A Dharmic response to the Coronavirus from VadanyaOn Tue, 17 March, 2020 - 16:44
We are entering a very difficult time, as individuals and as a Sangha. We cannot change this situation, but we do have a choice between a negative and a creative response. Tragic as this epidemic is, if we see it from a Dharmic perspective, it could be an opportunity to take our practice – and our Sangha – to a new level.
We all know the story of the Buddha and the Four Sights. Siddhartha Gotama lived a sheltered life in his father’s palace, shielded from the realities of existence. But then, on his chariot rides outside the palace, he saw a suffering sick person, a frail old person, and a dead body. He realised then that Samsara – life as it is normally lived – could not deliver lasting happiness and safety.
This could all sound negative, but Gotama also saw a Fourth Sight – a wandering holy man - and this awoke the realisation that there is a deeper happiness to be found, above worldly circumstances, by fulfilling our spiritual potential, by growing towards a higher level of being. So started his ‘Noble Quest’, which led to him becoming the ‘Sugata’, the ‘Happy One’, and to the tradition we call Buddhism, which has brought meaning to millions of lives down through the millenia.
For us, the coronavirus outbreak could be like the first three Sights. Nobody would want this, but many of us will experience sickness. Death will threaten people we know, and perhaps ourselves. In our relationships with older people we will be made very aware of the vulnerability and suffering that comes with inevitable old age. We will be made painfully aware that worldly life cannot deliver lasting happiness and safety.
Luckily we have all seen the Fourth Sight, in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And having our worldly refuges so roughly taken away from us can be an opportunity to make our Going for Refuge to these far more singlehearted.
In the Seven Point Mind Training that we recently explored in Sangha Night there is a crucial line – ‘Turn adverse conditions into the path to Enlightenment’. When things get tough, do not shrink back into narrow self-obsession, but use the inevitable dukkha as a tool, both to see through our usual deluded ideas, and to increase our empathy and solidarity with others.
Both can be summed up by seeing the Three Lakshanas more clearly. Through this epidemic, we will be made all too aware of impermanence. We will be brought face-to-face with the unsatisfactoriness of a life lived just for worldly goals. And we can use the dukkha we will all experience as an opportunity to deepen our sense of connectedness with others, which is the other side of nonselfhood. Our own dukkha can be the way we become vividly aware of the suffering of others, so that we know that we are not alone, and awaken our metta. When we feel fear, anxiety, sadness, or grief, we can turn our mind to our friends, and to all others who are experiencing the same or worse, at that very moment, so that our dukkha is transformed into compassion and a sense of solidarity. We can do this formally in our metta bhavana practice, and at any other time.
And of course we will have plenty of opportunities to express our compassion in these difficult times, especially if we are healthy and at little risk of serious illness - but even if not, by staying in touch with our Sangha friends and giving emotional support.
This epidemic presents us with a life-changing choice. If we respond by shrinking back into our old selves, we will emerge as lesser, more unhappy people, more out of touch with others. If we respond by rising to the challenge, treating adversity as an opportunity to take our practice to a new level, we will emerge as bigger, better people, part of a stronger, more unified Sangha.
Vadanya, March 17,2020