Pamela Winfield: A meditation on Buddhism in the time of pandemic

Pamela Winfield is an associate professor of religious studies.

If there’s one thing that illustrates the basic insights of Buddhism, it’s this coronavirus.

According to the Buddha’s hagiography, Siddhartha Gautama ventured out of his sheltered palace preserve as a young prince and experienced the Four Encounters: he saw an old man, a sick man, and a corpse before finally seeing a social renunciate or sannyasin.

Associate Professor of Religious Studies Pamela Winfield

The first three symbolic figures represent the so-called Three Marks of Existence, which are impermanence, suffering, and no-self (an-atman), which indicate the interdependence of all things as they temporarily arise, abide, and pass away. The fourth figure of the social renunciate personifies the prospect of ultimate liberation from this painful human condition.

The first mark of existence, the universal truth of impermanence and change, is symbolized by the Buddha’s encounter with the old man. For the elderly who are among the most vulnerable to this disease, the fragility of life, the proximity of death, and the constancy of inconstancy is especially poignant and real.

For everyone else regardless of age, the daily policy updates from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, airline companies, schools, businesses, local governors and national governments also speak to the rapid pace of change and the need to remain nimble, flexible, and adaptable to fluctuating conditions. If you are a practicing Buddhist, you see these shifting sands of continuity as the life-and-death of all transient things and events (dharmas), which constitute the cycle of infinitely recycling and recombinant forms in the world.

Psychologically speaking, knowing that “this too shall pass” can be comforting, but it can also be disturbing as well. We all intuitively know that this virus will eventually run its course and life will at some point return to normal, but not without the passing of hundreds of thousands of individual lives, which is heartbreaking. From a Buddhist perspective, however, it is important not to dwell on either extreme hope or extreme fear, but rather find a Middle Path that might help us to navigate this unstable flux effectively. This means letting go of unrealistic expectations that we can somehow control the situation, hold on to our normal routines, and not be affected by it at all. We cannot control reality. We can only control our reaction to it. Go with the flow.

The second mark of existence, suffering, is symbolized by Buddha encountering a sick man. Given the current circumstances, the chosen medical analogy of suffering with physical illness is particularly fitting, if tragic. The staggering rate of infection, the speed and severity of acute respiratory distress, the images of gasping patients in overtaxed hospital wards, and the exponential death toll from COVID-19 illustrates the pain and suffering of existence unlike anything else.

But Buddhism also recognizes the psychological side of illness as well. Suffering (dukkha) is the first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, which focuses on the diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and cure of the physical and mental dis-ease that the human condition invariably involves. Beyond the major dukkha of losing the ones you love, there is also the dukkha of having to be with those you dislike. Social distancing can actually help with the latter, but even within physically healthy households, prolonged sequestration, financial stressors, interpersonal family conflicts, work responsibilities, unemployment, child and eldercare duties, and generalized anxiety in the face of the unknown can all take their toll.

Again, from a Buddhist perspective, it is important to try to remain calm and try to see both sides of the same coin. “Hell can be other people,” to paraphrase Sartre, but salvation can be other people as well. In particular, it is important to remember the heroic medical and mental health care professionals who voluntarily enter into the fray every day to work for universal public health. They unquestionably embody the bodhisattva’s enlightened virtues of selflessness, compassion, courage, and use of expedient means (upaya) to alleviate the anguish of others.

Other small and random acts of kindness, as well as beauty, nature, music, exercise, humor and camaraderie can also be a salve to frayed nerves. Be kind to one another.

The third mark of existence, loss of self (an-atman), was symbolized by the Buddha’s encounter with death, for it is only with the death of the ego-driven, narcissistic, individualistic self that true realization of our profound interdependence can be gained. If there’s anything that teaches how interconnected we all are, it’s the transmission of a pathogen from person-to-person, or even person-to-surface-to-person, until country-by-country, the entire world lights up red on the CDC’s map.

Buddhism teaches that we are all intimately connected in a vast and ever-shifting latticework of life-and-death, in which all temporarily abiding dharmas ultimately link up with one another within six degrees of separation or less. Even the life of the lethal virus itself, dependent upon its human hosts, illustrates the radical intimacy of death with life.

Within this infinite netscape of being wherein life relies on life for life, karmic causality works in two directions, as individual karmic actions as well as external causes and conditions affect our experience of the world. The actions of one person can and do have downstream ripple effects on many, such as the first documented index case that started the epidemic in Wuhan, China in December.

Conversely, the collective actions of many can and do have consequences for each and every individual, whether it be government-imposed lockdowns, stock-market convulsions, or inadequate supplies of hospital gear. The individual and collective costs of this historic moment will shudder throughout our human ecosystem and either directly or indirectly affect this entire generation for years to come. No woman is an island.

This brings us to the fourth and final encounter, when the Buddha ventured out of the palace and decided to follow the social renunciate who was seeking liberation from this realm of impermanence, suffering, and loss. In the contemporary context, social distancing is indeed our only means of salvation at this point, but the Buddha ultimately rejected the sannyasin’s extreme state of self-denial that isolates, alienates, or rejects anyone’s fundamental humanity.

The Buddha’s Middle Way of moderation, balance and non-dualism charts a path between any two binary extremes. Translated into today’s context, this means that we should remain physically apart, but emotionally tied into the fabric of life. We are social creatures who depend upon one another for our very existence and well-being, as temporary and contingent on other factors as that may be.

People are already intuitively sensing this by picking up the phone or going online to connect with friends they haven’t spoken with in years. In Italy where the situation is most dire, they exercise individually yet simultaneously on their own apartment balconies, sing opera outside their windows, and schedule daily rounds of applause for first responders and hospital staff who cannot hear them, but who know they are being appreciated. To borrow the threefold paradigm of esoteric Buddhism, these individual acts of body, speech and mind express and give shape to universal Buddha-nature, which is a beautiful thing.

The story of the Buddha’s Four Encounters teaches us that beyond our own palace gates lie the universal forces of old age, illness, and death. Likewise, the unfolding story of this pandemic teaches us those same lessons of impermanence, suffering, and loss of self, in both a literal and metaphorical way that discloses our interdependence. Most importantly, both stories hold up the model of social detachment without alienation.

Follow all the medical protocols (stay home, wash hands), but also remember to be flexible in the face of ephemerality, kind in the context of suffering, and aware of your own interbeing within life-and-death.

If we are going to survive this pandemic, we need to do it as a collective singular. We may not all become enlightened buddhas, but if we learn our lessons right from this crisis, we might just create together a new kind of “global consciousness of care.”

And that gives me hope.