Fall has arrived, and it’s cold, dark, and silent when I enter the hondo each morning. I pull aside the curtain and step into the space with a gassho. That first bow pulls my whole body into practice. In the past few days, that early morning bow has also given rise to a window to a moment from the past. It’s a millisecond of snapshots. An imprecise memory of entering the old horse barn hondo at Tendai Buddhist Institute. Icy winter air. Creaking wheels of the barn door sliding. The waft of incense. Dim light. Soothing. Warmth of the wood stove. Somehow the sensory input of my current space triggers input from the sense organ of the mind, transporting me to a moment in time of deep comfort. I am positioned outside of time but inside a revelation of Buddha nature.
In Buddhism we include the mind as the sixth sense organ, along with the traditional five organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Anything entering through the six sense organs can be a tool for our liberation, supporting us to let go of attachment to our relative truth as being the only truth. Alternatively, what enters through the six sense organs can reinforce our experience of craving, anger, and ignorance. Our sensory input conditions us into a version of ourself that exists in any given moment of time. We can alter who we are by monitoring and sometimes filtering what comes in through the senses.
What we ingest matters. To support our practice, we must eat what is nourishing. This concept seems obvious to us when we think about food. When we are aiming to support our body, we choose food with a high nutritional value: broccoli over cake. It may seem less obvious that we also need to monitor what “foods” we ingest through our other senses. What music, podcast, or news broadcast are we listening to, and how does our response to that input shape the version of self that manifests? What smells are filling the room during our period of meditation, and how does that impact our ability to sit with equanimity? And, often hardest to spot, what input are we taking in through our mind by letting our thoughts run unchecked? How is that input perpetuating or releasing us from discomfort or worry?
For the past few weeks our sangha discussion has focused on a verse from the Tendai Morning Service called the Six Repentances. The verse moves us through a repentance of each sense organ, recognizing the problematic conditions that can arise from relying on the input coming in through that sense organ. The point of reciting these verses is not to get us to close our eyes and plug our ears to drown out the imagery of the world. Instead, it is a reminder about how the senses can subtly evoke various passions within us without our awareness. The practice asks us to remember moments when we have been carried away from equanimity by a particular sense organ and to renounce being carried away in the future.
I find this practice of looking closely at how our sensory input is shaping our awareness to be particularly useful in this time when our sangha is meeting on Zoom. Gathering in a virtual format alters the senses that are engaged and the way they are engaged in practice. We’ve noted over time that there are some conveniences of meeting in this virtual format. These past several months have been an opportunity to include sangha members who have moved far away from us and have reduced travel time for local people. Yet, there are also some important elements of practice we are denied during this time.
Tendai is temple Buddhism. We see that the space we practice in plays a crucial role in supporting the quality of our practice. The sights, smells, sounds, and other elements of a temple create a space where all six senses are fed by inputs evoking the sacred. This sets up the conditions for practice without distraction. Within the temple, the physical presence of the sangha itself also benefits practice. When we recite the daily service together our voices unite in a way that supports us to transcend our vision of a separate self and feel our interbeing with others. When we are in a space together, our bodies (being in the same hondo), speech (through chanting) and minds (through our intentions) are united together in practice. We can benefit from this interconnected practice in a very different way than from solitary practices.
Our virtual gatherings lack this quality of place, this integration and balance that feeds all six senses. We have our sense of sight, shrunken down into small windows on Zoom. We have our sense of sound, sometimes interrupted by spotty connections, and more useful for one-at-a-time speech rather than for harmony. We have our sense organ of the mind, always working, engaging with the content of our discussions. We lack a shared space for our other sense organs to dwell, most notably for the body. We lose the physicality of practice that we gain when we are together in person.
My intent here is not to complain or to generate longing for the “good old days” when we gathered in person. This is our reality, and the moment we need to show up to. Yet it’s also important for us to reflect on what is missing from our current forum for gathering so that we can attempt to fill those gaps.
There are a few things each of us can do to bring all of our six senses more fully into our practice space even when we meet remotely. While each of us have different access to space and quiet in our homes, it’s up to each of us to create our own version of a “mini temple” to immerse ourselves in a sense of the sacred even as we are meeting up in the digital universe. I’ve noticed in previous weeks some people burning candles and incense in your own spaces as we meet together. This is a great way to transform the space you are Zooming from and to make our sangha gathering distinct from other virtual meetings you engage in and from the ordinariness of daily life. Another valuable practice is to allow yourself a few minutes to transition into our virtual space. When you enter into the grounds of any temple in Japan, you’ll find a basin of water to wash your hands and rinse your mouth with. This act purifies you, washing away the distractions and attachments you have been accumulating, It enables you to approach your practice fresh, with a beginner’s heart-mind. You can practice this ritual at home by washing your hands and rinsing your mouth with intentionality before joining our Zoom. Finally, I recommend engaging in the three prostrations that we normally begin the Daily Service with when we are together in person. The prostrations, done with your mind focused on the three jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), is a way to bring your body, speech, and mind together into our practice space.
As we wind down our conversations about the six repentances over the next few weeks, we can use this opportunity to deepen our practice. Renouncing distracting input and embracing supportive conditions helps us find more benefit from our practice. As local COVID rates are starting to climb back up, as we continue our work investigating and transform the structures of racism infused through our country, and as we move into an anxiety-producing presidential election, we need to work even harder to maintain our equanimity. Attending to the conditions we create for our practice will help us do that. When we are each taking this careful attention with our own practice, we will be more strongly connected as a sangha even when we are remote.