Even if the environment and beings are filled with the fruits of negativity,
And unwished for sufferings pour down like rain,
I seek your blessings to take these miserable conditions as a path
By seeing them as causes to exhaust the results of my negative karma.
(verse 96, Lama Chöpa)
We are fortunate, here in Australia, at least in some ways. Most of us are not oppressed by invaders, that is, if we are white. Our health needs are subsidised by the government. We do not have much on the way of riots. We ought to be happy. Most of us believe that Covid is a real threat and so most of us have responded well to the restrictions imposed on us. The net result is that over the vastness of our island continent, there are not the roaring outbreaks seen overseas and particularly in USA.
And yet there is still dissatisfaction. I watched two young dads pushing prams with babies inside. They had masks, but the masks dangled around their necks. Masks are compulsory here in the State of Victoria, and the masks should be covering one’s nose and mouth. Like many people, they seem to think that wearing masks is a restriction on their personal freedom. In other words, my freedom is more important than the effect of my action on you. It is a very ego-centric state of mind.
Covid-anguish is also an existential issue. A matter of life and death. In my age group (I am now 78), covid-anguish is all about dying too soon. Covid is an existential threat to us older citizens. We are reminded that death can happen at any time and mostly we do not want to know.
Covid-anguish demands a response, and the best response I can think of is dharma, the Lam Rim in its entirety.
Death is an ever present thought for me. My age group are dying. Some of my friends have already died. One is in palliative care. Every time my chest feels heavy or my brain is not functioning as well as it used to, death comes to mind. But mostly I am not unduly bothered. I know the teachings on death that come early in the Lam Rim. It will happen one day. What to do meanwhile is to practice dharma.
Covid itself is one aspect of samsara. Samsara means that whatever happens to me can be unpredictable and seem unfair. Of course, if I know the teachings on karma that apparent unfairness can be traced back to earlier lives. I become motivated to take refuge, to create positive karma
By ‘practice dharma’ I do not mean just sitting on a cushion reciting mantras. I call the cushion time a rehearsal for the practice of dharma. Dharma practice is the ‘doing’ of dharma. That means wearing a mask, knowing that I live in samsara, remembering death is inevitable and above all, simply smiling at people I meet.
Through knowing dharma I have come to be responsible for myself and for my relationships with others. That sense of responsibility is the start of compassion and bodhicitta. Those two young dads I mentioned earlier seemed not to have that sense of responsibility. They seem to have forgotten that freedom cannot be separated from responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are bonded through ethics. Why are we taught that all beings are our mothers? In part it is to remind us to be responsible and repay the kindness we have received.
One of my students wrote to me saying that before she studied Buddhism, she would have been terrified of Covid. Now she is calm, accepting her karma, practising thought transformation and developing compassion. The difference between terror and calm is a measure of the success of her practice, not the degree to which she intellectually understands the teaching on enlightenment.
Still, in the end we are limited if our understanding of how we function in this world is fundamentally deluded. In dharma terms, in the long run, we have to understand, and put into practice our realisation of emptiness.
“It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula
Now, in order to do all this dharma learning and practice it is helpful know the buzzword which which is popular these days in western psychology: resilience. I can’t find it mentioned as such anywhere in Buddhist texts. Resilience: the ability to bounce back.
Surely that is one important aspect of Buddhism so it must be there somewhere. Resilience could be summarised as “Always look on the bright side of life” That might help a bit, but not much. Too much positivity is a denial of reality. Maybe we can translate resilience as ‘joyful effort’ or ‘enthusiasm’. It arises not so much from boundless positivity but as an effect of an attitude towards life. It takes delight in virtuous objects. It helps us bounce back after setbacks, and to delight in starting over again.
We live in samsara. We have to be resilient or be overwhelmed. Whether we are locked down at home, or locked to the ICU tubes, we either give up, or we keep going and bounce back.
I think of Center Directors who persist in finding ways through the conflicting views of their members. That is resilience. I think of Tibetans imprisoned by the Chinese and who use their time to do a retreat. That has to be resilience. I think of students getting up at 3.00 am to complete an initiation and still getting the next day’s jobs done. That is resilience.
Joyful effort, enthusiasm, one of the six perfections of a Bodhisattva, gives us the energy to practice dharma. It is the antidote to laziness. But it does not magically appear. It arises in dependence… on what? It comes from the aspiration for success in dharma and a sense of joy when we achieve those successes. It comes from being steady in our dharma practice. And…it comes from taking a rest when we need to, says Shantideva: “When strength declines, discard it for the sake of continuing again” (Enthusiasm, verse 67)
As we study Buddhism, and put it into practice, we work our way free from the three poisons, ignorance, attachment and anger. Now we have acquired a level of equanimity: that is, equanimity towards our senses and towards the rising and falling of attachment, aversions and ignorance. We are no longer grasping at the pleasure, or running from the pain. It is not that we are indifferent, but that we are not thrown into a state of chaos by whatever happens.
The opposite of equanimity is what Western psychologists call ‘catastrophising’ or ‘over-reacting’ or ‘dramatising’. It happens when we exaggerate the effects of events on our lives. Indeed, that is part of the Buddhist definition of attachment. We make these exaggerations when our ego has a big investment in getting what it wants.
Equanimity comes when our experience is not caught in our egos. Therefore we need to know what this ego actually is (or is not might be). Therefore we need to realise emptiness and to do that we need to understand and practice the whole Buddhist path.
So do not despair. We can develop equanimity, and therefore resilience, long before we become enlightened. We do not have to wait until we are enlightened and we do not have to wait until all sentient beings are released from their suffering. We simply practice the Lam Rim from beginning to end.