Buddha Buzz Weekly: Is Buddhist Culture Helping to Fight COVID-19?

News outlets observe stunning numbers in the fight against the coronavirus in Southeast Asia, a monk in North Carolina is killed by a gunshot wound, and a temple in Tokyo helps struggling Vietnamese workers. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Emily DeMaioNewton and Karen Jensen Jul 25, 2020

Buddha Buzz Weekly: Is Buddhist Culture Helping to Fight COVID-19?A Buddhist monk on his morning alms round receives alms from a laywoman in Phuket, Thailand. | Rainer Krack/Alamy Stock Photo

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

How Did Majority Buddhist Countries Achieve COVID Success? 

Vietnam, a country of 97 million people, and Cambodia, at 16.25 million, have reported zero COVID-19 fatalities. Thailand, with a population of 70 million people, has had only 58 deaths. Myanmar, at 53 million, only six. What’s going on? This week the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) asked if Buddhism has something to do with it. In an interview for the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report, Jill Jameson, who serves on the executive committee of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, said that Buddhism’s emphasis on interconnectedness—and the popular belief in some of its apotropaic rituals—may have helped stem the spread. There are other factors: Thailand and Vietnam have mostly agrarian economies, meaning more time is spent outdoors, and authoritarian leadership, which may account for the relatively easy enforcement of COVID restrictions. But Jameson thinks that something else is going on. “It’s not just authoritarian rule,” she said. “[The people in these regions] know when they’re asked to obey rules very strictly that they’re doing it for the benefit of each other, not just for themselves. So it’s that commitment to the other that has helped a lot in reducing the numbers.” There are also many religious practices in Southeast Asian Buddhism that are meant to prevent illness, which Jameson thinks “give people some sense of doing something. Some help, some hope.” In addition, social distancing measures are embedded in the culture itself, the New York Times pointed out last week. In Thai culture, for example, there is a habit of greeting others with one’s palms together, as if in prayer, rather than a handshake or an embrace. There is also speculation that some kind of genetic component has proven advantageous to the immune systems of people in the Mekong River region. 

At this point, it’s hard to say if these countries are completely in the clear—even if it may be true that Buddhist culture is working for, and not against, the fight against the pandemic. “With the disease still looming, we have to keep our guard up,” Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin, COVID-19 spokesman for Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, told the Times.

Men Arrested in Pakistan for Destroying Buddha Statue

Four Pakistani men were arrested last weekend for allegedly destroying an ancient Buddha statue, the Associated Press (AP) reported. The men were doing construction in northwest Pakistan near Takhat Bhai, which was once part of Gandhara, a historical Buddhist kingdom, when they uncovered the statue. A video of one of the men destroying the statue with a hammer while it was still partially embedded in the ground went viral on social media. Later, local archaeologists determined the statue had historic value. They tried to recover the pieces to restore the statue but were unsuccessful. Police are questioning the men about why they destroyed the Buddha instead of reporting their find.

Meditation Studio Chain MNDFL Closes Its Physical Locations

MNDFL, a chain of meditation studios based in New York City, announced on Wednesday that it is closing all of its locations. “It is with a heavy heart that we will be permanently closing the doors to our physical spaces,” MNDFL announced in an Instagram post. “We poured our hearts and souls into ensuring our studios would survive the effects of the global pandemic, but after careful consideration, we simply cannot safely open the doors to our tiny, special spaces at this time.” MNDFL opened in late 2015, and was likely the first for-profit meditation studio in New York. The organization will continue to offer online programming through its streaming platform MNDFL TV, its MNDFL @ Work corporate program, and its to-be-announced MNDFL Certification Training. Last week, the Brooklyn Zen Center gave notice to its followers that it will be closing its main sangha at the end of September. 

Buddhist Monk in North Carolina Likely Killed by Stray Bullet

Tam Dinh Tran, a 50-year-old Buddhist monk, was found dead inside a temple in High Point, North Carolina on Saturday, the Charlotte Observer reported. Police responded to a call from another monk who found Tran kneeling at the altar in a praying position with blood coming out of his nose. First responders started CPR and discovered an injury beneath Tran’s right armpit. Tran was pronounced dead at the scene. Police found no signs of violence in the temple, but later discovered two bullet holes in the temple’s exterior wall and one bullet lodged in a stud. The other bullet fatally struck Tran, authorities believe after a medical examiner found a projectile in the monk’s chest. There is no evidence that Tran or the temple were targeted intentionally. 

Tokyo Temple Helps Struggling Vietnamese Workers 

A Buddhist temple in Tokyo, Japan, has become a haven for young Vietnamese migrant workers, who have been one of the hardest-hit groups by the economic downturn that has followed the COVID-19 outbreak. According to the Japan Times, Nisshinkutsu temple offers a safe space where the Vietnamese youths can spend the night, study Japanese, cook Vietnamese food, look for work, prepare packages of food for people in need, or book flights home. “We do everything. We take care of people from when they’re inside the womb to when they’re inside an urn,” Japanese-born Jiho Yoshimizu, head of the Japan-Vietnam Coexistence Support Group, a nonprofit based at Nisshinkutsu, told the Japan Times. Vietnamese workers in Japan are often students or trainees, and usually dependent on employers, making them vulnerable to abuse or exploitation. Many are lured to Japan by the promise of higher wages but often face crippling debt from job recruiters. They are the fastest-growing group of foreign nationals in Japan, numbering 410,000 last year, up 24.5 percent from 2018. Yoshimizu spoke in the Japanese Diet last month to urge the government to do more to support Vietnamese students who do not have employment insurance. “The current government’s coronavirus policy is focused on helping the Japanese first,” she said.

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Original author: Emily DeMaioNewton
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