On a quiet hillside in the woods off Route 140 in Grafton, a Buddhist temple is doing its part to stay connected to its followers and spread its message of calm and compassion in a world roiled by the coronavirus pandemic. Its weekly insight meditation group now convenes on Zoom, as does its biweekly class that teaches the foundations of Buddhism to members’ children. The temple’s Facebook page posts words of wisdom and live streams the soothing chants of sutras, or scriptures, recited by its resident monks in Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha’s time.
The New England Buddhist Vihara and Meditation Center is a Theravada Buddhist temple, a spiritual tradition with roots in Southeast Asia, and is staffed by Sri Lankan monks, who are addressed with the honorific Bhante, which translates as “Reverend.” It was founded in 2004 and had several locations in Boston’s western suburbs before relocating to Grafton in 2011. Head monk Debokkawe Pannasiri was ordained in Sri Lanka over 20 years ago and subsequently earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Buddhist philosophy.
“In the face of this pandemic, maintaining one’s mental well-being is critically important,” said Pannasiri. “Meditation helps us cultivate a high level of psychological resiliency and in times of adversity and stress it helps to maintain a peaceful and restful state of mind.”
During such an existential crisis, the temple’s emphasis on mindfulness for ourselves and kindness toward others resonate all the more strongly for many people.
Richard Price is a Grafton resident who has meditated at the temple for many years.
“The TV and the internet offer wall-to-wall bad news, then we go to grocery stores and see half-empty shelves, which has caused a sense of malaise for society,” he observed. “Meditation gives us an opportunity to put that chatter away for a while.”
Neela de Zoysa is a Sri Lankan-American from Sudbury who is also a long-time member of the temple. “The temple occupies a central role in the spiritual and social life of the Sri Lankan migrants …in the greater Boston area and across New England,” she explained. “Individuals and families are encouraged to visit the temple by appointment …or to call to receive counseling and advice.”
However, despite the temple’s digital outreach, the pandemic is creating a problem for the monks in meeting their everyday needs and expenses.
“As a mendicant tradition, monks are dependent on food alms offered by the temple community, and this has been greatly reduced due to the current restrictions,” she noted. “No gatherings and few in-person visits have also resulted in a drastic reduction of donations.”
Regardless of the current financial challenges, de Zoysa did sound a note of hope, however, regarding the ability of the temple’s community to deal with the pandemic.
“Sickness, growing old, and the frailty that comes with it, and ultimately, death, are normal facts of life in the Buddhist philosophy,” she noted, and are not taboo topics. “At a time such as this, when this reality is coming at us through a fire hose, it gives us pause to contemplate these realities of life and be more alert to living what time we have to the fullest.”
Added Pannasiri: “The many guided meditations and workshops conducted by the temple train the participants on how to be with yourself in silence. …The developed mind, on an even keel, is able withstand sudden changes and ups and downs. A calm and content mind can be joyful in the midst of turmoil.”
For more information about the New England Buddhist Vihara and Meditation Center, visit www.nebvmc.org.