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Dharma Amid Coronavirus

Anam Thubten Rinpoche

The deeply rooted sense that normalcy will continue forever is part of life in many areas of the world: going to school, driving to the office, hanging out with friends, eating at one’s favorite restaurant, shopping at a grocery store with a carefree sprit, or having a rendezvous with potential romantic partner. Many people never remember monumental events that shook the very foundation of a nation or the whole world. This is especially true for people who grew up in the West, and particularly in the United States, a country that has few external threats and is surrounded by friendly neighbors with two great oceans as a fence. It is perhaps the only country that can thrive by itself without relying on other nations, if it chooses to do so. It ranks first in terms of food security, has arguably the best higher education institutions in the world, contains large tracts of arable land, almost limitless resources, is the Mecca of many great inventions, and its pop culture is the culture of today’s world. It is unquestionably the brain of the world; today’s Holy Roman Empire. The world has been witness to Pax Americana.

Today’s Americans haven’t witnessed big wars on their soil. On the contrary, Americans went around the world and started wars on other people’s soil. The Spanish influenza pandemic in the early 20th century became an old event, ancient history that was erased from the minds of today’s Americans—it might pop up here and there in the dinner conversations of the intelligentsia of historians, biologists, and so on. America also has the one of best infrastructures for dealing with disasters such as pandemics. It enjoys an enormous amount of wealth, with the world’s largest economy in terms of nominal GDP.

So how could Americans imagine an event that would completely disrupt their way of life? They couldn’t. Then the coronavirus started spreading like an uncontrollable fire, taking everyone by surprise. The usual way of life was disrupted: schools closed, restaurants went out of business, wearing masks at stores became mandatory. The whole economy experienced what is called an “exogenous shock.” It resembled a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Many workers in low-paying sectors suffered in the wake of the sudden loss of jobs. Existing pathological inequalities grew worse. The political chaos continued to worsen day by day until living in America felt more like a soap opera distortion of reality.

With a widespread lack of preparation, a lack of coordination and clear direction from the top, and rugged social individualism that resisted the call to observe basic health guidelines, the pandemic continued to spread without signs of a real solution. The public fell into an abyss of frustration, anger, mistrust, and conspiracy theories that fed on each other. What was once regarded as the shining city on the hill become the joke of world. Yet in the midst of all this mayhem, many found a silver lining, turning toward spirituality, meditation, and self-reflection. They spent time practicing meditation on their own or participating in online group retreats. There was a genuine awakening as the truth of anitya (Skt.; Pali: anicca), the impermanent nature of all things, was recognized. People were given an inadvertent chance to realize what matters the most in their lives, and found that spiritual values are as equally if not more essential than mundane values.

Among people worldwide, spiritual or otherwise, there was a greater understanding that we are all part of the web of interconnectedness at a global scale—an understanding that did not exist in the past. In today’s world, all countries are strongly connected with each other economically, politically, and culturally. What happens in one region can impact the rest of the world. Creating a system that can protect one’s own nation from a cataclysm elsewhere becomes the most difficult task. There is a desire, a hope, that everyone will come to the same table, put all trivial differences aside, and work collaboratively to combat pressing issues such as pandemics and climate change. Nature seems to be the on the way to force us to reckon such concerns for our very survival.

After a year-long lockdown, developed countries entered a phase of loosening their restrictions. The pandemic was brought relatively under control with vaccines based on cutting-edge technology. The United States is no longer looked down on by others as it has again demonstrated its resilience and unmatched scientific greatness. Americans seem to be returning to business as usual. People are traveling. Chefs are busy once again. In other words, people are ready to work and play hard. This is worthy of being celebrated. Yet we must remember that many places in the world are still going through so much suffering, death, pain, and poverty as a result of the pandemic. Let’s wait until the day when the pandemic is under control all over the world, then we shall have a big celebration for the global recovery.

There is a sense that many people not only want to have their usual lives back, but that they also want to once again entertain themselves with the illusion of certainty. This might not be a wise path forward. We should carry some wisdom from the lessons of the pandemic, realizing that our lives always stand on a transient reality that can shatter everything to which we’ve become attached. From this struggle, we must learn how to make our hearts bigger, to develop altruism, and to take care of each other. Such altruism should be extended not only to our community or ethnic group, but to the whole of humanity as one family. From now on, we should keep in our minds that a new crisis can strike us at any moment and so we should prepare better ways to deal with it, not only externally but internally as well.

The pandemic has changed the world forever. Not only has it forced everyone to become more tech-savvy in order to rely on various online platforms, it has changed our consciousness. We hope that this change is a positive one that can provide fuel for our greater evolution. Many of my friends told me that they were able to delve into deep reflection on their lives and its meaning, and that they were able let go of attachments to things that were a big part of their old lives—life prior to the pandemic. This is a testimony that the human spirit is resilient and can turn struggles into spiritual lessons for inner awakening.

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Dharmata Foundation

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