PAIN IN A BOMBU WORLD
In the on-line order meeting this past Saturday I said that in relation to the current world crisis caused by the arrival of a virus for which, as yet, we have no cure, I am a happy pessimist. I’ll say a little more on this subject.
Firstly, the pessimist. Clearly, in the present situation, there are large numbers of heroic individuals who are doing everything they can to ease the suffering of others. Most of these are ordinary people doing relatively ordinary jobs. Stocking shelves in a supermarket or sitting at the till was not, until this eventuality, widely regarded as a heroic activity. Then there are nurses and doctors who, in many cases, are in serious danger. Yesterday a doctor died here in France from the virus contracted by contact with a patient.
The suffering is real. To die in this way is no picnic. Furthermore, those who are in hospital are often elderly people, already frail, and they have the added misfortune that their younger relatives are prohibited from coming to comfort them. A miserable situation indeed. And it may come to any of us. I myself must be in one of the risk categories due to my age and existing lung damage, but even people much younger and fitter are sometimes falling foul of the most terrible effects. The fatal element in the illness is caused by one’s own body’s defensive reaction to the virus that, as it struggles against the invader, inflames the inside of the lungs making it impossible to breathe.
The Buddha spoke of eight afflictions - birth, aging, disease and death, loss, association with what we hate, failure, and the skandhas. In this epidemic many of these are conspiring to make our existence one big heap of dukkha.
Now I have been following events and reading commentaries in the media and there are a number of essays expressing the sincere wish that this will be the kind of shock that will lead us into a better world once the crisis is over. The examples of heroism may become the norm for us all. A new era of love and kindness may dawn. There are also items suggesting what needs to be done in terms of international cooperation, restoring faith in ethical leadership, and trusting the good sense of the honest citizen. All of these accounts are inspiring and often wise. However, I have no expectation that they shall come to pass. This is my pessimism.
There were hurricanes and we did not heed. There were fires in the great forests and we did not heed. There were floods. Now there is a pestilence. Will this turn the hearts of the rich to help the poor, the profiteers to share their gains, the warmongers to turn to pacifism - probably not.
I am not so sanguine about human nature. I recognise that we are all bombu. What will actually happen will not be a function of wise collective human decision making nor of responsible citizens having confidence in virtuous governments. It will, rather, be a function of decisions made on the hop with little thought for the long term consequences. This is partly because we do not have the prescience to know what those consequences are going to be. There undoubtedly will be many, but predicting them is not at all easy. Some projections can be made on the basis of what is already happening, but it is of the essence of situations like this that the unexpected will triumph.
The scourge will probably last longer than governments are currently assuming. To have it all over by mid-summer is probably wildly optimistic. There will obviously be a massive economic effect from the measures already in place. It will take a long time to get "back to normal" if that ever happens, and along the way a lot of the capital that civilisation depends upon will have simply disappeared. Governments will almost certainly have to start printing money as the only way of getting out of the huge debts they are currently running up. and this will probably fuel a sudden surge of inflation The USA will be in a fair degree of chaos because it does not have the systems of social control that exist in the Old World, and as it is the leading economy that chaos spells trouble for everybody else on top of the damage that will already have been done directly by the virus. So we may well be on the cusp of a descent into a period of considerable disorder. This is my pessimism.
How does one remain happy, or at least sanguine, in the midst? By faith and practice. The Buddha has given us the Dharma-vinaya. It may be a bit old and rusty after all these centuries. It may have degenerated somewhat. We may even be in the Kali Yuga - Mappo - the Dharma ending age; but even in Mappo it is possible for there to be upwellings of faith and practice (which is what Dharma-vinaya originally meant). In fact, in the history of the world, it has often been in the Dark Ages that the finest spirit has shone light in the gloom. The Dharma given by Buddha is a recipe for a noble life in the very midst of the realm of poison. Like the proverbial peacock, it transforms the poison into nourishment.
Furthermore, even if one is the last person on the planet in possession of this precious Dharma treasure, it alone is enough to carry one through the fires at the end of the universe. Therefore, I am not afraid. Death has no sting. The test of one’s Dharma practice is the manner in which one faces death. If I ask my Japanese friends what Pureland Buddhism is all about they are likely to say that it is about “the one great moment”. The one great moment is the one that we shall all pass through - the moment of death. So the question is, are you ready? When something like this plague comes along, we are all called to think of our death and of the deaths of those around us. How we meet this determines the whole tenor of our lives.
None of us knows exactly how the nembutsu works, how the grace of Amida unfolds, how the Pure Land will appear, but we can have faith. We can have absolute confidence that at that great moment we are going home, and that beyond that going home other destinies shall unfold. Those who live with faith in the prayers of Buddha shall all be Buddhas one day and those who entrust to the heart to heart bond that supports us in the sangha shall meet in the Pure Land one way or another.
When I sat by the bedside of my mother in the last week of her life, I was inspired by her calm acceptance. She had me describe the Buddhist teaching on the afterlife and there was a great peace between us. Those who are close to death participate in a spirit that is often completely occluded in the hubbub of everyday, supposedly healthy, life. I place my faith in that spirit. Whether the precise descriptions that one reads in the great texts are exact or not matters not one whit. An iota of such faith will carry one through. Therefore, I am happy.
And if one has such spiritual confidence, then, if one is granted more years, that joy and ease cannot help but spread, like a positive virus, infecting those who are not inoculated against it. They may be few - those with but little dust - but they will be a leaven and through them the Dharma of Buddha will continue to inspire, the grace of compassion shall continue to be transmitted, and there will be a light in the world, not withstanding that the majority retain a herd immunity to accepting it.
Do not be dismayed by the greed, hate and delusion that is around - the hoarding and the negligence of sane instructions - even the pessimistic prospect. People find it difficult to change and when they are frightened they often act in ways that multiply the dukkha rather than making it a spring-board for awakening. We are all such foolish beings. Do not expect too much, but have faith. Though the world be all on fire, the Dharma enables one to walk through that fire to help the one in need. Trust. Namo Amida Bu.
Thank you for this deep meaningful vision.
Thank you to help us, bombu-beings.
Namo Amida Bu
Can you tell us more about what you told your mother in the last week of her life sitting beside her bed ? What you did describe upon the Buddhist teaching about the afterlife ?
Namo Amida Bu
I wasn't able to be at the order meeting as I was ill with a flu-like virus and had a high temperature at the time - I may have been asleep! Obviously we were household isolating, which we continue to do until Saturday, when we can go out and do our own shopping for a change. We are really dependent on the kindness of others at the moment. Neighbours are helping each other very noticably in our street at the moment. I think it helps that on both sides we have 'people of faith' - we're the Buddhist filling in a Christian sandwich. It was really good to read your teaching here, which I missed at the time. I have found it quite worrying in the last few weeks how many people have expressed opinions that they themselves are invulnerable to the virus and that those who die would have died anyway (well we all will one day - what does that mean?!). I love your words about being on the Buddha's path and about somehow meeting again in the Pure Land. While I was ill (maybe with corona virus, but I think it's more likely to have been a bad seasonal flu - but who can be sure) my mind worked in very odd ways and I found my usual practice pretty much impossible, but I was aware of the practice I had already done over the years and found that I had some faith that this practice had made an impact on how I was able to deal with being quite poorly. I related this to your teaching as I read it and it chimed well with it. I hope you are able to stay very well during this testing time. Namo Amida Bu, Sangeetashraddha
Namo Amida Bu
I am touched by the spirit that fuels your faith. If we consider humanity as a living entity that is at an undetermined point on its path to maturity, it would be highly beneficial for it if the meme of that spirit made a name for itself as a new paradigm.
Thanks with all my heart.
Namo Amida Bu