Venerable Phra Paisal Visalo is the abbot of Wat Pasukhato, a Buddhist monastery in Thailand’s Chaiyaphum Province, and a respected monk of some 37 years in the Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism. Born in 1957, Phra Paisal was heavily involved in student activism and human rights protection before being ordained as a Theravada monk in 1983 in Bangkok. Closely associated with the engaged Buddhism movement, he is the author and editor of several books on Buddhism and environmental awareness, and conducts courses on meditation and non-violence. Phra Paisal is the co-founder of Sekiyadhamma, a network of socially engaged monks in Thailand, and an adviser to the Bangkok-based International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). He is also a recipient of the Asian Public Intellectual Fellowship of the Nippon Foundation.
The following essay is adapted from a talk given by Phra Paisal in March 2020 at Wat Pasukhato, and offers a Buddhist perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic, the actions we need to take, and the lessons from which we need to draw at this critical juncture.
I have a good story I’d like to share with you. This story is from Japan, many years ago, where a carpenter was repairing and rebuilding an old house. This house was a one-storey building, with walls built from two pieces of wood leaving a hollow space in between. After tearing down a wall, the carpenter found a lizard stuck inside because a nail from outside the wall had unknowingly been hammered into one of its feet. Curious about how long this house gecko had been trapped there, the carpenter looked into it and found that the nail must have been hammered into the house gecko about five years before. He was surprised that the lizard was still alive as it had no ability to fend for itself or to gather food. He was curious and tried to find an answer. Then he realized that another lizard came by each day to feed the injured lizard, even though the second lizard didn’t gain any personal benefit from doing so.
In nature, when animals face danger or difficulty, they will often try to help each other. This may be an animal instinct to care and share loving-kindness with each other. We see this not only with reptiles, but also among birds. Two parrots that were trained by a human were caged together and became very attached to one another. The parrot on the left of the cage was able show its head outside to communicate with the trainer, but the parrot on the right could not do so since there was no hole on that side of the cage. The parrots had been trained to exchange small stones for peanuts. The parrot on the right had stones, but the one on the left did not. Even though the bird on the right could not exchange stones with the trainer, it was happy to give the stones to the other parrot, which was able to communicate with the trainer and exchange the stones for peanuts. The parrot on the right understood that he/she would not benefit by doing that, yet was still happy to support theit companion.
We can see that animals know how to care for and support each other. How about we human beings—especially during times of crisis?
More than 150 years ago, two sailing ships were wrecked and the surviving crewmembers found themselves castaways on different sides of Auckland Island (part of the New Zealand subantarctic area). The crews of the two ships were unaware of each other and had no knowledge that they had been wrecked and castaway on the same island within the same time period. The Invercauld, en route from Melbourne, Australia, to Peru, was wrecked on the northwestern end of the island, with 19 survivors who were able to swim ashore. After a year, only three survived through the winter. The other vessel, a schooner named the Grafton, sailing out of Sydney, Australia, had five survivors. Two years later these five people from the Grafton were still alive. What are the differences in these stories of two separate shipwrecks? The survivors of the Invercauld should have had more collective strength than those from the Grafton, because they were greater in number.
Looking into the details, we can see that when the Invercauld’s survivors arrived on the island they eventually dispersed and didn’t care for or help each other. After they climbed a rocky cliff in search of food, they didn’t support each other, but instead split into small groups and fought among themselves. When one man died, the others ate his body. Whereas, the crew of the Grafton supported each other, consulted with each other, and helped to learn and share survival skills together. They also learned many other things from each other, such as their languages, mathematics, and other subjects. Consequently, their survival rate was 100 per cent.
These stories provide us with valuable lessons that we can apply during times of crisis, regarding not being selfish and working together instead of surviving alone. We all benefit when we share and support each other with food, materials, or knowledge during times of catastrophe and danger.
Day by day, news reports show us how the ongoing novel coronavirus crisis is affecting the whole world, reaching far beyond Asia. So far, more than 250,000 people have died globally because of COVID-19,* and some estimates project that it may kill over a million people within 18 months or even sooner. We are facing a crisis that is directly in front of us. If we simply want to survive alone, it is going to create even more problems during this emergency. We need to look to one another and find ways to support each other so that together we can reduce the possible damage that is confronting us now and into the future.
The ways in which we support each other at this critical juncture must be different from any other crisis that we have faced in modern times. During other dire times, we may have joined hands to support and help each other, however during this present crisis we may be distancing or quarantining ourselves, especially those of us in high-risk areas, in order to prevent spreading the virus to others. This is a difficult and uneasy time for all of us, but we also need to think about other others who may potentially become infected. This is our “new normal” and a basic requirement for all of us at this time. We need to be uneasy and uncomfortable for the benfit of others, and not just travel to our usual places as we might do normally. Such actions will create danger for ourselves, our comunites, and society at large.
Besides socially distancing ourselves, we need to look at what else we can do. For example, making masks to donate to those who don’t have acess to any, or sending factual information to others to help them become more aware of the situation and to be able to protect themselves. We can already see that certain countries are trying to survive by themselves, and are not caring about others—not sharing protective equipment or other essential supplies.
We can learn from the lessons demonstrated by the survivors of the two Auckland Island shipwrecks. We know that even though the Invercauld had many more survivors than the Grafton, the majority failed to support each other because of their divided and selfish attitudes. Consequently, the small number who did survive may well have felt guilty that they lived while others died, deeply wounding their minds. Once again, these are true accounts of how human beings have responded in times of life-threatening crisis, with very different outcomes.