P.E.I. Buddhist monks adjust communal prayers, meals due to COVID-19

Monasteries at Little Sands and Heatherdale have instituted what they call community self-isolation, with no contact with the outside world.

'Our situation is vulnerable'

The monasteries went into self-imposed isolation March 6. Monks have scaled back communal gatherings to no more than 50 people. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Buddhist monasteries on P.E.I. continue to hold communal prayers, meals and classroom sessions, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monasteries at Little Sands and Heatherdale have instituted what the monks are calling community self-isolation, with no contact with the outside world.

A spokesperson for the religious enclaves calls their situation "vulnerable."

"Not just to the campus, to the community on the Island as well," said a monk named Venerable Walter.

"We've been informing and maintaining a contact with P.E.I. [Department of] Health and Wellness, to tell them what we do and update with them our situation."

The 600 monks include about 130 school boys. They continue to attend classes. This image was taken last fall, before COVID-19 was identified. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

No symptoms have been reported among the approximately 600 people who live in the monasteries, according to Walter, including the community's 130 students, all boys.

"We've heard places like Taiwan, Australia, Sweden and Singapore made the decision not to stop their school," said Walter in an email. "After some careful considerations, we have decided not to stop our classes."

At this moment in time, the community is not in contact of anyone in the public.— Venerable Walter

International travel by monks was discontinued in early February.

Students remain in the monastery by parental consent, according to Walter. Some parents felt their children would be safer on P.E.I. than on international flights home.

"We did consult with them and tell them our protocols," said Walter. "They feel their child is safe here."

Gatherings have been scaled back, to no more than 50 people in prayers, meal hall and classrooms, he said. Typically, early morning prayers in the facilities would be attended by up to 200 people. Monks are generally keeping the prescribed two-metre distance away from each other, he said. 

Self-imposed isolation

P.E.I.'s chief public health officer has recommended no public gatherings of any size take place. The monks say they are aware of provincial directives, as well as recommendations from the UN's World Health Organization.

The monastic communities entered into self-imposed isolation March 6.

This is the time when we really should pray hard— Venerable Walter

"At this moment in time, the community is not in contact of anyone in the public," said Walter.

Food, supplies and mail are being dropped off at a safe location and picked up by specified staff. The goods are then sanitized with chlorine solution before use by monks.

Dormitories continue to contain four bunks per room. There's not enough space to move them, according to Walter, but students are told to keep movement from room-to-room to a minimum.

Monks at Heatherdale are unable to maintain physical distancing at meal times, due to the size of the dining facility. Plans to expand the kitchen facilities at Heatherdale are on hold because of the pandemic.

The monks say they are educating themselves on what to do and what to watch for, and following world events as the pandemic unfolds.

"We want to contribute to the Island," said Walter. "We don't want to become a burden. To do that, you have to make sure you're OK first."

Community outreach projects, such as distribution of food boxes, are on hold. The monks believe spiritual discipline will be needed in the weeks ahead. 

"There are people who are suffering," said Walter. "This is the time when we really should pray hard and that's what the world and the province and the nation would ask."

The monasteries at Little Sands and Heatherdale are operated by a non-profit group called the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society. It also owns additional properties and homes near the monasteries. Buddhist nuns live in a communal facility in Uigg, P.E.I.

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.

  • Practise physical distancing.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Brian Higgins


Brian Higgins shoots video and reports news on Prince Edward Island.