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.









Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (2)

This is the second 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:

(1) Impermanence

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 first of these three characteristics – impermanence.

*          *          *          *          *

While we all know that things are always changing, and that nothing lasts forever, we often act as if we didn’t know.  We do so, of course, for the very good reason that, on a day-to-day basis, the persons, places, and things that were there in our lives yesterday are usually still there today, and (we can reasonably presume) will still be there tomorrow. We rely on this day-to-day continuity for our ongoing sense of identity and purpose.  In its absence, our lives would be chaotic beyond imagining.

The mistake we typically make, though, is to conflate this essential aspect of continuity with the erroneous attribution of permanence.  We naturally expect things to continue on a daily basis as we’ve become accustomed to, because that’s been our lifelong experience.  But our presumption that this will remain the case indefinitely into the future is in fact just that – a presumption.  And this presumption flies in the face of the first characteristic of our existence, the impermanence of all things.

On the first day of social distancing and stay-at-home directives, we awoke to find that so much that we take for granted as permanent features of our experience – commuting to our jobs, seeing our kids off to school, shopping for groceries, dining at a favorite restaurant, taking a stroll through the park, visiting with friends – could practically vanish into thin air, like so many random pieces of paper blown out an open window by a sudden unexpected gust of wind.

Today, more than one month into this new normal, we have an opportunity to reflect upon the tenuous nature of our mistaken sense of continuity-as-permanence, and to correct that erroneous perception with a newfound awareness that every aspect of our experience is ultimately impermanent.

Such an awareness would not only put us in better alignment with Buddhism’s first characteristic of existence, but would also almost certainly change for the better how we experience life going forward.  Imagine what it might be like if, instead of thoughtlessly presuming that whatever it is we’re enjoying today will automatically be there for us again tomorrow, we took the more thoughtful attitude of appreciating today’s experience all the more because we know much better than to simply presume that it will still be there for us tomorrow.  Hopefully, of course, it will.  But now we would know that, perhaps, it won’t.

Embracing the characteristic of impermanence in this deep and lasting fashion would, I think, enhance our experience of every present moment – including each of the very challenging moments we are living through, and enduring, right now.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the second of the three characteristics of existence – unsatisfactoriness.


Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (1)

Under normal circumstances, most of the essays I post on this blog focus on some current event or situation in contemporary American politics, which I then attempt to examine through the lens of Buddhist teachings, with the hope that whatever light passes through that lens might usefully illuminate the issue at hand.

Of course, we are currently living under anything but normal circumstances, and while I, like many others, have pushed political matters further and further away into the background of my daily concerns, I’ve begun to notice with each passing day that I’m pulling those Buddhist teachings closer and closer into the foreground of my concerns.

In particular, I find myself thinking about what a socially engaged Buddhism has to offer with regard to the social behaviors being asked of us during the pandemic. What insights can it provide through such traditional teachings as the three marks of existence, the four noble truths, the five remembrances, and the eightfold path?  And what particular forms do the essential Buddhist virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom take on in the throes of this pandemic?

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write exclusively on this topic.  Each post will explore some aspect of living in these days of the coronavirus pandemic through the lens of one of the above sets of Buddhist teachings.

I’ve long believed that, even in normal times, Buddhism has much to teach us about how we can live together more skillfully.  Now, in these anything-but-normal times, I suspect that what Buddhism has to offer is of more value than ever.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the first of the three characteristics of existence – impermanence.


Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Coronavirus Outbreak

{Note from the blogger … For the second time in the past three months, I am pleased to be posting the published remarks of Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the renowned Buddhist scholar and social activist.  The following essay appears in the latest newsletter from his charitable organization, Buddhist Global Relief.  It speaks eloquently to how we, as liberal Buddhists, can best respond to the ongoing coronavirus crisis …

Responsibly Facing the Pandemic

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Just a month ago, when I left New York for California, the coronavirus was considered a problem that the Chinese would have to grapple with in Hubei province. Today it has reached every continent and has forced major American cities into lockdown. Not only does the virus bring illness, death, and economic hardship to many, but wherever it spreads it sows the seeds of fear and discord. It is fomenting nationalism and racism and divides populations up on the basis of economic, social, and racial privilege. Yet because no one is immune from this virus—not even those with the most sturdy social protections—the dangers it poses to us, personally and collectively, should draw us all together in an unflinching effort to stop its spread. Just as the attack on the U.S. on 9/11 led the whole world to say “Now we are all Americans,” so it is time for us to say “We are all infected with the virus.”

The unified effort needed to end the epidemic may have consequences more far-reaching than merely stopping the spread of the disease. The pain of the crisis might be seen more broadly as a tremendous opportunity, as a wake-up call for us to examine the values and goals that drive us both individually and as a society. The values that dominate in our frenetic, market-based culture are the quest for wealth and power, but these must not be permitted to govern our response to the pandemic. The response called for, rather, must be grounded in a moral vision that gives primacy to people—a primacy that has to be extended universally. We must be able to see every person as a center of intrinsic dignity, to regard every human life as worthy of being cherished, helped, and protected.

To respond in this way, we need to bring together in our own hearts two crucial qualities, compassion and moral conviction, which should function in unison as spurs to responsible action, almost as the inward and outward faces of a single disposition. Both should be guided by wisdom. Wisdom teaches us that our lives are inseparably intertwined. We do not live caged within the confines of our skins, but breathe and move in an intricate net of relationships governed by mutual lines of influence. Most of these lines are invisible to us, but beneath the range of perception our own thoughts, decisions, and actions are constantly exercising an impact on countless others, just as the thoughts and actions of others are having a subtle impact on us.

Compassion is rooted in the recognition that all human beings share the same basic aspiration—the aspiration to be well, happy, and healthy, to be free from suffering and affliction. Under the critical conditions brought on by the virus, compassion must be extended universally, to every person who shares this planet with us, whether they live in China, India, Iran, Kenya, Brazil, on the next street or in the next apartment. The Buddha says that it is hard to find a person who, during this long course of rebirths, has not at some time been our mother or father, our sister or brother. We must apply this lens of understanding—in imagination if not through direct contact—to everyone without distinctions, wishing them to be free from suffering, and resolving to act in ways that safeguard their well-being just as if they were actually our own beloved parents, our own dear siblings.

Guided by wisdom, compassion generates a keen sense of moral responsibility, which operates on two fronts: in protecting ourselves and in protecting others. On the one hand, we must act in ways that prevent us from picking up the virus and falling ill ourselves; on the other, we must avoid behaving in ways that turn us into vectors transmitting the virus to others. Our strongest impact will naturally be on those in our own immediate circle of contacts, but to varying degrees our deeds potentially affect everyone. A careless move on my part here in New York, and within weeks a woman in Spain may feel a compression in her lungs or a man in Lebanon may be admitted to the hospital with a raging fever.

When this sense of moral responsibility is shared widely by people throughout our society, this confers on us a collective power to turn the tide of this pandemic. If we all act responsibly, together we can flatten the growth curve of the virus, so that instead of spiking it levels off and drops. The key is being vigilant, thoughtfully and persistently, not sliding down the slope of heedlessness and complacency.

To succeed in our efforts we must adhere to appropriate guidelines. Experts in public health stress that the key to hindering the spread of the coronavirus is to observe “social distancing,” that is, to maintain physical distance from other people. Ironically, while the natural tendency of a compassionate heart is to draw us toward others to offer our support—by hugging, holding hands, speaking softly, or simply sitting close by—the pandemic teaches us the opposite, that the most effective way we can express compassion is by maintaining a bodily distance. This does not mean that we remain caged in psychological isolation. From the safety of our solitude we can offer others help, consolation, and companionship, sharing our hopes, fears, aspirations, and concerns. But we must do this while keeping physically aloof.

The reason social distancing plays such an important role is because, as the word suggests, a virus spreads virally—not in a linear progression, not by the simple addition of cases, but exponentially, multiplying numbers through expanding lines of transmission. For example, if in the span of a few days one person transmits the virus to three others, and those three interact socially with others, each of them might spread the virus to three more people; so within days the virus has expanded ninefold. This explains the sharp spike of cases in such countries as Spain and Italy and in such busy cities as New York.

Expansion at this rate can have a debilitating impact on our health-care system, increasing the demand on hospital space, medical personnel, and medical supplies—all of which are already under strain. As the number of patients rises, it tends to burden the system beyond its capacity to cope, resulting in escalating numbers of deaths. Doctors and nurses, already poorly equipped, fall ill themselves, reducing the corps of frontline fighters. Thus social distancing becomes the most compassionate thing to do. It literally saves lives, perhaps the lives of our loved ones.

To act ethically, to be morally responsible, we must adhere rigorously to the guidelines proposed by health officials in relation to the ways we interact with others. There is, however, still another side to compassionate action called for in this time of crisis. This involves heeding the call to social justice. Even before the pandemic arrived, some 140 million people in this country were either poor or low income—that’s 40% of the population. Some 30 million do not have any form of health coverage; over 40 million are dependent on food stamps just to feed their families. Now that the virus has struck, the people being hit the hardest are low-wage workers and the poor, those who were already struggling just to subsist from one day to the next.

For many of these, the epidemic will be devastating. These are people who don’t have the monetary resources to meet high medical costs, who aren’t granted paid sick leave, who can’t afford child care when their children are not in school. Low-wage workers can’t take days off when they feel unwell but are compelled to work even when doing so risks making their own condition worse and spreading the virus to others. Struggling just to survive, they now face food shortages, water shutoffs, and eviction from their homes. As we respond compassionately to the crisis, we can’t leave them behind, but must stand up in defense of those who can’t defend themselves, demanding of our elected representatives that such people be given paid sick leave, that their food stamp benefits be expanded rather than cut, that they be allowed to stay in their homes, that their health-care needs in dealing with the virus be met without charge.

In the long run, this epidemic may be teaching us a powerful lesson about the imperative of fundamental social transformation, pushing us to lay the foundations for a more equitable society and a more sustainable world. It is unconscionable that here, in the most affluent nation on earth, the least among us languish in their time of urgent need. The time is ripe for us to see that everyone’s basic human needs are met. Above all, we must replace a profit-driven health-care system with an alternative system built on the premise that health care is a fundamental human right, something to which every person is entitled by reason of their humanity regardless of income and social status.

To bring about the change we need requires concerted action from all of us, beginning with the simple task of contacting our congressional representatives and asking them to support such policies as the “moral agenda” proposed by the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Buddha said that the truly great person lives for his or her own welfare, for the welfare of others, and for the welfare of the whole world. This is one of those special times when we are being given the chance to meet this call to greatness, when we are being asked to act for the welfare of the world. To act in such a way we do not have to perform extraordinary deeds of self-sacrifice or unparalleled feats of creative innovation; we don’t have to be the ones who discover a vaccine for the coronavirus. The requirement, rather, is very simple: to adhere faithfully to the guidelines of social responsibility and to heed the call of social justice. By acting responsibly, even with our own best interest as our motivation, we will be putting compassion into action. We’ll be promoting the good of our loved ones, of our neighbors, of our community and nation, and ultimately the good of the world.