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.


Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Climate Change Crisis

Our House Is On Fire, Yet We Still Play with Toys

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

 {Note from the blogger … Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the renowned Buddhist scholar and climate change activist, gave this keynote address at a recent event at the United Nations. The following edited version of his prepared remarks was printed in the latest newsletter from his charitable organization, Buddhist Global Relief.  I am posting it in its entirety here for all readers of The Liberal Buddhist blog, as it speaks so eloquently and so urgently to what we all need to be doing – individually and collectively – in response to the looming climate crisis.}

The Buddha is often praised as the embodiment of peace, tolerance, good will, and compassion. However, while he certainly exemplifies these qualities, in no way do they exhaust his role or the content of his message. The Buddha was not merely a benevolent sage, but was above all an astute analyst of the human condition, one whose insight is perhaps unrivaled in the entire history of human thought. He was a physician who provides an acute diagnosis of human suffering, and a surgeon who draws out the darts of suffering that have pierced the human heart. The texts describe him as mūladassāvi, “the seer of the root,” the one who has seen into the deepest and most obscure roots of human misery. These he has summed up in the twin vices of ignorance and craving, and in the three stains of greed, hatred, and delusion.

The ancient discourses of the Buddha speak of the causal origins of suffering primarily in the framework of the quest for individual emancipation. They show how the mental afflictions ravage our personal lives, and the texts lay down a path that enables us as individuals to free ourselves from inner bondage. Today, in a world that has been joined into a single interdependent global order, we need to examine how this process of causation operates at wider levels, how it generates suffering in the collective dimensions of our lives. On the basis of this examination, we can then determine what changes are needed in our societies, political institutions, and global policies to avoid the adversities we face as an international community.

Of all the dangers we face together, the most formidable, most overarching, and most ominous is without doubt the one usually called climate change, but which should more correctly be called “climate destabilization” or “climate disorientation.” We live at a time when the climate has become increasingly erratic, unpredictable, and destructive. Almost every week a new report comes out about new thresholds being crossed in our descent into climate chaos: rising levels of carbon emissions, increases in global temperature, warmer and more acidic oceans, endangered species, vanishing glaciers, melting ice sheets. Yet these reports gain hardly any attention in the mainstream media, which in itself is a symptom of how subtly we conceal from ourselves the true gravity of our situation.

The Buddha’s discourse known as the Fire Sermon opens with the stark declaration: “Everything is burning, everything is on fire.” A Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra, elaborates on this image with the parable of a burning house. Inside the house, the children continue to play with their toys, oblivious to the flames blazing on all sides. In the sutra, the house represents the world, and the foolish children playing inside represent people—we ourselves as we enjoy our fleeting pleasures amid the flames of old age and death.

Today the image of the world as a burning house has become literally true. Each year we see the signs of a destabilized climate becoming ever more destructive, ever more deadly. Powerful hurricanes and cyclones rip across whole regions, reducing them to shreds. Heat waves become hotter and last longer. Extended droughts turn fertile land barren. Coasts are being eroded and whole island-nations swallowed up by the sea. Violent floods pour down upon towns and cities, and wildfires reduce millions of acres of precious forest to cinders.

The long-range consequences of our escalating carbon emissions are even more ominous. These will take decades to become fully manifest, but as we continue pumping carbon into the atmosphere, they become ever more imminent. If we continue with business as usual, by the end of this century whole regions of the planet may become unfit for human habitation, leading to hundreds of millions of tragic deaths and mass migrations on a scale not yet seen. The world’s food supply will be drastically reduced, sharply increasing the numbers of people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition. In some countries the very foundations of social cohesion may collapse, plunging those nations into chaos.

We know what lies behind climate change. The causes have been described with scientific accuracy. They include our reckless burning of fossil fuels, our unwise practices of land clearance, the dominant industrial model of agriculture, and an economy that thrives on the dizzying cycles of production and consumption. The Buddha’s diagnosis would take us a step deeper and trace the origins of the climate crisis to the human heart, revealing that what underlies it is the interplay of craving and ignorance, of greed and delusion—especially the wrong view that we can recklessly exploit the resources of the planet and expel the toxic waste into our environment without eventually having to reap the consequences.

Greed and ignorance operate as a pair, both in the mind and in the wider dimensions of our social systems. Decades ago, even in the 1980s, the fossil fuel corporations knew that the burning of oil and coal would alter the climate, but they hid the evidence and promoted skepticism about the science, preventing the public from seeing the real dangers of increased carbon emissions. They put greed for profits over sanity; they followed the rules of corporate success rather than the decrees of social responsibility. Criminal behavior hid behind a cloak of ethics, as respectable corporate executives wreaked havoc on our planet. Even today, rogue institutions, lobby groups, and “think tanks” funded by fossil-fuel interests continue to spread disinformation, often with the help of a gaggle of maverick scientists.

But we are not completely innocent ourselves. It’s the delusion in our own minds that lets us flow along complacently in the established routines of everyday life instead of rising up to take necessary action. Again, it is delusion, or ignorance, that makes us think we can flourish while the earth’s geophysical systems spin wildly off course. Just earlier this year, the U.S. Secretary of State even spoke of how, once all the Arctic sea ice is gone, new trade routes will open up to facilitate trade and vast resources of oil, gas, and minerals will become available to us. As if anyone could thrive on a desolate planet!

If we go on retreating into denial, or drifting along in bland complacency, we will soon reach a point where all we can say is, “It is now too late!” If we are to avoid that endpoint, that cliff of despair, we have to act effectively, and to act without delay.

The Buddha once compared his disciples to four kinds of horses, which differ in how they respond to their master’s whip. The best horse submits to its master as soon as it sees the shadow of the whip. The dullest horse must get a beating before it submits. Decades ago we already saw the shadow of the whip, and we are now receiving blows. To avoid the most brutal beating we have to act fast, with courage and a clear understanding of the changes demanded of us.

We need definite changes in the ways we generate energy, in modes of transportation, in building design, in industrial and agricultural technologies. But the Buddha would say we also need internal changes, changes in our values, in our ways of life, in the way we think and our habits of mind. Ultimately it is these mental attitudes that lie behind the climate crisis.

At the communal level, we need to dismantle a social system driven by the quest for limitless profits in a finite world. We need to get rid of a system that endorses ruthless competition, exploitation, and violence against other people and the natural world. We have to dispel the illusion that it is possible for a few to flourish while millions die of hunger and poverty and billions live at the very edge of survival. Instead we must adopt new values that give priority to cooperation and collaboration, to living in harmony with nature. We need to enshrine kindness, mutual respect, and compassion at the center of our policies and institutions—in our educational systems, too, beginning with the elementary level. We must envision modes of communal life that enable all people to flourish economically, socially, and spiritually, and then find ways to actualize our visions.

It is said that the Buddha appears in the world out of compassion for the world, for the good of all humanity. His task is to point out the path to liberation; our task is to walk the path. We now have a clear idea of the collective perils we face today, and we can see on the horizon glimmers of hope for a better shared future. We may not know in all its details the path that can redeem us, but we know the direction in which we must move. Now we have to start moving, and moving fast, before it’s too late.