As we approach the end of 2020, we are beginning to see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” The global coronavirus pandemic, which began at the start of the year in China and spread throughout the world, has doubtless affected the lives of nearly every person on the planet. China successfully suppressed the outbreak and nearby countries such as Japan, South Korea,Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam have largely isolated and contained cases within their borders.
However, Brazil, Britain, India, the United States, and many countries in the European Union have struggled with widespread infections and death. And while some of these countries have seen case numbers dwindle this month, others such as Germany and the US, may see their darkest days ahead.
And yet a light has arisen. The first major rollouts of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have taken place in the UK and the US. Additionally, a second vaccine, developed by Moderna, is nearing approval by government agencies, with preparations underway for global manufacturing and distribution.
After so much difficulty, our greatest mistake would be to follow the temptation to rush headlong into a “return to normalcy.” To begin with, societies can learn a great deal from countries that have been successful in minimizing illness and death during the pandemic. Likewise, just as we individually learn from our own failures, as a species we can learn from countries that have failed to protect the health of their citizens.
Something that both contemporary philosophy and Buddhism have in common is an introspective streak, urging us to pause—both in times of difficulty and peace—to reflect and allow the wisdom of the moment to arise. Dr. Kieran Setiya, professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes: “There is an insight in the self-help slogan that philosophy can redeem.” He continues: “The beginning of wisdom here is to think about what we are doing. We engage in all sorts of activities: reading an article in the newspaper, reflecting on life, attending a protest, preparing a report, listening to music, driving home, making dinner, spending time with family or friends.” (The New York Times)
To be good philosophers—and good Buddhists—in 2021 might require that we think about what we are doing, and to think about what we were doing in 2019 that helped to bring about our difficult 2020. The pre-pandemic “normal” was, after all, what led to the pandemic in the first place. To think along such causal temporal lines is to ponder our morality. In Buddhist terms, it is to reflect on our karma.
Dr. Amber Carpenter, associate professor at Yale-NUS College, reminds us: “That happiness and well-being ought to correspond to virtue seems to be a deeply held intuition. Kant calls it the ‘highest good’ (Critique of Practical Reason 5:110–11; see also 5:124–5), and our common practices of punishment reflect a sense that the proper consequences of morally bad action should be physical pain and deprivation of the goods in which happiness is ordinarily thought to consist. But the Indian views of karma appear to be writing this conviction about what ought to be into the very fabric of reality, incorporating it into the natural functioning of the universe.” (94)
Given this Indian view of karma, which is maintained to at least some degree in all of the many Buddhisms of the world today, we would be wise to ask what actions—non-virtuous ones in particular—led to our current state of affairs. Dr. David Morens, who co-wrote a recent article with Dr. Anthony Fauci for the journal Cell, said in a recent interview that due to deforestation, urban crowding, and wet markets for wild game, “what we are seeing looks very much like an acceleration of pandemics.” (USA Today) The role of climate change is also being discussed by experts, as changing climate and weather patterns drive some animals out of historical habitats and potentially into greater contact with humans.
If the pandemic has a moral lesson for us, it might be that our global non-virtue has caught up with and decimated our happiness and well-being. For Buddhists, like Kant, this is not a matter of divine retribution, but rather a result of causes we ourselves created. As Buddhistdoor Global columnist Sensei Alex Kakuyo wrote this summer: “Thus, if one is careful in studying the karma of their actions (i.e. the causes and effects), one is able to make better decisions over time, reducing suffering for oneself and others.”*
That said, Kakuyo wisely notes that karma is created in ways that weave webs too complex for any one of us to comprehend. The complexity of reality is such that results are always at least a little bit out of our hands.This wisdom about the web of interconnected reality is not new; it extends in Buddhism back to the Avatamsaka Sutra, in which the story of Indra’s Net depicts the whole of reality as a net filled with jewels, each reflecting all other jewels.
This wisdom of interconnectedness has sprung up in various ways in non-Buddhist philosophy as well as, most notably, in the Process Philosophy of Alfred N. Whitehead (1861–1947). In this philosophy, we are instructed to learn to see everything in the world not as a thing, but instead as a process—or a bundle of processes. Like the Buddhist analysis of the self, which leads one to see that it cannot be found, process philosophers suggest that under analysis, things as we know them cannot reliably be found, no matter how one looks for them.
The result, suggests Dr. Peter Kakol, author of Emptiness and Becoming: Buddhism and Process Philosophy (D.K. Printworld 2009), is that process thought “replaces the currently dominant tendency toward the prioritization of things over processes, or beings over becomings.” Kakol describes this as a sort of “inner revolution” that “requires a meditative thought that suppresses the tendency to reify and abstract reality into separate compartments and thus awakens us to the view of reality as an open and relational network of processes. Meditative thought can take many forms, but the ultimate aim of this inner revolution is to effect social awakening.” (Online Dhamma)
As we hopefully emerge from the pandemic in the months ahead, the opportunity for a “new normal” naturally presents itself. With wisdom, we might see some of the causes that led to the pandemic and the ongoing destruction wrought by climate change. With wisdom we will move away from our past reifications and separations, our political brinksmanship and petty wars. To get there, we can prepare with meditation, in whatever form we practice.
The road ahead will be difficult. As we recall our refuges in this time, we can also turn to the practices that produce the virtue we will need in the world to come.
* Karma and Free Will (Buddhistdoor Global)
Carpenter, Amber. 2014. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. Routledge: New York.
The Problem of ‘Living in the Present’ (The New York Times)
Scientists are seeing an ‘acceleration of pandemics’: They are looking at climate change (USA Today)
A Socially Engaged Process Buddhism (Online Dhamma)