our daily practice? Anyway, there is always a trade-off with virtual e-learning from a digital platform and; one has to adapt to the new condition bearing in mind the true nature of annica, dhukka and anatta to benefit from the Teachings in whatever mode.

Stay in the present moment
The gift of the Dhamma excels all other gifts (Dhammapada 354). Therefore, it is indeed a noble deed to continue the spread of the Teachings as what Lord Buddha did 2,500 years ago while we do it, albeit in the cyber age virtually by the internet. The greatest benefit is one can listen or attend the event in cosy comfort without even leaving home with any digital device like a computer, laptop, tablet or a smart phone. And for events that were uploaded one can view it at your own convenience (7/24), anytime and anywhere, seven days a week and twenty four hours a day. It is also for the global arena for those with Wi-Fi connection to have access to the Teachings.

So stay safe in the present moment during the pandemic! What more can we expect?

Contributor: Chin Kee Thou
Date: May 25th 2020
Contents by contributor who takes responsibility for any inadvertence, factual or otherwise.

About Chin Kee Thou

Reading Buddhist scriptures and writing articles for the blog and newsletters.
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