The empires of the future are the empires of the mind. — Winston Churchill, speech at Harvard University, 6 September 1943.
In the age of a global pandemic, the scale of which few alive have ever witnessed, our Buddhist practice finds itself more useful and more urgent than ever. We find ourselves thrown into a sea of unimagined uncertainty, immorality on the part of thieves and price gougers at the lower levels of society, and greed and avarice among key world leaders at the higher levels, and confusion everywhere, as so much of what we have taken for granted is now lost. And yet, as the Buddhist texts would tell us: thus it always has been, thus will it ever be.
The term saṃsāra itself means a sort of wandering. Our lives in saṃsāra are marked, the Buddha tells us, by suffering, impermanence, and not-self. If we are lucky in this lifetime, we find moments of time to encounter these marks of saṃsāra, to truly look them in the face. This was the journey of the Buddha himself 2,500 years ago, wandering as an ascetic for six years. He tried every method available to see clearly the nature of reality and thus to break the bonds of delusion that chained him—and us—to saṃsāra. What the Buddha discovered and later taught was a relatively simple path: to become upright in virtue, calm in mind, and wise in understanding.
This is very simple in the abstract, but in our lives we see each and every day how difficult it is to employ. A story might help illustrate:
Once a very old king went to see an old hermit who lived in a bird’s nest in the top of a tree, “What is the most important Buddhist teaching?” The hermit answered, “Do no evil, do only good. Purify your heart.” The king had expected to hear a very long explanation. He protested, “But even a five-year-old child can understand that!” “Yes,” replied the wise sage, “but even an 80-year-old man cannot do it.” (San Francisco State University)
The Buddha was in many ways a “dropout” from his society, a society that was—for its time—highly developed, clearly structured, and technologically advanced. Yet, as great as Brahmanical (or late Vedic) society was, those within it still could not escape the suffering born of aging and death, having what one does not want, not having what one does want, and losing what one holds dear (as described in the discourse on “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion,” SN 56.11).
Other great sages of the Buddhist tradition, too, have been dropouts, living in caves in the mountains or in monasteries poring over ancient texts. The sensual world, they have taught, is like the gentle flow of a river, lovely and alluring, but ending in waves and whirlpools and rocks and predators (adapted from “The Group of Fours,” Iti 4.10). The stream is the flow of cravings, our “hedonic treadmill” to borrow a 20th century phrase. The lovely and alluring parts are all of the distractions and dopamine-bursts we become addicted to. But the stream has undercurrents that might drag us below in that distraction, and it ends, as will all that we love. In the teaching, realizing this stream-like nature of ordinary life, the wise one makes effort, with hands and feet, to go against the stream.
His work, culminating in rigorous meditation under the Bodhi tree, involved stilling the mind and, in that stillness, looking into the nature of reality itself. If ever there were an empire truly born of the mind, it is the sangha of the Buddha, which has persisted for these 2,500 years.
In our own circumstances, we can observe some of the same patterns within our society: excesses of institutionalized greed and aversion, driven by a deep underlying ignorance. Yet at the same time, smaller organizations, little sanghas, have arisen in which people have prepared together for the rise in COVID-19 cases. Some have come about in the form of official unions, pressuring governments to protect workers who are exposed to infectious patients. Others have been groups of neighbors offering one another assistance, virtual friendship, or the occasional life-saving roll of toilet paper.
All of these organically self-arising communities have the potential to save lives, to bring joy, and to create change beyond the current pandemic. Because, while it is unclear what the future holds, it is increasingly clear that the status quo cannot hold any longer. Our columnists and others over the past few years have become increasingly concerned with humanity’s wanton destruction of the environment and the ensuing climate crisis. We have lamented the rise of egotistical and short-sighted political leaders, hoping for greater international kinship as we as a human race fight to ensure our collective survival. Now many of us despair as nations beyond Asia failed to heed the warnings and learn the hard-won lessons of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Through this all, however, the lessons of the very simple Buddhist path remain as relevant as ever. As we try to understand the ever-changing circumstances around us, let us be honest in our speech, vetting news from suspicious sources, even noticing when our hearts are tugged by potentially untrue good news. Let us connect (virtually) with neighbors to offer our help if needed. As the holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wisely noted, maintaining a sense of purpose in life, a logos, is essential to surviving dire times. Let us continue the work of finding time for stillness. A cornucopia of online offerings has become available, mostly for free, to assist those interested in taking up both intellectual and meditative pursuits.*
Every moment is an opportunity. We can use this moment to help build a more beautiful empire of the future in our minds and in our practice.
* Buddhist Organizations in North America Offer Online Retreats and Programs in Response to Social Distancing (Buddhistdoor Global)
Buddhism Classes among those Freely Available Online as Coronavirus Leaves Many at Home (Buddhistdoor Global)
Following the Buddha’s Footsteps (San Francisco State University)
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (Access to Insight)
Itivuttaka: The Group of Fours (Access to Insight)
Report coronavirus ‘quack cures’ immediately, says UK government (The Guardian)
Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life (National Geographic)