Impermanent are all component things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme. — Mahaparinirvana Sutta (DN 16 I)
The Buddha taught that the contingent world of samsara is in constant flux, at its heart changable and unpredictable. To resort to cliché: the only certainty is uncertainty; the only constant is change. This is neither a pessimistic nor optimistic picture of the world’s tumultuous nature, but an empirical observation that the Buddha diagnosed and then offered a path to liberation.
The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating and amplifying the global community’s sense of anxiety over the momentous change. As predicted by many medical specialists, the Northern Hemisphere is entering a winter in which anything might happen—even in regions where countermeasures have been proactive and competent. Many places are experiencing second and third waves of infections. In Europe, even countries that handled COVID-19 relatively well are enduring a sharp increases in cases. France reported 50,000 infections per day over the weekend of 24–25 October. On 26 October, the US logged more than 70,000 cases, with no end in sight to the rising infection rate.
By comparison, China, which suppressed the novel coronavirus aggressvely and successfully, reported just 47 new cases on 28 October, while Taiwan has marked 200 days without a domestic infection. But even with the possibility of a reliable vaccine that could see the virus recede (at least in regions that follow health experts’ guidance), the world will still struggle to recover from a wide range of industry hits and economic damage.
With geopolitical instability intensifying and political unpredictability spreading in multiple countries, it is fair to say that we are entering a winter of uncertainty. As we shall explore, however, COVID-19 reminds us of a simple truth: that uncertainty itself is the game that humanity has been playing all along.
Of course, milestones of normalcy will reappear. Restaurant dining, café meetings, and the broader corporate culture are making comebacks in many countries and regions, despite adjustements (for example, more office workers might be inclined to propose working from home more often, while for the sake of balancing business and safety, restaurants and public venues are implementing social distancing and restricting head counts). Community events such as weddings and religious gatherings are returning as well. Overseas travel might become easier in certain regions with travel bubbles, such as between Hong Kong and Singapore or New Zealand and Australia. While Canada, Oceania, and East Asia have fared better than Latin America, Europe, or the US, the more optimistic outlook and statistics remain somewhat abstract and distant, simply because everyone is still suffering.
In the meantime, many people rightly recognize that we are living through a historic period in humanity’s journey. There is a sense that the planet is at the precipice of a new and unpredictable era.
Nervousness and anticipation will follow once this unprecedented virus truly retreats. More than 46 million globally have fallen ill and 1.2 million people have died so far in this pandemic—losses in the most visceral and literal sense. We have also lost an almost abstract sense of what the pre-2020 world was like, and that might not return. Even for those so far fortunate enough not to have been directly affected by COVID-19, the sheer scale of the suffering means that a sense of normalcy is often sought as a psychological refuge, a reference point at which we can create an artificial benchmark and reassure ourselves that those were normal times.
Yet if those so-called normal times could easily be disturbed by a microscopic threat, sending the entire world economy reeling and disrupting life in a way unheard of since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, then were those times really normal? Also, by looking for what was normal in the pre-COVID-19 era, are we really simply hankering for what effectively amounts to a temporal or historical “self” that was never really there?
In his most recent article for Buddhistdoor Global, Sensei Alex Kakuyo urges: “I have to stop trying to fix this pandemic in order to survive it. It’s through this practice of surrender, this act of giving up on what I think the world should be that I’m able to see the beauty of what is.” In other words, we should stop trying to fight or deny that change is already taking place, and instead take the right actions to protect ourselves and our families, while treating ourselves and everyone else with a little more kindness. This acceptance of impermanence and unpredictable change applies to the societal, communal dimension of relating to COVID-19. As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche wrote in his book What Makes You Not a Buddhist (2008):
Fear and anxiety are the dominant psychological states of the human mind. Behind the fear lies a constant longing to be certain. We are afraid of the unknown. The mind’s craving for confirmation is rooted in our fear of impermanence. Fearlessness is generated when you can appreciate uncertainty, when you have faith in the impossibility of these interconnected components remaining static and permanent. (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche 2008, 27).
Just as we fear a loss of stability in the face of significant disruption to our everyday lives (a shared social and cultural anxiety from the dawn of time, long before disruptive pandemics began), as societies, we fear the unknown, long-term impact of the fallout from COVID-19. From the viability of the cruise line and airline industries to how we educate our children, from the impotence of hustle culture in an era of working from home to an increased appreciation for even basic human interaction (social media is replete with observations of a heightened sense of body language, subtle facial expressions, and even smell and bodily warmth during physical meetings), we can sense some changes in direction that we cannot predict. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Humanity has faced many winters of uncertainty before, and will continue to face many more. Indeed, “normalcy” itself is a troublesome term—it simply indicates a context or situation that we’ve grown accustomed to as a society or community. It might not even be desirable or good if unpacked further, and in the case of the pre-COVID-19 world, it was certainly less stable and resilient than we might have believed. If anything, it was brittle, easily dislocated, and has left us clamoring for alternative models of human well-being.
It is in these visions that our future lies, and we should devote our collective energies to the more exciting, hopeful visions rather than hankering for that which has already changed, that which is already lost to us.
Europe contemplates bleak winter as Covid-19 cases soar (The Irish Times)
Mainland China reports 47 new COVID-19 cases vs 42 a day earlier (Reuters)
U.S. Coronavirus Cases Surpass Summer Peak And Are Climbing Higher Fast (NPR)