Monday, April 22, 2024
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A Buddhist response to Covid-19

This year, the world community has been absorbed in a common experience of suffering such as we have little experience of, nor wisdom to understand.

Initially, governments were at a loss to know what Covid-19 was exactly, and what they should do. We quickly worked out what we needed to do by way of hygiene, isolation of infected people and social distancing. Really, these were basic epidemic-control measures that have been used even in pre-science-informed times. Samuel Pepys records similar measures taken in the 17th century Black Death plague in London!

However, our lack of contemporary, wise experience meant we faltered in applying these measures. Australian failings like the Ruby Princess and the security breaches in Melbourne quarantine at hotels seem to pale when we look at the mismanagement by governments in some other countries. Not that it’s just governments. We all are facing challenges we’re not used to dealing with.

Science is our great informer today but religions can also have a greatly positive influence to guide us in personally coming to terms with the pandemic.

So, what does Buddhism have to offer to its followers and the world in coping with Covid-19? How might a Buddhist respond within the Buddhist view of life? And what aspects of Buddhist practice can support a positive response?

Under Covid-19 we find ourselves absorbed in a common experience of suffering. Previously we have perhaps known about many kinds of suffering, but often these were things “other people” or “other countries” suffered, but not ourselves.

The Buddhist perspective regards “suffering” as an ever-present common experience of human existence, and recognises that we have a deep wish to avoid it. But, for Buddhists, the many sufferings of Covid-19 are held in acceptance of the human situation.

Common sufferings we see under Covid-19 are uncertainty and death. Faced with these possibilities, we may well experience denial, anger, anxiety and many frustrations – but it doesn’t need to be this way. We can work collectively and individually with the great uncertainties and the shadow of death. Buddhist methods for cultivating mindfulness and practising compassion can help us all to overcome the underlying fears and anxieties of life with Covid-19.

Fear, anger and anxiety can take over our mindset, colour our thoughts, and make it harder to see and feel our way through the issues of Covid-19. We need something fairly simple that we can do at home to help restore a more grounded awareness of what’s happening in our lives, and to develop a compassion that is big enough to hold our collective response to Covid-19.

Buddhist practice centres around mindfulness: a grounded presence of mind, fully aware of our actions, speech and thoughts, and how our felt experience, emotions and thoughts react to our predicament. We can start being mindful simply by being aware of our body as we quietly walk along. We can also try a fairly easy meditation, sitting quietly, carefully watching the breath come and go. Whatever we can do to be more mindful can help us to stem the reactive mindset that can arise from this crisis situation.

The measures we are asked to follow to contain Covid-19 call upon us to forego self-interest and put the communal good first. This compassion is the hallmark of Buddhist life. We again have direct ways to cultivate compassion “at home”. It starts with a quality of “mettā” – open friendliness-kindness. Sitting quietly, we can bring to mind what is good for ourselves, our friends and everyone in our community – wishing all to be well, happy and free from suffering. By acknowledging other people’s sufferings – ill-health, death, economic stress – we can take that feeling of mettā into a wish for all to be free of Covid sufferings, thus creating a compassion that brings us all closer together.

Some traditional Buddhist countries have done well in the management of Covid-19. Places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand have remarkably low infection and death rates. I believe their success must in some way reflect the worldview of the “ordinary” people. They have this deeper acceptance of suffering and an emotional preparedness to deal with trauma. They enjoy a more profound worldview of the interconnectedness, not just of all people, but of all life.

Covid-19 is no longer “unprecedented” it is our new normal and will be for some time. Let’s hope that we can learn to meet all the new challenges with mindfulness and love.

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