Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (3)

This is the third in an open-ended series of posts exploring some of the principle teachings of Buddhism for insights into how we might conduct our lives more skillfully during these challenging times of the coronavirus pandemic. For an overview of the entire projected series, please see the first entry.


The Three Characteristics (“Marks”) of Existence:

(2) Unsatisfactoriness

There are three characteristics (frequently referred to as “marks” in traditional Buddhist texts) that are said to fully describe the nature of our human existence – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.  While each of them is present to some degree in just about any given circumstance, it seems to me that all three of them are manifesting in particularly unique and unmistakable ways in the current conditions that we are collectively living through during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some thoughts on the second of these three characteristics – unsatisfactoriness. (And, in case you’re interested in the first characteristic, impermanence, but missed that post, you can read it here.)

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The characteristic of unsatisfactoriness brings us face-to-face with the root teaching of Buddhism, the fact of suffering (often referred to as “dukkha”, the Pali word used in the canon of ancient written texts upon which all contemporary Buddhist teachings are based).  It is reported in these writings that the historical Buddha said near the end of his life that, throughout his forty-five years as a wandering teacher, he had taught only two things: suffering, and the cessation of suffering.

It also seems to be the case that he defined suffering, or dukkha, in two very distinct ways: one of them describing a general, universal kind of suffering; and the other one describing a specific, individual kind of suffering.  The definitive description of the first kind of suffering – the universal type – comes from this often-quoted passage in the Pali literature where, having been asked by a follower what constitutes suffering, the Buddha purportedly answered “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering”.

The second kind of suffering – the individual type – refers to how each of us finds our own unique way of “adding on” to the first kind through our reactive habits of grasping after everything that we find pleasurable and pushing away anything that we find displeasurable.  We might think of this individual kind of dukkha as “invited suffering” – something that we bring upon ourselves almost (but not quite) willingly, a dukkha that is potentially avoidable.

Since this second kind of suffering is dealt with at great length in the Buddhist teachings concerning the second and third “noble truths”, and since in the near future I plan to discuss the four noble truths as part of this continuing series, I shall hold off further consideration of “invited suffering” until then.

For now, we will keep our focus on the first, universal kind of dukkha (old age, illness, death, etc.), which we can think of as “uninvited suffering” – something inflicted upon us by the very nature of existence, almost always against our wills, a dukkha that is completely unavoidable.  And there is probably no better contemporary example of unavoidable, uninvited suffering than the current coronavirus pandemic.

One could, of course, argue about just how unavoidable the pandemic itself was – given the various, possibly more effective public health and safety measures that might have been taken by the governments of all the countries that have been affected.  But remember that here we are considering not the pandemic itself, but rather the suffering caused by the pandemic.

This suffering – by the ones who have fallen ill, by the families and friends who have lost loved ones to the virus, by the health care providers working under extreme conditions of duress and danger to themselves, by those deemed “essential workers” risking their own health and safety to meet the pubic’s need for food and groceries and other critical supplies, by the elderly and infirm living in extreme social isolation, by the needy and homeless living in extreme desperation, and by just about every single one of us dealing as best we can with our fears and anxieties about the future – this massive amount of suffering all across the globe can surely be described as universal, unavoidable, and uninvited.

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that we should always look not to the actual event that’s causing us to suffer, but to the ways in which we are experiencing that event.  And for many of us, experiencing this pandemic involves such unpleasant emotions as frustration, boredom, anger, worry, fear, anxiety.  Right here is where we can begin an inquiry into what suffering – dukkha – might teach us about living more skillfully in this time of pandemic.

One of the principle features of the suffering being caused by this pandemic – alluded to in the list compiled two paragraphs above – is its massive, universal nature.  By keeping that in mind as we take note of our own individual (and especially our own negative) responses to the pandemic, we can also take note of how many countless others are suffering right along with us.  Going one step further, we can also take note of how many of these countless others are suffering to a much grater degree than we are.

When we adopt this expansive view of all the suffering, and of all the greater degrees of suffering, that are occurring outside the narrow confines of our own limited experience – when we truly take it all in – we cannot help but to begin experiencing a deep sense of compassion for the vast number of individuals across the globe who have been afflicted in far worse ways than we ourselves have by this unexpected, uninvited suffering.

The experience of compassion, as defined in the Buddhist tradition, necessarily includes the desire to somehow help to alleviate the suffering that’s arousing our compassion.  In the case of this current pandemic, the ways to help are practically infinite.  Just about every one of us knows of at least one person (and probably quite a few more than that) in need of some kind of emotional support or physical assistance.

Whoever the person, whatever their need, there has never been a better time than now for each of us to reach out to those persons and to offer whatever help we’re able to provide.

There has never been a better time than now, in the midst of this pandemic, for each of us to meet the universal unsatisfactoriness of existence with an unstinting personal practice of compassion, both for ourselves and most especially for others.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the third of the three characteristics of existence – no-self.