Sustaining the real presence of community on Zoom

Excerpts from “A Jewel in the Lotus: Buddhist chaplaincy includes compassion and ‘skillful means,'” by Chris Berlin, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Autumn/Winter 2020

Chris Berlin, is an instructor in ministry and spiritual counseling and the denominational counselor to Buddhist students at Harvard Divinity School.  With his colleague Cheryl Giles,1 he teaches the course Compassionate Care of the Dying: Buddhist Trainings and Techniques.2

The course interweaves teachings in the Buddhist view of impermanence and death with meditation practices, group…, and close supervision of students’ well-being to help them metabolize and overcome their initial resistance to being with death and the dying.

Though not his main topic, Berlin gives significant attention to the drastic change that came “in the days of March that led up to the “great migration” to online learning due to COVID-19, [when] an increasing sense of anxiety began to take hold as we prepared to teach and learn through Zoom.”

The key concern for Berlin and Giles was the same one Quaker meetings have struggled with: how to sustain spiritual intimacy and community on Zoom.

Healing the rift between the reality of our mortality and our fear and avoidance of it is a core aim of the class. This opens the door to more deeply cultivate empathy, awareness, and a fearless approach to accompanying others at the end of life—what we can call a “lived pedagogy” that invites one to be transformed by the process….

The task of transitioning to online learning had little to do with adjusting our pedagogy and more to do with preserving the intimacy created by this community of peers, a nonmonastic “sodality” of sorts…..

Cheryl and I knew the central task was to preserve the essence of intentional community that defined our class environment, as well as the intimacy it fostered. But how would we do this in the new reality of remote learning?

Having sought to create the kind of refuge that fosters sharing, mindful processing, contemplative practice, and personal explorations into mortality and compassion, this holding space needed to continue to be available to students when in-person meetings were no longer possible.

Friends who now experience the social and technical awkwardness of worship and community sharing via Zoom will recognize this effort by Berlin and Giles.  How can Friends carry on remotely the “lived pedagogy” of Quaker faith and practice?

Berlin introduces the Buddhist name for spiritual community, the Pali term sangha.  He and Giles use this term

to convey an experience of community among Buddhist-oriented practitioners as led by learned and experienced teachers of Buddhism, meditation, and other forms of ritual or practice.

A key aspect of the course has been to foster a feeling of sangha among students…. The spirit of sangha is integral to providing a refuge for spiritual formation here and relies on mutual support and contemplative practice in community….

Again, this resonates with the Quaker sense of community in worship and fellowship.

[Yet] the change from sitting together in a circle on meditation cushions in the chapel to sitting alone at home, with the class now an aggregate of boxes with faces on a computer screen, initially felt somewhat disconnected….

Everyone’s expectations needed to adapt just enough—including ours, the instructors—to continue to feel a sense of sangha reforming itself online.

Meeting for worship on Zoom

That last sentence, that emphasized clause, speaks to the heart of what we must now do in our Quaker meetings.

It is necessary to talk about the awkwardness, the discomfort, the intrusiveness of having computers and screens in our face-to-face meetings for worship.  And to talk about the inadequacy and seeming shallowness of worshiping from a distance with only images of faces, and without the body’s visceral awareness of physical presence and nonverbal communications.

Yet it is also necessary to talk about sustaining the whole spiritual community in real time, even across distance and via clumsy online platforms.  Sustaining the community is the only real purpose of Quaker faith and practice.

Perhaps the bravery and persistence of these two Harvard Divinity School professors and their students can inspire us to trust and to nurture the real presence of community, a presence that does not at all depend upon physical presence alone.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Mike Shell


  1. Cheryl Giles is co-editor with Willa B. Miller of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work (Wisdom Publications, 2012), to which Chris Berlin is a contributing writer. See also, “Chaplaincy at a Distance: The Art of Spiritual Care During COVID-19,” an interview with Giles and Berlin in Harvard Divinity School News (5/5/2020).
  2. Compassionate Care of the Dying: Buddhist Training and Techniques (HDS 2935)

    Traditional Buddhist monastics and teachers have long played a key role in helping others prepare for death. This course will explore the central approaches to death and dying in Buddhism, the Buddhist view of compassion, and how these are being adapted in the US for professional end-of-life care. Students will develop an understanding of basic skills in compassionate care of the dying, and tools to approach death as an opportunity for spiritual growth through readings, meditation exercises, listening practices, group work, and discussions with guest speakers. Some prior knowledge of Buddhism preferred. Prerequisite: Spiritual Care, Chaplaincy, or CPE required.

2 comments On Sustaining the real presence of community on Zoom

  • I enjoyed this post, and I agree that “everyone’s expectations needed to adapt just enough” too allow for the sense of community to be (re-)formed even with an awkward interface. I am curious, though about this sentence, and would appreciate some clarification: “Sustaining the community is the only real purpose of Quaker faith and practice.” Thanks for this! <3

    • Thanks, Kay.

      Re: “Sustaining the community is the only real purpose of Quaker faith and practice.”

      I picture George Fox walking from one small rural community of Dissenters to the next. As Dissenters, they had no access to any of the parish aid and support that substituted for government assistance under the 17th century Church of England.

      In effect, Fox was visiting communities of outcasts, sometimes persecuted, who had to rely entirely on each other for survival, since the Church/State hierarchy cut them out of the established social order.

      In such a context, Fox understood that survival depended on actively coming to each others aid. This had to happen whether or not they liked or got along with each other.

      For me, all of Quaker spiritual practice, all of Quaker ethics, tends to boil down to waiting, both individually and collectively, for Inward Spirit to teach us how to take care of each other despite our differences, disagreements, doubts, resentments, jealousies, and so on.

      This is what I mean by “sustaining community”: that ever-changing collective process of learning how to take care of each other–where “each other” does not have boundaries but, rather, horizons towards which we move yet never reach.

      Blessings, Mike Shell

      Blessings, Mike

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