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Faith and Values: A Buddhist response to the coronavirus pandemic

UPDATED: Sun., June 7, 2020

Ven. Thubten Chonyi, a guest columnist for Spokane FaVs. (Sravasti Abbey)
Ven. Thubten Chonyi, a guest columnist for Spokane FaVs. (Sravasti Abbey)
By Ven. Thubten Chonyi For The Spokesman-Review

I’m curious how a Buddhist would experience these times. Fear? Is that a reaction to illusion? Any thoughts from Siddhartha?

I suppose every Buddhist will have a distinct and personal response to this question. For me, the coronavirus is a powerful teacher about life, death, change, compassion and resilience. In general, I think Buddhists recognize how the present times call us to strengthen our spiritual practice and deepen our refuge in Buddha and his teachings.

The pandemic vividly illustrates a core Buddhist principle: That beings are equally subject to birth, aging, sickness and death. That all things — physical and mental — are in continuous change, not remaining the same from one moment to the next. Consequently, although we crave stability and pleasant experiences, there is no real security and happiness is fleeting. We are not in control.

Reflecting on these truths is not depressing, as you might think. For folks inclined to the Buddhist view, it’s a huge relief. “Oh. This situation — challenging as it is — is just another demonstration of how things are. I can accept what’s happening and assess the situation with a clear mind.” Furthermore, while Buddha didn’t teach that things are illusionary, he described how they are like illusions in that, upon analysis, they don’t exist in the way that they appear. With proper understanding, this too is a relief.

Have a clear mind

That doesn’t mean we just let the entire freight load of ills riding on the back of the coronavirus to trample us. But having accepted the situation, we can do so with a clear mind that’s not distorted by the additional grief of railing, “This shouldn’t be happening!” In fact, this is happening. Now, with a loving heart, let’s see how we can help others, regardless of who they are or what they believe. Our wish is to relieve suffering, no matter whose it is.

In addition, Buddhists are meditating and praying to calm our own minds and hearts and to cultivate qualities like love, compassion, wisdom and skill so that we are balanced and prepared to bring benefit. Although we call on the assistance of fully awakened beings, we know we have to do our part, too. Prayer isn’t sufficient; action is necessary.

We also have to marvel at the kindness that people are showing one another during this difficult time. Many people are reaching out to help others—think of the kindness of the essential workers who risk their lives—and society is showing its appreciation.

A human response

Of course, some Buddhists also experience fear and grief, anxiety and regret, outrage and utter heartbreak. I’m not claiming immunity from normal, human reactions to tragedy and loss. But Buddha teaches that disturbing emotions are key links in the chain of causes that induce our suffering. So, ideally, we draw from his 84,000 teachings to apply the antidotes to our fears. We take this experience onto the spiritual path with confidence in another of the Buddha’s core teachings: That liberation from suffering and its causes is possible.

With faith and the aspiration to care for every being, we can bring joy into the actions we take to benefit others.

Monastics at Sravasti Abbey, the Buddhist monastery north of Spokane, have given many short talks on facing the pandemic from a Buddhist perspective. Take a look at some of these videos for a more thorough response to the question.

Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, the religious center in Pend Oreille County. She was ordained at the abbey in 2008.

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